The beginning of the 19th century was a tumultuous time for the United States. There was ongoing strife within the country and around the country’s borders. The Reigning president at the time was Thomas Jefferson. One of Jefferson’s most significant acts as president was overseeing the Louisiana Purchase. The “Louisiana Purchase is still the largest land deal in the US history as it involved a $15 million price tag in 1803” (Sloane, 2004).
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The transacted land amounted to over eight hundred thousand square miles. Jefferson brokered this deal through two of his ambassadors James Monroe and Robert Livingston. The idea to acquire Louisiana was conceived after the New Orleans port fell under Napoleon Bonaparte’s French territory. The port was of great importance to the US trade and its closure necessitated sending ambassadors to France. It was in this mission that Napoleon agreed to sell not only the New Orleans port but also the entire Louisiana territory.
Before the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson prided himself in being a strict constitutionalist. However, this enormous transaction put a blemish on Jefferson’s record of strict adherence to the constitution. Some people feel that the Louisiana Purchase was conducted within the confines of the United States constitution. This paper will explore the arguments forwarded by both sides of the debate and offer a personal interpretation of the matter.
The argument against Jefferson’s actions is always supported from various angles. Before the transaction was completed, Jefferson expressed fears that it would be deemed unconstitutional. Therefore, he forwarded a constitutional amendment that would eliminate doubts against the constitutionality of the transaction to senate representatives. However, Jefferson received advice against this process because it would take too long and Napoleon could change his mind within this period.
Eventually, Jefferson opted to draw up a constitutional amendment that would give the federal government power to acquire new land on behalf of the people (Les Benedict, 2007). This amendment was ratified by the senate a few months after the Louisiana Purchase was completed. One of the reasons why Jefferson’s actions did not raise a storm in 1803 is because the citizens were pleased with this purchase.
The argument against the constitutionality of the Louisiana Purchase is founded on the fact that the responsibility of acquiring new territory was not defined in the US constitution. The Louisiana Purchase had a huge impact on the US territory because it doubled its size at the time. The people who claim that Jefferson’s actions were unconstitutional argue that the constitution did not give him the right to acquire new territory (Levin & Chen, 2012).
This means that Jefferson’s actions were not defined by any part of the constitution and this makes them unlawful. The issue under contention is the unconstitutional expansion of territory. This is in spite of the fact that Thomas Jefferson did not assume presidency with any territory-expansion agendas. The Louisiana Purchase was just a series of events that ended with territory expansion.
The people who are of the view that Jefferson acted within the constitution when he acquired the Louisiana territory, use the tenth amendment to support their argument. According to the tenth amendment, both states and citizens have the right to carry out any actions that are not disallowed by the constitution.
Jefferson’s actions fall under this category. The people who fault Jefferson’s actions do so using the argument that his actions were not defined by the constitution. However, his actions were not disallowed in the US constitution and they are therefore legitimized by the tenth amendment. The group supporting Jefferson’s actions feels that the constitutionalist’s actions never violated his beloved constitution.
The argument against the Louisiana Purchase constitutionality is pegged on the lack of a constitutional clause that allows governments to increase territory through any means. This argument would be void if the Louisiana Purchase occurred today.
However, the main purpose of the fresh constitution of 1803 was to ensure that the government could not intrude the citizens’ lives. Therefore, expansion of territory could qualify as an intrusion of people’s lives. Jefferson was an avid supporter of this notion. By using these two precedents, it would be easy for anyone to castigate Jefferson.
Nevertheless, constitutionality is not judged by notions but by what is expressed through writing. This means that Jefferson was still shielded by the tenth amendment. The amendment legalizes Jefferson’s actions because the rest of the constitution does not make them illegal. In addition, using the principle of notions, one can argue that the Louisiana Purchase was ‘accidental’. Jefferson’s actions were not pre-planned and therefore he was not taking advantage of the tenth amendment.
Initially, Jefferson had sent two ambassadors to France to negotiate a possible treaty with France. The treaty was supposed to involve the exchange of the Florida territory with the New Orleans port but it eventually became about territory expansion. Jefferson considered this transaction a great opportunity for America and he opted to go ahead with the purchase.
The Louisiana Purchase has led to one of the oldest debates concerning the constitutionality of a president’s actions. Even though both sides of the debate make valid claims, it is clear that no constitutional clauses were violated. This debate is likely to continue mostly because of the significance of Louisiana Purchase in the US history.
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Les Benedict, M. (2007). The blessings of liberty: a concise history of the Constitution of the United States. New York, NY: Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic.
Levin, R. Z., & Chen, P. (2012). Rethinking the constitution–treaty relationship. International Journal of Constitutional Law, 10(1), 242-260.
Sloane, W. M. (2004). The world aspects of the Louisiana Purchase. The American Historical Review, 9(3), 507-521.