Guest Essayist: Professor Robert McDonald


The best argument against Thomas Jefferson’s 1804 reelection might well have been his presidency’s greatest success. The purchase of Louisiana doubled the nation in size, ensured the free flow of commerce along the Mississippi, and removed from the continent the threat of Napoleon Bonaparte’s France, which would soon take possession of the territory from Spain. Yet it was also unconstitutional—as Jefferson understood.

Did Jefferson’s approval of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase treaty make him a hypocrite?

During the administrations of George Washington and John Adams, Jefferson rose to prominence as a defender of the Constitution. He opposed the national bank, the Alien and Sedition Acts, and other measures on the grounds that they exceeded powers granted by the Constitution or violated limits set by the Bill of Rights.

A compromise between regions and interests, the national charter provided the United States no power to add new territory. Include Louisiana, and the marriage of the North and the South might become an uncomfortable ménage à trois with the West.

Unsettling the Union by shifting the balance of power was bad enough. Worse yet, Jefferson believed, was setting a bad example for future presidents who might be tempted, in less pressing circumstances, to ignore the Constitution’s restraints.

At first Jefferson drafted an amendment to the Constitution specifically authorizing the purchase. Then he allowed James Madison, his secretary of state, to talk him out of the effort. What if it slowed down the Senate’s ratification of the treaty and the House’s allocation of the necessary funds? What if it gave France—or Spain, which had no desire to see the expansion of its continental rival—an excuse to back out? What if it failed to secure the approval of three-fourths of the states?

It was not as if the Louisiana Purchase, although wildly popular, didn’t face opposition from Jefferson’s Federalist rivals, who displayed their own hypocrisy. For months members of the Federalist opposition had advocated spending up to $5 million to send as many as 50,000 troops to take New Orleans by force. Now they opposed acquiring peacefully, at only three times the cost, not only the city but also 530 million acres.

Few Federalists, who during the 1790s had read between the lines of the Constitution to discover implied powers, were hypocritical enough to oppose the Louisiana treaty on the grounds of strict construction. Instead they raised other objections.

Paying $15 million for the land amounted to an “unconscionable bargain,” one Federalist complained, by which “France is to be aided in her designs against Great Britain.” Was it right for America to tip the scales between the rival nations?

And was the land even worth the price? As the 1804 election approached Federalists mocked accounts of the territory’s supposed natural riches. They belittled reports that it included a mountain of salt 180 miles long and 45 miles wide. They laughed at the notion—advanced, they claimed, by the treaty’s supporters—that in Louisiana “pigs, geese, and turkeys roast themselves… and then come beg you to eat them.” Jefferson, they maintained, had been duped by Napoleon.

Federalists also confronted the long-term political implications. The Louisiana Territory, a writer predicted, could “be cut up into states without number, but each with two votes in the Senate.” The future residents of Kansas would have little in common with Massachusetts cod fishermen—and little reason to vote with them. Like the people of “imperial Virginia” they’d be farmers.

For Jefferson, however, preserving America as a nation of farmers was the greatest benefit of the Louisiana Purchase. He believed that “those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God” because farmers enjoyed strong incentives to be hardworking, honest, and community-spirited. They provided for themselves and answered to no one. They were ideal citizens.

Yet America’s population had been doubling every twenty years. Eventually the United States would run out of land for agriculture. Citizens would have to work for others, compromising their independence of mind and means. Louisiana’s vast acreage, by delaying that day of reckoning, would help sustain the American character.

If exceeding the bounds of the Constitution violated Jefferson’s principles, so would passing up the opportunity to preserve the nation’s peace while expanding its reach and enhancing prospects for success in its experiment with self-government. Jefferson’s dilemma was a private one. Most Americans focused on the benefits of the purchase of Louisiana, ignoring the constitutional costs.

Adding the new territory—together with his elimination of all internal taxes, his reduction of the national debt, and his refutation of critics’ predictions that he would unleash in America all the excesses of the French Revolution—helped Jefferson in 1804 to secure a landslide 162-14 electoral vote victory. Even Massachusetts, the former Federalist stronghold, sided with Jefferson.

