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The Greatest Bargain in American History

As the new century approached, President Thomas Jefferson faced a serious dilemma. Napoleon Bonaparte’s aggression made it apparent that New Orleans, essential to international trade, and the Mississippi River, which was critical for national and international commerce, might soon be closed to U.S. trade. Spain had returned its vast American territories to France in a secret compact, and President Jefferson knew he needed to act quickly.

One giant problem stood in Jefferson’s way. The Constitution made no provision for acquiring territory. Disregarding that troublesome fact, Jefferson took matters into his own hands and sent envoys to Napoleon to see if he would sell. The emperor, facing a war with Great Britain, knew he was unlikely to be able to defend the territory, so he decided to sell it for the now famous sum of $15 million. In one momentous day, the purchase doubled the size of the young country, including the territory of fourteen states.

Napoleon felt he won in the deal as well. It was a territory he could not defend, and his nation’s debts were unbearable. Plus it gave him something any good French patriot always loved to do – stick it to the English. He said, “I have given England a maritime rival who sooner or later will humble her pride.”

The hurdle Jefferson had to overcome was not external pressure, but rather his own long-held convictions. As an anti-Federalist, Jefferson was opposed to a strong centralized federal government. By affecting the purchase, Jefferson had to lay aside his principles because such a transaction was not expressly named in the Constitution. Time was also a vital factor. He knew if he waited for a Constitutional amendment, the deal might fall through. Therefore, Jefferson decided to go ahead with the purchase.

So why did Jefferson feel the deal so necessary? Because in 1801, Spain and France signed a secret treaty ceding Louisiana to France. France now posed a potential threat to America. There was a fear that if America did not purchase New Orleans from France, it could lead to war. The change of ownership of this key port resulted in its closing to Americans. Therefore, Jefferson sent envoys to France to try and secure its purchase. Instead, they returned with an agreement to buy the entire Louisiana Territory. America did not have the money to pay the $15 million outright, so they instead borrowed the money from Great Britain at 6 percent interest.

With the purchase of this new territory, the land area of America nearly doubled. However, the exact southern and western boundaries were not defined in the purchase. America would have to deal with Spain to work out the specific details of these boundaries. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led a small expeditionary group called the Corps of Discovery into the territory. They were just the beginning of America’s fascination with exploring the west. Whether or not America had a “Manifest Destiny” to span from “sea to sea” (as was often the rallying cry of the early to mid-nineteenth century), the desire to control this territory cannot be denied.

What were the effects of Jefferson’s decision to go against his own philosophy concerning a strict interpretation of the Constitution? It can be argued that his taking liberties with the Constitution in the name of need and expediency would lead to future Presidents feeling justified with a continual increase in the elasticity of Article I, Section 8, Clause 18. Jefferson should rightly be remembered for the great deed of purchasing this enormous tract of land. But one wonders if he might regret the means in which he earned this fame.

There are a number of ironies to the single greatest deal made in American history. Napoleon sold a land he couldn’t defend to a nation that really only set out to purchase a city and its port. He delighted in selling it to the new nation because it would gall the British. Jefferson couldn’t fund the deal, so he borrowed the money from the British whom we had driven out less than a generation earlier. In debt to England for lending the money, we found ourselves at war with the same country just a decade later. If politics make for strange bedfellows, even more can be said about the oddities of international politics.

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