Jefferson And Louisiana Purchase

June 14, 2024
The louisiana purchase, thomas
sculpture by Karl BitterThe Louisiana Purchase Treaty was first signed in Paris on April 30, 1803. It later had to be ratified by the United States. Signing of the Louisiana Purchase Treaty sculpture by Karl Bitter, displayed at the 1904 World’s Fair. Missouri Historical Society.

The Louisiana Purchase Treaty was officially announced to the people of the United States on July 4, 1803. That day, subscribers to the National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser saw the following announcement:

“The Executive have received official information that a Treaty was signed on the 30th of April, between the Ministers Plenipotentiary and Extraordinary of the United States and the Minister plenipotentiary of the French government, by which the United States have obtained the full right to and sovereignty over New Orleans, and the whole of Louisiana, as Spain possessed the same.”

This was the first official word people in the United States saw of the deal (one Boston newspaper had unofficially announced it on June 30, 1803). As news of the deal spread, reaction to it was fairly positive, though somewhat mixed. Federalist newspapers in the northeastern parts of the country blasted the treaty, claiming that the U.S. was spending too much money, or that Louisiana was too big to defend, or that the admission of the residents of Louisiana would tear the nation apart, since they had few ties to the people in the United States. Others supported the agreement, both because they saw Louisiana as a mass of land that U.S. settlers could move into and because the deal brought New Orleans—the most important city on the Mississippi River and in Louisiana—into the United States.

One might assume that, if anyone encouraged support of the Louisiana Purchase, it was President Thomas Jefferson. After all, it was Jefferson who had commissioned his friend and protégé James Monroe to travel to France to try to buy New Orleans, and it was Jefferson’s plan to rely on negotiation instead of armed conflict to gain access to that city. His negotiators had bought more than he could have ever dreamed of.

Thomas Jefferson. Painting by Edward Percy Moran, 1916. Missouri Historical Society.

Thomas JeffersonBut Jefferson had a number of concerns about the Louisiana Purchase. As a strict constitutionalist, Jefferson fretted that the deal he had been handed was unconstitutional. He worried that the treaty powers granted to the president in the Constitution did not allow the executive branch to attain land through treaty. Even while Monroe was preparing to travel to France to negotiate to buy New Orleans, Jefferson wrote to some members of his Cabinet, including Attorney General Levi Lincoln and Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin, about the potential constitutional issues with any deal in January of 1803. They brushed off Jefferson’s concerns, and Gallatin told the president, “the same constituted authorities in whom the treaty-making power is vested have a constitutional right to sanction the acquisition of territory.” Gallatin’s words didn’t assuage Jefferson’s fears, however: he believed that if Monroe’s mission were successful, the United States would require an amendment to the Constitution to make the deal legal.

When word of the Louisiana Purchase reached Washington in July, Jefferson’s concerns went into overdrive. On July 16, 1803, he informed his Cabinet that they would need to get an amendment to the Constitution ratified in order for the deal to go through, so he began writing drafts. Jefferson’s Cabinet members were very displeased with the President’s actions. They again pleaded with him to back down on his obsession with the constitutional amendment. Even Secretary of State James Madison, who was one of the primary men responsible for the drafting of the Constitution, tried to talk Jefferson down, assuring the president that the deal was legal.

Eventually, the Cabinet’s pleas to Jefferson worked. By mid-August, the president was trying to come to terms with the fact that there was no way to get a constitutional amendment passed before the treaty’s ratification deadline at the end of October. He also received word from the American ambassador to France, Robert Livingston, that Napoleon had made clear that if the deal was not ratified by October 31, he would negate it, and the offer for Louisiana would be off the table. With this information, Jefferson knew that there was no way to both stick to his strict constitutional interpretations and keep Louisiana. In a letter to Kentucky senator John Breckinridge dated August 12, 1803, Jefferson said:

This treaty must of course be laid before both Houses, because both have important functions to exercise respecting it. They, I presume, will see their duty to their country in ratifying & paying for it, so as to secure a good which would otherwise probably be never again in their power. But I suppose they must then appeal to the nation for an additional article to the Constitution, approving & confirming an act which the nation had not previously authorized. The constitution has made no provision for our holding foreign territory, still less for incorporating foreign nations into our Union. The Executive in seizing the fugitive occurrence which so much advances the good of their country, have done an act beyond the Constitution. The Legislature in casting behind them metaphysical subtleties, and risking themselves like faithful servants, must ratify & pay for it, and throw themselves on their country for doing for them unauthorized what we know they would have done for themselves had they been in a situation to do it. It is the case of a guardian, investing the money of his ward in purchasing an important adjacent territory; & saying to him when of age, I did this for your good; I pretend to no right to bind you: you may disavow me, and I must get out of the scrape as I can: I thought it my duty to risk myself for you. But we shall not be disavowed by the nation, and their act of indemnity will confirm & not weaken the Constitution, by more strongly marking out its lines.

Jefferson’s signature to approve the congressional ratification of the Louisiana Purchase. From 26674, “An Act to authorize the President to take possession of the territories…, signed by President Jefferson.” Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.
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