By Don Vitale
Was it outstanding, incredible or even unbelievable? All three, friends, because the subject is the Louisiana Purchase. Over 52 million acres. More than 800,000 square miles. Land the size of over a dozen present-day states. And…while you’re at it, don’t forget to throw in a couple of Canadian Provinces.
You’re probably wondering how much all that real estate cost us? By Godfrey, you have every right to ask. Just make sure you’re sitting down.
Less than 4 cents an acre! You heard that right, friends. Not bad for “The Man of The People”, our third President, Thomas Jefferson.
Any way you slice it, this has to be The Landmark Deal Of All Time, doubling the size of the United States. Just imagine opening up all that land west of the Mississippi River, stretching all the way to the Rocky Mountains. The Heart of the American continent. Okay, you want to call it something, you can call it historic, for that’s what it was.
Actually, Jefferson never went after that much territory. Originally he wanted to acquire the port of New Orleans. He felt that the infant nation needed to control that important gateway to the Mississippi. Why? New Orleans was the Main Street of the American West…the channel in which much produce passed through. Jefferson didn’t want any blockage on that score from Spain or France or Great Britain.
So how did this happen? Look no farther than Napoleon Bonaparte, “The Little Corporal.” Ruler of France at the time, Napoleon needed money in his fight against the British. Initially he asked $10 million for New Orleans and adjacent lands but the pressure on France for money was so great Bonaparte agreed to sell the entire Louisiana Territory, the whole kit and kabootle for $15 million.
Surprised, if not dumbfounded at the new proposal, Jefferson’s team in Paris, afraid that Napoleon might withdraw his offer, signed the Treaty on April 30, 1803. They knew that Jefferson and the country would agree to the transaction.
After all, this effort was Jefferson’s vision, his dream for America. So you gotta to know he was on top of this from beginning to end. There he was in the White House sending messages to his men in Paris. All the while mobilizing his team of Robert Livingston, a Founding Father from New York and James Monroe, his secretary of state.
Incidentally, there was no Ship-To-Shore or digital texting in those days. His messages took two to three months to reach their destination. Hand carried on a ship crossing the Atlantic from Washington DC to Paris.
While America’s lawmakers were in agreement with the Treaty, some accused Jefferson and his compatriots such as James Madison of being hypocritical in the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson, they argued, was a strict constructionist in terms of the Constitution, yet here he was taking a loose interpretation of that great document in trying to acquire the land. The Federalists, they claimed, would have argued against The Purchase along with Alexander Hamilton.
Was the purchase constitutional? James Madison, Jefferson’s Secretary of State, declared that the purchase did not violate any of the mandates of the Constitution. Furthermore the Constitution allowed the President the power to negotiate treaties, such as Jefferson was doing with the Purchase.
In other words it would be legal for him to horse trade a deal via a treaty.
Once Congress approved the treaty, which it did in spite of its fulsome rhetoric,
Jefferson was able to make the acquisition.
But even then, some members of the House of Representatives opposed the purchase, calling for a House vote to deny the purchase. The vote failed by two votes.
It should be noted that the Senate had earlier ratified the ability to add territories to the country.
Of course, my friends, I’m sure you can imagine there were many issues that went back-and-forth in a treaty of such monumental status.
Not the least of which….
**Spain’s argument that Napoleon did not have the right to sell Louisiana to the United States. That the sale was invalid.
**Americans in New England opposed the treaty, as they weren’t looking forward to western farmers competing for another outlet of their crops.
**And….as if that were not enough….the treaty was criticized by some members of Congress since it would grant American citizenship to those living in New Orleans– the French, Spanish and free blacks.
When it came time to ratify the Purchase, only one Federalist voted in favor. Their complaint was voiced by former congressman Fisher Ames: “We are to give money of which we have too little for land of which we already have too much.”
Nonetheless the Louisiana Purchase treaty was ratified by a 24-7 vote.
No question that the Louisiana Purchase was a milestone event for America.
As such, it wasn’t exactly a slap-dash hurry-up-and-sign-on-the-dotted line affair.
It took a good year for both parties to put their pen and quill to the agreement.
Even Jefferson, pursuing his dream of expanding America to the west, admitted that he had “stretched the Constitution until it cracked.”
Well, friends, crack it he did…..to America’s future and our good fortune.–dv