Thomas Jefferson was a strict constitutionalist. He was also a small government man. So when France offered Louisiana to America for pennies an acre, Jefferson faced acting against his principles. But some deals are just too good to pass up.
Jefferson did not sign the United States Constitution because he was serving as U.S. minister in France at the time. Regardless, he fully supported it. As president, he was very concerned about any of his actions overreaching his presidential authority.
His first test came within days of taking office in 1801. The Barbary Pirates had been bribing America for years. Now they were taking prisoners and making them slaves. As a result, Jefferson reluctantly created and funded a national Navy and Marine Corp to fight the Muslim terrorists on the shores of Tripoli.
Here in America, Jefferson tackled relations with Spain and France. Before the Revolution, France controlled a significant section of the New World. At the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, they surrendered the vast majority of it to Britain and Spain. The land west of the Mississippi as well as New Orleans was given to Spain. The British received the land east of the Mississippi, including Canada.
After the Revolution, President George Washington worked with Spain to guarantee access to New Orleans and the Mississippi River. These areas were vitally important to the colonists and the new country.
World politics changed when Napoleon Bonaparte acquired power in 1799. Napoleon wanted to reclaim France’s land in the New World and Jefferson knew he had a strong enough military to do it.
Napoleon approached Spain’s King Charles IV, appealing to him to return ownership back to France. Charles verbally agreed in 1800 but on a condition. France must promise not to give the land over to someone else. Also, France would not take official possession until 1803.
Jefferson knew France’s reclaim of the land jeopardized American access to an essential waterway and port. He also understood the risk to national security of having France that close.
Jefferson wrote his U.S. minister to France, Robert Livingston. He instructed Livingston to begin working on a compromise with France. Jefferson wanted to avoid another war. But he understood, “The day that France takes possession of New Orleans…we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation.”
Napoleon already had troops in St. Domingue, or modern day Haiti, fighting a slave rebellion. He began organizing troops intended for New Orleans. Jefferson realized he had to work fast to protect America.
Jefferson again faced the option of having to grow the federal government. His decision would also burden the states, potentially dismissing their liberties and rights. After considering the alternatives, Jefferson erred on the side of national security.
Jefferson sent help to Livingston to negotiate. Secretary of State James Monroe traveled to France with the objective to purchase New Orleans and West Florida for no more than $10 million. If that failed, they were to build a coalition with England and prepare for military action.
However, by the time Monroe and Livingston met with Napoleon, France’s circumstances had changed. Yellow Fever plagued the soldiers in St. Domingue. As a result, the French forces were greatly depleted. Napoleon had also flamed the fires in the Old World. He was on the verge of war with England. Napoleon realized he did not have the manpower to defend or protect the Mississippi Valley territory. Therefore, he dropped his pursuit of Louisiana.
Napoleon rejected America’s $10 million offer but countered with one even more amazing. He proposed America purchase the entire Louisiana Territory. Monroe and Livingston quickly jumped into negotiations even without the authority to do so. They arranged a deal for $15 million.
The parties reached an agreement on April 30, 1803. The United States would buy 828,000 square miles from France, doubling the size of the United States. The land existed between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. Despite Jefferson’s concerns of expanding the federal government, America acquired the land for approximately four cents per acre.
The government officially announced the purchase on July 4, 1803. Congress had until October to ratify the purchase treaty. During that time, Jefferson and his Cabinet carefully examined the agreement for constitutionality. Among other things, Jefferson questioned France’s authority to actually offer the land. In addition, always mindful of his own limited authority, Jefferson requested a constitutional amendment regarding the purchase. Under the circumstances, including national security, his Cabinet concluded it was unnecessary. The Senate ratified the treaty on October 20th.
Without their own strong military force to stop it, Spain returned the land to France even though Napoleon reneged on their agreement. The transfer occurred on November 30th. Within a month, on December 20th, France turned it over to America. However, the United States did not take official ownership until December 30, 1803.
Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln described events such as this as Divine Providence. The United States only requested New Orleans and West Florida for trade and travel purposes. Instead, she was offered a massive area rich with unknown natural resources vital to the growth and expansion of America. The purchase troubled Jefferson. However, it defined his presidency and the country’s future.
On the other hand, some leaders have mistaken such events as Manifest Destiny. Democrat President Andrew Jackson twisted this very gift of land as permission to force thousands of Native Americans westward on the Trail of Tears.
We must always be vigilant with the freedoms and liberties God has granted us. Even today, slavery, sex trafficking and unspeakable injustices terrorize the world in forms we can not begin to comprehend. America has made mistakes but she has also been a beacon of hope for so many across the globe. We are blessed to be her citizens and should refuse to take that for granted. We must continue to share her story with others and work hard to keep her the “shining city on the hill.”
But that’s just my 2 cents.