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Thomas Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase

John is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in History from Montclair State University and thoroughly enjoys reading literature.

A painting of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt

A painting of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt

A Constitutional Question

It was 1803, and the United States faced a nearly unexpected constitutional crisis. The proposed purchase of the territory of Louisiana had been received in Washington by Congress. The purchase, should it be signed, would add more than 500 million acres to the nation. It was a deal almost too good to pass up, costing just eighteen dollars per square mile and would more than double the size of the United States. However, the Constitution said nothing regarding the addition of any large tracts of land. Opinions regarding the proposed purchase came pouring in. Most Federalists opposed it; many Republicans celebrated the deal. A fierce debate about tradition, economics, the balance of power, and the Constitutionality of the proposed purchase raged through the summer and early fall of 1803.

Thomas Jefferson had pushed for the acquisition of New Orleans, in order to gain control of the Mississippi River. He had instructed his ambassador Robert Livingston, later sending Pierre DuPont to assist on an informal basis, and James Monroe to assist on a formal basis. Jefferson himself struggled with the proposed purchase.

As a staunch supporter of the Constitution, he was nearly certain that an amendment to the Constitution would be necessary to make the purchase legally. Jefferson had also declared that the territory should be purchased by “any means necessary.” The Louisiana Purchase was one of the defining moments in the early republic and one of the key moments in the presidential career of Thomas Jefferson.

History of the Louisiana Territory and the United States

In the late eighteenth century, the United States and the Spanish territory of Louisiana had an amicable, if a somewhat wary relationship. Trade flowed from western American farmers and settlers to the port of New Orleans starting as early as 1775. During the Revolution, Spain allowed free use of the river to transport not only American trade but also supplies for the war effort. Despite this promising start, Spain was threatened by American expansion and extreme population growth and closed the river to American trade in 1784. Spain also asserted ownership of both sides of the river in an attempt to solidify the Spanish-American border in Louisiana. As they had never formally signed the 1783 treaty between the British empire and the new United States of America, they were not bound by any territorial agreement found in said treaty.

The territorial disagreement and closing of the lower Mississippi River had several immediate repercussions: the southwestern inhabitants of the U.S. were in an immediate uproar, and the economic policy backfired spectacularly. Smuggling and trading illicit goods quickly became a part of the economy of the Louisiana territory, particularly New Orleans. By 1785, Spain had sent an ambassador, Diego de Gardoqui y Anniquivar, to negotiate a settlement. John Jay represented the United States Treaty negotiations stalled and eventually failed altogether. Another round of negotiations, this time between Manuel de Godoy y Álvarez de Faria, the Prime Minister of Spain, and Thomas Pickney was more successful. The talks culminated in the Treaty of San Lorenzo, or Pickney’s Treaty. The Treaty solidified the Spanish-American border in both the Floridas and Louisiana. More importantly, it allowed American merchants to deposit their goods for sale and export in New Orleans for three years without paying any duties and free navigation of the Mississippi. After three years, Spain could either allow the practice to continue or designate another place on the Mississippi where the goods could be deposited.

New Orleans is a bustling trade port vital to U.S. economic interests.

New Orleans is a bustling trade port vital to U.S. economic interests.

Strategic Interest

This treaty secured the economy of the western and southwestern United States. Access to New Orleans was of utmost importance to the merchants and farmers as it provided convenient access to the international market. Without access to New Orleans, goods would need to travel overland to other American port cities, increasing the costs and time needed to transport the goods. Trading goods down the Mississippi had an impressive impact. As Alexander DeConte notes in This Affair of Louisiana, “The benefits flowing from the Treaty of San Lorenzo set off a commercial revolution in the Mississippi Valley.” Spain made a good neighbor for the United States for a second reason: the comparative weakness of Spain in Louisiana. Spain was viewed as a weak and amenable empire, with little ability to protect its borders- or mount a potential invasion into the United States. Differences in population size was a large factor in this. The American population had grown exponentially in the Mississippi River valley as speculators and settlers alike searched for open land for farms and communities. In 1784, the population of just Kentucky alone matched that of the entire lower Mississippi. Growth and westward expansion were the watchwords, and the population of the Ohio River Valley was growing nearly seven times as quickly as the lower Mississippi. It was generally expected, as settlers moved across the river, the territory would gradually fall to the United States, “piece by piece.”

