Executive Power & the Louisiana Purchase
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Executive Power & the Louisiana Purchase


I think without a doubt, the Louisiana Purchase
is one of the great turning points in American history. It’s hard to imagine the country succeeding
the way it has without purchasing Louisiana. The Louisiana Purchase was the result of a
treaty negotiated by Robert Livingston and James Monroe with, ah, Napoleon of France
that gave the United States possession of a swath of territory that would cause us to
double in size for $15,000,000, about three cents an acre. It was originally supposed to be the Louisiana
Purchase because that’s all that Thomas Jefferson wanted, but the French, for a variety of reasons,
offered this almost literally incredible deal. One of the things that Jefferson was concerned
about was that the territory to our west, whoever possessed it would be, as he said,
“our natural and habitual enemy.” Given the fact that it was almost a law of
physics in the eighteenth or early nineteenth century that Britain and France were at war,
the United States would be compromised and put in a position where its neutrality would
be put to the test. So people think Napoleon had two thoughts. One is he couldn’t actually control Louisiana
because it’s so far away. He can’t get troops there, the British are blockading him, and you’re
seeing unrest in the French colonies in the Caribbean, which is where the real money’s
coming from back then. And then second, he needed money. He needed money to continue to fight the British
to keep control in Europe. People think he was basically selling us what,
to him, was almost a worthless asset. The Louisiana Purchase completely transformed
the United States as we knew it. And what Jefferson argued is that a treaty
this monumental should require much more than simply one president and two-thirds of the
Senate, particularly if the Senate divides somewhat on regional grounds. It raises all sorts of fascinating constitutional
issues, as well as political issues. The main reason the Louisiana Purchase was
controversial was really because of Jefferson himself. Jefferson had very, very serious doubts about
the constitutionality of the purchase. But on the other hand, there’s allowing Americans
to remain at peace through the possession of land that would insolate us, presumably
from the troubles of Europe. If you’re going to add a wholly new territory
the United States and new states, you have to actually amend the Constitution to add
those states. And so, Jefferson himself thought that he
would actually have to get a constitutional amendment to do it. Jefferson actually drafts a constitutional
amendment that would have explicitly authorized the purchase of Louisiana. But when he floated this by his two most trusted
advisors, James Madison and Albert Gallatin, they urged him not to try to send this out
to the states. This has been a recurrent theme in American
history, given that almost everybody says that if you’re going to engage in significant
constitutional change, why not get it in writing and why not get the necessary public approval. And the quick and dirty answer is that it’s
just too difficult. In a perfect world, this amendment would have
been added to the Constitution very quickly and it would not have put at risk the purchase
of Louisiana. Thomas Jefferson lived in the real world. Jefferson though, he was constantly worried
about the threat the government power posed to individual liberty. So what he wanted to do is interpret the Constitution
narrowly, excessively narrowly I would say, in order to preserve liberty. But then if these great opportunities happen,
you just do it. It’s also true that his Secretary of the Treasury,
Albert Gallatin, said, “Oh no, there’s no constitutional problem because the Constitution
very clearly sets up a treaty power. The treaty power says if the president negotiates
the treaty and it’s ratified by two-thirds of the Senate then it becomes the law of the
land.” But what Jefferson accurately perceived is
that this was no ordinary treaty. Jefferson couldn’t do it wholly by himself
because we had to pay for it. Until 1945, until we had a really truly large
standing army, everything the president wanted to do had to be paid for, which gave Congress
the checkbook as an ultimate ability to stop any executive. So with the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson
could agree to buy Louisiana, but unless Congress appropriated the money and sent it over to
France, no purchase would have occurred. If you could have gotten an amendment quickly
and easily, why not? But if in fact there would have been a real
risk, either not getting the amendment at all or its taking so much time that Napoleon
might have said, “Wait a minute, I really don’t wanna go through with this,” Jefferson
did the right thing, if you do believe ultimately in American expansionism. Some people try to bring this up as an example
of Thomas Jefferson’s so-called hypocrisy, but I don’t see it as a hypocrisy at all because
Jefferson had a whole bunch of different principles, all of which were important and which, in
this instance, were in competition with one another. I actually think this is a great example of
Jefferson becoming great despite his principles and the conflict within Jefferson and his party
between principle and political expediency. And in this case, political expediency won
out. I don’t think Jefferson was prone to executive
overreach and I don’t really think that the Louisiana Purchase is an example of executive
overreach. I mean, this is the executive and the legislature
working together as the Constitution stipulates to ratify and fund a treaty with a foreign
power. Jefferson, I think, was constantly torn between
his principles and noble ideas. Look at the Declaration of Independence on
the one hand, owning slaves on the other. Claiming he was for a narrow government on
the one hand and limited federal powers, limited presidency, but once in office, buying Louisiana
and claiming the right as a president to do it extraconstitutionally. In his 1810 letter, he says that when the
great interest of the country are at stake, when there’s an emergency, then we want a
president who’s is willing to act. Now, the fact is there is no plausible argument
that there was any emergency that required the United States to get Montana or the rest
of the upper Midwest. So when Jefferson considered all of these
competing variables, for him, it was maybe a difficult decision. But in the end, it was a pretty easy one. He put aside his constitutional scruples and
he did what he thought was best for the country. The Louisiana Purchase Treaty was extremely
popular. The Senate ratified it by a vote of twenty-four
to seven. Most Americans very much approved of the idea
of the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson probably is most famous and most
important for the Declaration of Independence, but I think everyone can agree that his great
domestic achievement was the purchase of Louisiana. If we like what our presidents are doing,
we tend to say, “Oh yeah, they have that power.” If we are afraid of what they are doing, we
tend to say they’re overreaching. So Jefferson in his own mind, violated his
view of the Constitution. And so, of course this has been one of the
things that Jefferson’s been criticized for, that Jefferson in, in, in this in other
areas, acted unconstitutionally because he had this relatively narrow view of the Constitution. But when he was president, he consistently
exercised presidential power in very broad ways. The most important lingering effect of the
Louisiana Purchase is the expansion and what that has meant and continues to mean to American
history. It allowed the US strategically to be able to escape
being hemmed in and get across and start moving westwards towards the Pacific Ocean,
which is what turned the United States into a world power. I think it would have been insane to turn
down the deal and I don’t think any president would have. And it’s what presidents have done since. There are going to be times when you’re going
to have to swallow hard and say, “The president has to make a decision now.” The most obvious example is if we’re attacked. But what I would say is that presidents have
proclivity to overestimate the presence of emergency. In a perfect world, a constitutional amendment
would have set a very different and a much better precedent that when you want to do
something that is not explicitly authorized by the Constitution, the only right way to
do it is by amending the Constitution. I actually think Jefferson was wrong on his
reading of the Constitution. I don’t think the Louisiana Purchase required
a constitutional amendment. He thought it did because he wanted to keep
the Constitution narrow. In terms of the political leadership, I think
this was probably Thomas Jefferson’s greatest achievement. There is obviously something troublesome about
this, but it’s also very clear. There has always been a tension between a
kind of legal fastidiousness and dynamic political leaders. The Louisiana Purchase is one of the most
fundamental struggles in American constitutional history.

3 Comments

  • Eddie Brahhh

    Jefferson was not a “hypocrite” because he had “principles that we win competition with each other.” Really? What hypocrite doesn’t? Let’s now consider the American who professes to uphold the separation of powers, but if a really good deal (or bureaucracy) comes along is willing to rationalize its execution.

  • Sathyajith Shankar

    Federalist Society is one of the best YouTube channels, period!
    Please make videos of the history of the judiciary and more particularly, John Marshall himself.

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