So Vast a Land

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The United States was a new nation in 1803, fourteen years young, when the President ordained the purchase of the Louisiana Territory. The meager population lay near the Atlantic coastline. The remoter areas just east of the Mississippi river were largely uninhabited. The new territory extended nearly a thousand miles farther west—a vast and largely unknown region. Colonization of that distant desert was not even foreseen—it was to be a refuge of displaced Indians living east of the "Father of Waters."1

So the dramatic coup, the Louisiana Purchase, announced publicly with great fanfare on the glorious Fourth of July, was not without its critics. Initial opposition arose when those who viewed the Constitution as a document engraved upon stone claimed that the President had no sanction, no right to execute such a violent shift in national policy. Where was it written, they asked, that a unilateral decision could make such a purchase? What consultation was held with the people's representatives, the Congress? This was an illegal, stealthy abuse of power, they cried—and they could indeed cite chapter and verse to sustain their argument. Strictly construed, the Constitution, the rock upon which the republic rested, allowed no such wild initiative. Thomas Jefferson had played fast and loose with our sacred writ and had reduced the constitution to a mere piece of paper.

Jefferson himself, as was well known, had held the very same "strict constructionist" views about his predecessors' actions. Only masterful counter-argument by his Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, convinced Jefferson to go ahead and accept the treaty with France binding the sale. Now he was certain that because the constitution did not explicitly forbid such an action, then he could take it. Now his view was that the office of president could move ahead because the constitution "implied" that he had that power to act. What had begun as an attempt to secure warehousing space along the lower Mississippi had resulted in a major constitutional shift in American history.

Other critics asked whether we had the right to impose our government upon the people of New Orlans, and whether slavery could be introduced into the new territory without explicit constitutional authority. How could the president possibly countenance the further spread of that cruel institution? Even Rufus King, the best informed American in Europe when he represented his country in London at the time of sale, discussed the matter with John Quincy Adams; they concluded that if slavery spread into the new territory it would occasion an inevitable collision between free and slave states.2

Jefferson sought to counter this slave-free argument by restricting American colonization in the new territory. His view was that it should be a reserve for Indians. There were powerful and numerous tribes east of the great river. If they could be offered lands to its west, the country then could be filled in more humanely, more justly. He had already instructed Lewis to be especially cognizant of the native American communities through which he passed—to be alert to culture, customs, speech, dress, diet—all the knowledge the government would need to meld eastern and western Indian cultures.

Also, Jefferson sought to control that most intractable of American habits—doing business with Indians. The traders were already up the Missouri, but in an abrupt shift of national policy, only the government could do business in the trans-Mississppi west. Indeed when William Clark, after his return from the great exploration, became governor of upper Louisiana—the Missouri territory and areas to the northwest—he spent a great deal of time on this issue. Jefferson was never able to realize that goal of controlling trade in goods with Indians—no president ever was.

If there was a single unyielding American national characteristic, it was land hunger. Slave or free, Indian or not, land hunger drove a westward push so fast, so intensely, so relentlessly, that by the time of Thomas Jefferson's death (and John Adam's on that same Fourth of July, 1826), the Louisiana Territory was already becoming a plowed and cultivated land.

It may well be argued that the most important of all developments arising from this fortuitous sale by a capricious French ruler, was psychological. Americans became continental to be sure, but in order to achieve that, they had to become westerners. Jefferson was already a forerunner in this arena. He never came west, but he felt it in his bones. His faith in that momentous purchase is proof of the contention. But now a whole energetic populace, in rapidly increasing numbers, began chasing the rainbow toward the Pacific shore.


1. Officially, Indian populations in the territory being unknown, Louisiana in 1785 had included an estimated 14,215 whites, 1,303 "free people of color," and 16,544 slaves, for a total of 32,062 souls. In 1804 it had grown by perhaps 20,000.

2. The "Missouri Compromise" of 1820 was to allow Missouri to join the Union as a slave state, but made free soil of the rest of Louisiana north of its southern boundary. Thus continued the long argument over the extension of slavery that led to the Civil War four decades later.