Not only did the United States need not worry about a potential invasion—always a worry for a young empire—but the nation could expand at need without having to worry overmuch about their weaker neighbor’s protests. For the United States, having Spain as their western neighbor had worked very much in their favor.

On March 30th, 1801, ambassador William Vans Murray penned an urgent letter to John Quincy Adams. “I fear we have another iron in the fire—that France is to have the Floridas and Louisiana!!!”

Napoleon Bonaparte- the French leader who regained ownership of the territory for France.

Napoleon Bonaparte- the French leader who regained ownership of the territory for France.

Jefferson Responds

The rumors of Spain’s retrocession of Louisiana to France greatly worried Jefferson, who understood keenly the importance of international trade and felt that the trade of land could only harm the interests of the United States. The trade of land, Jefferson noted, “…completely reverses all the political relations of the U.S and will form a new epoch in our political course.” While Jefferson was a well-known Francophile, he could not be optimistic in regards to having France as a western neighbor. Where previously he counted France as one of the only nations that shared any common interest with the United States, he now admitted that France’s possession of Louisiana would turn France into a distinctly unfriendly power.

Jefferson sent Robert Livingston to France as a minister to gather more information regarding the rumored retrocession, Livingston was to discourage France from taking possession of the territory and secure the trading rights in New Orleans. In 1802, once the rumors of the intended retrocession had been confirmed beyond all doubt, Jefferson wrote to Livingston,

"…there is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural & habitual enemy. It is New Orleans, through which the produce of three-eighths of our territory must pass to market, and from its fertility it will ere long yield more than half of our whole produce and contain more than half our inhabitants. France placing herself in that door assumes to us the attitude of defiance. Spain might have retained it quietly for years. her pacific dispositions, her feeble state, would induce her to increase our facilities there…"

He also wrote to a friend in France, Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours. Jefferson was able to communicate with Napoleon Bonaparte through Du Pont in a kind of back-door diplomacy. In his letters, he warned that if France were to take possession of Louisiana, war was a distinct possibility. Jefferson noted that war was not what he sought, but if France took possession of the territory, the United States “…would ‘necessarily’ ally herself with Great Britain.” Through this channel, the idea of purchasing New Orleans and the Mississippi River was first communicated to Bonaparte. For Jefferson, who had a strong dislike for Great Britain, this was an unusual threat. Just a few months after his letters had been sent, Jefferson risked an international incident with Great Britain when Great Britain’s diplomat, Anthony Merry, and his wife were treated without due respect while on a diplomatic visit to the White House. Jefferson, who had little patience for diplomatic traditions, greeted Merry in his robe and slippers, and over the course of Merry’s stay in Washington, deliberately snubbed both the man and his wife when possible.

While Jefferson may not have sought war, the Federalists were not of a like mind. Spain signed the formal retrocession on October 15, 1802, deeding the territory back to France. Just three days after the retrocession was signed, the Spanish intendant in Louisiana, Juan Ventura Morales closed New Orleans to American merchants and abruptly halted the right of deposit. Federalists urged Jefferson to order the military to occupy New Orleans in a preemptive strike. They wanted to take New Orleans before the French could land, as preventing them from landing would be far easier than forcing them back off the land, should it become necessary. Jefferson did not advocate for war but rather preferred peaceful diplomacy when possible. The Federalists were convinced that the suspension of deposit was not an independent move on the part of Morals, but was either ordered by or inspired by orders from Bonaparte. Jefferson fought back against the Federalists’ call for war, stating that their motives were not in the interests of justice or morality, but instead were of a political nature. Livingston, in a letter to Jefferson, explained that the suspension was not by any orders of France and that Bonaparte apparently intended to observe the treaty rights already established.

"...There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural & habitual enemy. It is New Orleans, through which the produce of three-eighths of our territory must pass to market, and from its fertility, it will ere long yield more than half of our whole produce and contain more than half our inhabitants..."

