Westward Expansion: The Louisiana Purchase

Jefferson's plans for the nation depended upon western expansion and access to international markets for American farm products. Napoleon, who had risen to power in the French Revolution, regained control of Louisiana and threatened to block American access to the port of New Orleans on the Mississippi River. American settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains depended on this river transport to get their goods to market.

President Jefferson considered changing his foreign policy stance to an anti-French alliance with the British. He sent James Monroe to France to bargain for continued trade access along the Mississippi. Monroe was empowered to purchase New Orleans and West Florida for between two and ten million dollars.

Napoleon was militarily overextended and needed money to continue his war against Britain. Knowing full well that he could not force Americans out of the land France possessed in North America, Napoleon offered all of Louisiana to the U.S. for 15 million dollars. The territory stretched from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and more than doubled the size of the United States. Napoleon's price was about four cents an acre.

The deal was struck in April 1803. Western expansion also raised controversial issues. Some New England Federalists began to talk of seceding from the United States because their political power was dramatically reduced by the purchase.

Jefferson had clearly not followed his own strict interpretation of the Constitution. Federalist critics claimed that the Constitution did not permit the federal government to purchase new land. Jefferson decided that the Constitution's treaty-making provisions allowed him room to act.

Most of the Senate agreed and the Louisiana Purchase easily passed 26 to 6. The expansion also contradicted Jefferson's commitment to reduce the national debt. Although 15 million dollars was a small sum for such a large amount of land, it was still an enormous price tag for the modest federal budget.

The Louisiana Purchase demonstrates Jefferson's ability to make pragmatic political decisions. Contrary to some of his principles, guaranteeing western expansion was so important to Jefferson's overall vision that he took bold action. The gains were dramatic, as the territory acquired would in time add 13 new states to the union.

Source: Westward Expansion: The Louisiana Purchase
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