Author: Tara Brennan, Mount View Middle School, Howard County Public School System
Grade Level: Middle
Duration: Three 50-minute class periods
President Thomas Jefferson's purchase of Louisiana from France in 1803 set the young United States on the path to become a great continental power. It nearly doubled the land area of the nation, secured permanent access to the all-important Mississippi River, and obtained vast natural resources for the economy. But for all the good that the Louisiana Purchase accomplished, the transaction was surrounded by controversy. The Constitution made no provisions for the purchase of foreign territory, and even Jefferson himself, as a strict constructionist, doubted the executive's power to make such a purchase. He argued, however, that, in this case, the good of the nation outweighed constitutional theories. In this History Lab, students will explore several primary sources to judge for themselves whether Jefferson was right to purchase the Louisiana Territory. This exploration promotes higher-order thinking, allowing students to think and read critically and develop an argument based on varied sources.
In this History Lab, students will analyze six historical sources to determine whether President Thomas Jefferson was correct in his decision to purchase the Louisiana Territory from the French.
- Explore the provisions of the United States Constitution regarding the administration of territories.
- Analyze and evaluate primary sources with varied perspectives on the constitutionality of the Louisiana Purchase to draw evidence-based conclusions about the legitimacy of the transaction.
- Gain an understanding of the ambiguity and flexibility of the U.S. Constitution in specific circumstances and the necessary balancing act between political theory and practical considerations.
- Students will explore the controversy surrounding Jefferson’s authorization of the Louisiana Purchase as a window into the necessity of weighing practical considerations against constitutional theories, as well as the ambiguity of the U.S. Constitution.
- Students will read varied evidence critically, analyzing, evaluating and synthesizing multiple sources to develop an evidence-based argument as to whether Jefferson was right to purchase.
- Students will deepen their understanding of claims and counterclaims.
A “public official, historian, philosopher, and plantation owner,” Thomas Jefferson's many accomplishments included writing the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, serving as the third president of the United States and Governor of Virginia, and securing the purchase of the Louisiana Territory.1 Jefferson most eloquently espoused many of the principles that have defined the United States for generations. But the “man of principle” was not always consistent in the adherence to his own political precepts.
Among Jefferson's core principles was the belief in a strict interpretation of the powers granted to the federal government by the United States Constitution. This was known at the time as a “constructionalist” position, which insisted that the government could exercise only those powers that were specified in the Constitution. Jefferson had accordingly vehemently opposed previous attempts to “stretch” the Constitution, such as Alexander Hamilton's establishment of the Bank of the United States. Because the Constitution did not mention the establishment of a central banking system, he insisted, the creation of such a bank was forbidden. Yet many of Jefferson's contemporaries—as well as some historians since—denounced his authorization of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 as contrary to his own strict constructionist views. Critics have argued, then and since, that Jefferson acted hypocritically when he decided to purchase Louisiana despite the fact that the Constitution did not grant the federal government express authority to annex parts of foreign territories. Others believe as Jefferson did: that, sometimes, the practical best interests of the country may override constitutional theory and one's own personal beliefs.
Jefferson did not set out to contradict himself. He was forced to make a difficult decision by unexpected circumstances. In January 1803, he instructed U.S. Minister to France Robert Livingston and James Monroe to negotiate a treaty to purchase only New Orleans and West Florida from France for up to $10 million in order to secure navigation of the lower Mississippi River, critical to the expanding U.S. economy. To their surprise, French Emperor Napoleon, suddenly eager to extricate himself from North America after the revolution in Saint Domingue and the commencement of war with Great Britain, offered instead to sell the entire Louisiana Territory for the bargain price of $15 million, or roughly four cents per acre. Although this offer exceeded their instructions, Livingston and Monroe recognized the extraordinary value of the offer and agreed to the deal.
