Jefferson's two-term administration (1801-1809) is noted for strong presidential and party leadership, fiscal economy in a government of ostensibly-limited powers, a knock-down battle with the Federalist judiciary, and a growing crisis with Britain and France, culminating in the Embargo of 1807.1 A brilliant combination of foreign and domestic policy enabled the President to pull off the most momentous single achievement in all of American history–the acquisition of Louisiana in 1803.
or a Puppet exhibiting his Deceptions."
Newburyport, Massachusetts, c. 1806
Napoleon is the hornet at Jefferson's tail, making him cough up "Two Millions!" (for New Orleans). At right, Jefferson's negotiator James Monroe holds a map of West Florida in his proper right hand and a map of East Florida in his left. From his hip pocket protrudes a message from Napoleon's foreign secretary, Talleyrand. The dialog balloon at his lips reads: "A gull [deception] for the people."4
France had claimed the vast Louisiana Territory ever since the explorations of LaSalle and Marquette in the 17th century.2 The exigencies of the Seven Years War turned the area over to Spain in 1762. But in 1800 France re-acquired Louisiana in the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso.3 When Jefferson learned the details, sometime in 1802, he realized that not a weak Spain but a strong France controlled America's thousand-mile western border. Jefferson never feared Spain; its North American holdings were, he figured, ripe for the taking. But France threatened the "right of deposit" at New Orleans—the right of American farmers to float their goods down the Mississippi River and unload them in the city. "There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy," he told Robert Livingston, the U.S. Minister to France. "It is New Orleans." He offered to buy the city, or part of it, or another location suitable for commerce. Napoleon, who had intended Louisiana as a vast new world granary, now had European priorities. He offered all of Louisiana to the United States.4
This real estate tender left the President in a theoretical pickle. The Constitution did not specifically permit the purchase of foreign territory. Jefferson had already staked out the grounds of strict construction in the bank debate of 1790.5 Now he admitted privately that acquisition without amendment would make "blank paper" of the founding document. But the opportunity, the timing, and the price were too good to pass up. Jefferson bought Louisiana by treaty. The transaction revealed him as a pragmatic politician, unencumbered by ideological purity. The Louisiana Purchase–828,000 square miles for $15 million–was Jeffersonian statesmanship at its finest. It also fueled his triumphant re-election.
Battered by diplomatic reversals in his second term, Jefferson gladly handed his office to his protege, James Madison, in 1809, and retired to Monticello. There, for the rest of his days, he practiced scientific agriculture, kept up a voluminous correspondence, and designed, both physically and academically, the University of Virginia. This man's Memorial stands in Washington, D.C., but if you seek his monuments, look around: Louisiana, "Mr. Jefferson's University," the United States of America.
1. Rather than declare war against France and Britain, Jefferson's Embargo cut off their trade. No American ship could carry goods abroad, and no foreign ship could leave the United States loaded. Imports were restricted. The measure used economics as a diplomatic weapon.
2. Father Jacques Marquette floated down the Mississippi river to its juncture with the Arkansas River in 1673, and claimed the Missouri drainage for France. In 1682 another French explorer, Sieur Robert Cavelier de la Salle, descended the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, claimed all the land drained by the river for Louis XIV, and named Louisiana.
3. In the Treaty of San Ildefonso, Spain ceded Louisiana to France in return for the Kingdom of Etruria at Florence. In Spanish eyes, she traded a colonial liability for an Italian kingdom.
4. See Pierce Mullin, "The Louisiana Purchase."
5. "Strict construction" refers to the view that the U.S. Constitution does not permit any governmental action not specifically allowed in the document. The opposite view, broad construction, holds that the constitution allows anything not specifically prohibited.
Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Committee for the Humanities.