At the Hartford Convention ten years later, however, Massachusetts and several of its neighbors, convinced that new states in the West would reduce them to a permanent electoral minority, flirted with secession. In 1860, the election of Abraham Lincoln, who promised to halt the expansion of slavery in the West, led the South to leave the nation Jefferson thought the Louisiana Purchase would strengthen. It is impossible to imagine the United States without the land west of the Mississippi. But it is also impossible to deny that disputes over how best to divide and define this territory helped provoke the bloodiest war in U.S. history.

Robert M. S. McDonald is associate professor of history at the United States Military Academy. His latest book, Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time, will be published this summer by the University of Virginia Press.

4 replies
  1. Ron
    Ron says:

    Since 1787, our nation has transitioned from a largely agricultural nation through an industrial nation and now to an intellectual nation. These transitions have increasingly moved citizens from the land into the cities. Today, as in the 18th century, citizens in the cities are more inclined towards protective government with less personal freedom, and those in the rural counties are more inclined towards limited government with more personal freedom. Much of the work in the rural counties is done, not by landowners who reap the personal financial and psychological benefits of working the land, but by poor legal and illegal immigrants who receive only a wage and little more, leaving fewer and fewer rural citizens able to sway voting towards limited government and increasingly more urban citizens able to sway voting towards more government and fewer personal freedoms. There is no more land for America to acquire; even if there were, few Americans today would seize the opportunity to give up all the comforts of their urban lifestyle to settle and work the land they might acquire. It becomes increasingly easier for liberal progressives to grow and increasingly more difficult for social and economic conservatives to grow. Conservatives must work harder to help others understand why liberal progressivism is destructive to the most successful experiment in government ever devised.

  2. Nan Nicoll
    Nan Nicoll says:

    Always interesting when I learn something new about our founding. I wonder if something kind of legislation was filed similar to the Northwest Ordinance? Where in the Constitution did it restrict adding new territory to the United States?

  3. DonM
    DonM says:

    The power to change boundaries, to add or subtract territory is implicit in the power to make a treaty.

    The southern states did not leave the Union. The rebelled. They could have left the Union by law (vote of the federal legislature and signed by the president) by treaty (as the US obtained a treaty with the United Kingdom when we secured out independence) by amendment (3/4s of the states) or by a successful supreme court case.

    They had no chance for a law or amendment, and no grounds for a successful court case. They opted to start a war and sought a treaty. They failed. Just an unsuccessful rebellion, which by the kindness of the victors, was not treated as treason.

  4. Publius Senex Dassault
    Publius Senex Dassault says:

    Very informative essay.

    “Yet America’s population had been doubling every twenty years. Eventually the United States would run out of land for agriculture. Citizens would have to work for others, compromising their independence of mind and means.” I believe Jefferson expanded on this the concept of wage slavery where people were so dependent on receiving wages they become pseudo slaves of the payers.

    This has happened in numerous ways, including but not limited to pay check to pay check existence, company stores, multi generational government subsistence, excessive credit card debt. A wise man wrote, “The borrower is the lender’s slave.”

    Regarding rebellion versus succession. Madison was very concerned that States who had ratified the Constitution would secede from agreement [union] if Virginia did not ratified it. Many in the Northern ratifying States believed they could secede if full ratification did not occur. Jefferson wrote for Kentucky that Kentucky would be the last secede if the Sedition Acts were not reversed. The idea that States were bound forever because the Constitution did not provide specified means to do so was not borne by the founding fathers. There was nothing in British law that allowed for legal separation by the colonies or any other British possession. All revolutions and successions are seen as rebellion by the ruling government and equally seen as GOD given right liberation and independence.

    We applaud revolution and secession of Baltic and Mongolian States from USSR, and Kurds from Iraq, Tibet from China. But deny that Texas along with other like minded States can leave the USA if they decided to do so. The world cries hypocrite.

    One of the great losses of the civil war was the massive reduction in States rights when the South was beaten. They tried to preserve the repugnant, evil system of slavery under the mantle of States rights. They lost the war and we lost States rights.



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