Publicly announced on July 4, 1803, the purchase treaty had to be ratified by the Senate by the end of October. Jefferson recognized that the Constitution did not technically authorize the president, or even Congress, to add foreign territories to the U.S. He suggested to his Cabinet that a constitutional amendment might be necessary, but the deadline in the contract would not permit such a lengthy process. Jefferson wanted to ratify the purchase as quickly as possible, lest Napoleon change his mind about the deal. He therefore had to weigh the importance of his adherence to his strict constructionist principles against the practical benefits of the Louisiana Purchase for the United States.
Jefferson had long recognized the importance of western lands and the Mississippi River, in particular. He envisioned the United States as a continental empire populated by small farmers, who would use the Mississippi River as a major highway for commerce. Since 1763, the Louisiana Territory had been controlled by Spain, which had governed the territory loosely and had allowed Americans relatively unrestricted use of the Mississippi and the port of New Orleans for commercial transportation. In 1800, however, Spain transferred control of Louisiana to France. Jefferson feared that the ambitious Napoleon would attempt to assert France's position in North America by closing the Mississippi to the United States, and soon after the transfer occurred, Americans were indeed informed that they would now be required to pay duties to store their goods in New Orleans. Americans were outraged, and Jefferson feared war with France was looming. It was to avert this brewing conflict that Jefferson had sent Livingston and Monroe to Paris to seek the purchase of New Orleans, only to find that all of the Louisiana Territory was for sale.
The offer was astonishingly tempting. Not only would the acquisition of Louisiana guarantee access to the Mississippi and New Orleans, it would almost double the size of the United States, eventually furnishing the land for all or part of fifteen new states. The region's vast natural resources—gold, silver, other ores, grasslands, and forests—would greatly enrich the nation's economy, in addition to providing homes for the expanding and restive U.S. population. Moreover, doubling the size of the young nation would make it more likely for the United States to one day become a world power.
Convinced that the purchase of Louisiana would define the future of the United States, Jefferson accepted his Cabinet's advice not to seek a Constitutional amendment. Contrary to his own prior strict interpretations of the Constitution, he argued that, rather than weakening the Constitution, the Senate's approval of the questionable purchase would, in fact, strengthen the Constitution by “more strongly marking out its lines.”2 The Senate ratified the treaty on October 20, and Congress passed a series of laws over the succeeding months to create the mechanisms for the purchase to take place. Finally, on December 30, 1803, the United States took possession of the Louisiana Territory.
In making the decision to proceed with the Louisiana Purchase despite its dubious constitutionality, Thomas Jefferson had expanded the powers of the federal government, vastly increased the size of the United States, strengthened the nation's economic future, and assured U.S. dominance in North America. But he also transgressed against his own long-held constitutional principles. How do we evaluate this decision?
- “Thomas Jefferson, a Brief Biography,” Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. Accessed 5/15/14. www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/thomas-jefferson-brief-biography
- Thomas Jefferson to John C. Breckinridge, August 12, 1803. Accessed 5/6/14. http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/letter-to-john-c-breckinridge/
- Cerami, Charles. Jefferson's Great Gamble: The Remarkable Story of Jefferson, Napoleon, and the Men Behind the Louisiana Purchase. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2003.
- Fleming, Thomas. The Louisiana Purchase. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2003.
- Harris, Joseph. “How the Louisiana Purchase Changed the World.” Smithsonian Magazine, April 2003. Accesssed 5/8/14. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-the-louisiana-purchase-changed-the-world-79715124/?page=1
- Jefferson, Thomas. Letter to John C. Breckinridge, August 12, 1803. Accessed 5/6/14. http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/letter-to-john-c-breckinridge/
- Kukla, Jon. A Wilderness So Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America. New York: A.A. Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 2003.
- “The Louisiana Purchase.” Monticello website. Accessed 5/6/14.
- “The Louisiana Purchase Legisative Timeline,” American Memory Website. Library of Congress. Accessed 5/6/14. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/louisianapurchase.html
- Meacham, Jon. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2012.
- “Milestones: 1801-1829,” U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian website. Accessed 5/6/14. http://history.state.gov/milestones/1801-1829/louisiana-purchase
- Rodriguez, Junius P., ed. The Louisiana Purchase: A Historical and Geographical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2002.
- Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. Accessed 5/15/14. www.monticello.org