Back Issues


Volume 9, Issue 3: Hisoria

Jefferson and the Constitution, Pt. 2

Cris Schlect

Shortly before noon on December 20, 1803, Pierre Clement de Laussat stood tall in the square before the Place d'Armes in New Orleans. From under the fluttering flag of the French Republic, he addressed the militia that was assembled before him. "Militiamen of New Orleans and of Louisiana," he proclaimed, "to the commissaries of the United States, here present, I now transmit your commandment; obey them thenceforth as representatives of your legitimate government." With these words the United States doubled in size. At once it was one of the largest nations in the world.

The Louisiana Purchase was one of the greatest real estate deals ever: almost 900,000 square miles of land for $15 million--about four cents an acre. Many heralded it as the greatest achievement of Thomas Jefferson's presidency. But there was one problem with it. It was unconstitutional, and Jefferson admitted it later.
The vast Louisiana territory was claimed for France in 1682 and named after Louis XIV. It was given to Spain in 1762, but in 1802 Napoleon negotiated its restoration to France. By then, however, war with England was imminent. Napoleon knew he couldn't hold Louisiana in wartime, especially given the likelihood that the United States would side with England and invade Louisiana. Louisiana was a liability at a time when he needed assets. A sale was his only choice, which he gruffly announced to his Minister of Finance, B. Marbois:

I renounce Louisiana. It is not only New Orleans that I cede; it is the whole colony, without reserve. I know the price of what I abandon. I have proved the importance I attach to this province, since my first diplomatic act with Spain had the object of recovering it. I renounce it with the greatest regret; to attempt obstinately to retain it would be folly. I direct you to negotiate the affair. Have an interview this very day with Mr. Livingston.

Robert Livingston, then U.S. Minister to France, had been trying to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans and the Floridas. His efforts had been coldly received, and he sent bleak reports back to President Jefferson. How surprised he was when he learned that all of Louisiana was available!
The situation in the United States was growing desperate for Jefferson. France had closed the port of New Orleans to American merchants, and Jefferson's Federalist rivals insisted upon war. Western farmers who depended on the port threatened to secede if Jefferson did not act against France. The president knew that a war would be disastrous to the U.S. He bought some time by sending Virginia Governor James Monroe to France to expedite the purchase of New Orleans.
In Paris, on April 30, 1803, Monroe, Livingston, and Marbois signed the treaties for the purchase of Louisiana. When Monroe returned with the treaties, Jefferson was stunned. He knew that the Constitution didn't allow such a purchase. It was Jefferson who had argued so stridently against Alexander Hamilton's dubious doctrine of "implied powers," by which Hamilton justified the National Bank. And it was Jefferson who famously loathed Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall's Constitution-stretching decisions that broadened the federal government's power.
Jefferson believed that purchasing Louisiana would greatly benefit the United States. But it was, as he admitted to a friend, "an act beyond the Constitution." He drafted a constitutional amendment to make it allowable. But the ratification process would take years. James Madison warned Jefferson that Napoleon may soon void the treaty (a French minister had said as much), and told the president that he may lose a great opportunity while he "scrupled" over the constitution. Jefferson at last decided for expedience over principle. With the President's blessing, the Senate ratified the three treaties in a 24-7 vote on October 20, 1803.
Alexander Hamilton lampooned the president for going against his own principles. In my previous article I discussed that in 1791 Jefferson had warned President Washington that if the government acted beyond the powers enumerated in the Constitution, as Hamilton wanted, then its power would be limitless and the Constitution would become a dead letter. "To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specially drawn around the [enumerated] powers," he wrote, "is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition." Now, in 1803, Jefferson knowingly stepped beyond his constitutional boundaries. "I shall acquiesce with satisfaction," he wrote on September 7, 1803, "confiding, that the good sense of our country will correct the evil of construction when it shall produce ill effects." This suggested a new Jeffersonian doctrine: don't act beyond constitutional limits unless you think it's a good idea.
Was the Louisiana Purchase a good idea? Jefferson had been our nation's greatest proponent of state sovereignty, even advocating a state's right to nullify federal laws. When the Constitution was ratified in 1789, the original thirteen sovereign states created a federal government. In organizing the new Louisiana territory, the federal government would create states. Among these states were Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska, whose laws were in part dictated for them upon achieving statehood. In 1860, the "united" states warred against one another over whether the federal government could control the states and dictate state laws. The federal government won the war in 1865, a great step toward possessing "a boundless field of power."

Back to top
Back to Table of Contents


 
Copyright © 2012 Credenda/Agenda. All rights reserved.