JEFFERSON AND THE LOUISIANA PURCHASE
> I am currently preparing an essay on Thomas Jefferson and the > Louisiana Purchase. The thesis is as follows: "Thomas Jefferson > invoked gratuitous liberties in the purchase of the Louisiana > Territory not provided for in the Constitution.² > I have been trying to find supporting documents and literature for > this subject. I hope that you would be so kind as to give me some > direction. Many thanks. This is a very interesting topic, involving a situation in which Thomas Jefferson, the staunchest advocate of government LIMITED BY THE CONSTITUTION, was called upon to pursue an enormously significant action that was, indeed, outside the Constitution. The lesson to be gathered from it is that there is no rule or principle, not even this vital one, that must be followed inflexibly in every situation; rather, all such rules must be looked at in terms of the total results produced. I would take issue with the term "gratuitous" in the stated thesis. That would imply that Jefferson's actions were not really necessary. As things turned out, circumstances made Jefferson's actions imperative, and their importance for the welfare of the country would have made his failure to act lead to disatrous consequences for the future of the American republic. Under such circumstances, Jefferson's actions were unavoidable, and his failure to act would have been a manifestation of weakness and a failure of leadership. All of the points in the above paragraph can be backed up with strong argument. There are many parts of my quotation website that are pertinent to this argument. I would call your attention to these (sub- sections in quotes): Chapter 17, Interpreting the Constitution, "Unauthorized Assumptions of Power" Chapter 29, The Justice System, "The Law of Self-Preservation" Chapter 52, Duties of Citizens, "In Extraordinary Times" I would also call your attention to this quote: "The question... whether circumstances do not sometimes occur which make it a duty in officers of high trust to assume authorities beyond the law is easy of solution in principle, but sometimes embarrassing in practice. A strict observance of the written laws is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen, but it is not the highest. The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation. To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property, and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means." --Thomas Jefferson to John Colvin, 1810. ME 12:418 Briefly, the situation for Jefferson was this: The possibility of the Louisiana Purchase presented itself. It was extremely important, because Jefferson realized that another world power (especially France) holding the western territories bordering on the Mississippi River would be the source of endless conflict, both on the national level, and on the level of the individuals using that waterway. The Mississippi was absolutely essential for shipping the products of the westerly part of the U.S. to markets. Napoleon was of a mind to sell, and the fear was that if the President waited to assemble Congress, pass a Constitutional amendment, etc., the situation could change, and the opportunity would be lost. Hence, Jefferson took action, and no one, in retrospect, would condemn him for doing so. The only criticism comes from analysis based on abstractions and theories, not from an assessment based on practical policies. For more detail, I would suggest that you find a very large university or public library that has "The Writings of Thomas Jefferson," (Lipscomb & Bergh, eds.) and look in vol. 20, the Index, under "Louisiana, Acquisition of." Jefferson agonized over this decision and the implications thereof. And he wrote about it in detail that was not suitable for my website and which I cannot include here. But the above citation will lead you to his discussions of the problem.
The Louisiana Purchase was an act of necessity under extraordinary circumstances -- something that any good agent would take upon himself. To fault Jefferson for making the Louisiana Purchase only reveals, to me, that the critic has no practical understanding of government, no matter how many PhD's in history he has. "Unable... to consult his government, a zealous citizen will act as he believes that would direct him were it apprized of the circumstances, and will take on himself the responsibility. In all these cases the purity and patriotism of the motives should shield the agent from blame, and even secure the sanction where the error is not too injurious." --Thomas Jefferson: Special Message, 1806. ME 3:405 "The law of self-preservation overrules the laws of obligation in others." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on French Treaties, 1793. ME 3:228
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