— Thomas Jefferson

Diplomacy at Home

The Louisiana crisis was beginning to drive a wedge between the already divided political parties in the United States. Soon after the suspension of deposit, in December 1802, a resolution passed to force Jefferson to turn over all documents relating to the suspension of deposit. There was no love lost between Jefferson and the Federalists in Congress. In an earlier letter, describing Federalists as madmen and their leaders even more so. In response to criticism that he was purposely procrastinating on the Louisiana issue, Jefferson revealed that he had not yet worked out a sound strategy for dealing with the crisis. He also maintained that he did not expect Bonaparte to move on New Orleans until he finished conquering Santo Domingo.

Federalists in Congress attempted to pass several aggressive measures but were blocked by the Republicans, who felt that appropriate actions were being taken. The outrage of Congress forced Jefferson to greater action. On January 10th, 1803, he commanded James Monroe, an old and trusted friend, to travel to Washington. Just a few days later, he was confirmed as an envoy to France. His appointment had the dual effect of appeasing the Federalists and assuring the nation that further action was being taken.

It was while Monroe was traveling that France suddenly reversed their position. On April 11th, two days before Monroe was to arrive in France, Livingston was offered all of Louisiana, not just New Orleans and the Floridas. Just over two weeks after Monroe arrived in France was the offer accepted and a treaty written up, declaring the territory sold for fifteen million dollars. All that remained was for both countries to ratify the treaty.

Map of the Louisiana Purchase

Map of the Louisiana Purchase

The Proposed Purchase

News of the completed negotiations arrived in July 1803 with a letter from Rufus King, as well as another letter from Livingston and Monroe. News spread quickly of the acquisition. Monroe and Livingston’s letter, along with three other messages, sent via three different messengers with copies of the proposed treaties, were more apologetic than celebratory. Both had technically overstepped their authorizations by acquiring more the just New Orleans, the Floridas, and the Mississippi.

The treaty had to be ratified by October 30 by both nations to take effect. To this end, Jefferson called for a special session of Congress to convene on October 17. He intended to use the three months to strategize for any political opposition and to deal with his own doubts in regard to the deal. Nearly as soon as the news arrived, both praise and criticism followed.

Some senators praised the purchase as a way to maintain stability and harmony on the continent. Others praised the generous amount of land acquired. Alexander Hamilton praised the proposed purchase in anonymous letters and articles written for the New York Evening Post.

Federalists, with the notable exception of Alexander Hamilton, greatly criticized the proposed purchase. Some believed that the price was far too high for the land, such as Dr. Huger Bacot Jr, who wrote in a letter that he believed, “This seems to me a miserably calamitous business-indeed I think it might result in the disunion of these States.” The amount and quality of land was another popular criticism, as many believed the territory to hold land that was virtually unusable and populated only with wolves and Indians. The most popular criticism was regarding slavery and expansion. Would the new territory include slaves? If so, that would mean an unfair balance of power between the free and the slave states.

An amendment was proposed by Thomas Pickering to change the three-fifths compromise into one that only calculated the free population of any state. It failed to pass. Pickering would go on to form a separatist conspiracy, aiming to secede New England from the rest of the United States. The conspiracy depended on Aaron Burr winning the election for the New York governorship. He was not elected and ultimately the plan failed.

Route of the Lewis and Clark Expedition- which left before the purchase was technically ratified.

Route of the Lewis and Clark Expedition- which left before the purchase was technically ratified.

Jefferson's Dilemma

President Jefferson had his own reservations regarding the purchase, as well as his own ambitions for the land. Two of his passions were science and natural philosophy. He was in the habit of recording the temperature and weather at least twice a day. It was his love for science that helped him endure some of the worst moments in his life. After his wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson died in 1782, his routine of recording the temperature and overall weather helped him to cope. Of his six children, only two survived.

Now in 1803, his scientific curiosity had been roused in regards to the new lands he had just added to the nation. Before the treaty had even been written, before Monroe had even left for France, Jefferson was planning exploratory expeditions into the west. The most famous of which, the Lewis and Clark expedition, was approved by Congress in January of 1803. The expedition was also to scout the land, in case the French were to invade, thus providing essential information about the land. The amount of land was also a huge draw for Jefferson, who had once envisioned the United States expanding, albeit not quite this quickly.

Despite the advantages, Jefferson saw a major problem with acquiring the territory. He was a strict constitutionalist. As a strict constitutionalist, he believed firmly that the federal government held only the powers assigned to it by the Constitution. All other powers were assumed to be handled at the state level. The Constitution said nothing about adding new land to the territory.

Thus, Jefferson was in a bind. The territory was necessary to secure the trade route and prevent France from becoming a too-close neighbor. An amendment, or set of amendments, he felt, would be the best way to incorporate the new land. Jefferson wrote two drafts of possible amendments. It would stop settlement at the Mississippi for a time and reserve all land above the thirty-first parallel for the Native Americans. He sent copies of the amendments to several of his trusted advisors for comment. His Attorney General, Levi Lincoln, suggested that the purchase of land was technically a sanction to expand, and thus Constitutional without an amendment. The Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, essentially tore apart the proposed amendments under the belief that as the United States was understood to be a nation, it held all the power it needed to expand by treaty, with no additional amendments necessary.

Through correspondence, the President changed position several times, at first agreeing that no amendments were necessary, then believing that the amendments would be essential. Jefferson also feared setting a precedent for additional federal powers regarding incorporating new land into the Union. In the end, the French and Spanish ultimately decided for him.

1803 Proclamation side by side with 1904 Proclamation

1803 Proclamation side by side with 1904 Proclamation

Time to Decide

In August of 1803, he received a letter from Livingston strongly urging action. France was beginning to regret the treaty, and Spain was likewise upset that the land had been sold despite promises otherwise. Jefferson had to quickly decide between his belief in an amendment and being able to purchase the territory. For a short time before sending the treaty to the Senate for consideration, he hoped to push the purchase through, then add an amendment later.

Ultimately, and reluctantly, he decided that an amendment was not needed. As De Conte notes, he felt it was best to acquiesce with the rest of his party and his advisors. “The nation’s best interests demanded the extension of the empire for liberty, he maintained… He also assumed that the people approved of such expansionism, and therefore Louisiana’s acquisition would strengthen his party and administration.”

With such strong support within his own party, which had control of the Senate, the ratification of the treaty came almost absurdly quickly, with only two days of debate and no changes to the proposed treaty. Need had won out over idealism, and no amendment was added to the Constitution to justify the purchase. With this purchase, the United States had added foreign territory to its lands, expanded farther and faster than was expected, and kicked off an era of expansion and exploration.

It is interesting to note, as Sheehan does in his article, “Jefferson’s ‘Empire for Liberty’”, that of all the various accomplishments listed on Thomas Jefferson’s grave marker, the Louisiana Purchase is not listed. Despite it doubling the size of the country, securing an important route for trade, and being generally celebrated, he chose to leave it off the list of his most prized accomplishments. The struggle to keep open international trade through New Orleans and to acquire Florida had quickly turned into far more than he had imagined. While he struggled to justify the purchase to his strict sense of constitutionality, Federalists and Republicans debated the positives and negatives of such a deal. In the end, Jefferson’s desire to maintain American strength and liberty forced him to approve the purchase without an amendment.


  • Theriault, Sean M. “Party Politics during the Louisiana Purchase” Social Science History Vol. 30, No. 2 (Summer, 2006)
  • Sheehan, Bernard W. “Jefferson’s ‘Empire for Liberty’” Indiana Magazine of History Vol.100 (1973)
  • DeConde, Alexander. This Affair of Louisiana New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, (1976)
  • Kukla, Jon A Wilderness So Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America New York: Anchor Books, August 2004
  • Casper, Gerhard. "Executive-Congressional Separation of Power during the Presidency of Thomas Jefferson." Stanford Law Review 47, no. 3 (1995)
  • Boles, John B. Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty New York: Basic Books. April 25, 2017
  • “From Thomas Jefferson to Robert R. Livingston, 18 April 1802,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 29, 2019, [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 37, 4 March–30 June 1802, ed. Barbara B. Oberg. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010, pp. 263–267.]
  • Gannon. Kevin M. 2016. “Escaping "Mr. Jefferson's Plan of Destruction": New England Federalists and the Idea of a Northern Confederacy, 1803-1804” Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Autumn, 2001

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 John Jack George


Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 16, 2020:

John, America history appeals to me and I enjoy the read. Thanks.