Mises Daily

Was Thomas Jefferson a Great President?

[This article was excerpted from chapter 3 of Reassessing the Presidency, edited by John V. Denson.]

Was Thomas Jefferson a great president? One’s answer to that question depends on how one defines “greatness.” If we define greatness as how far a president leads the United States down its historically determined path toward the centralized interventionist state, then Jefferson fails to qualify. On the other hand, if we define greatness as how well a president defended the true and original principles of the federal Constitution and the economic and civil liberties for which Americans had fought the Revolution, then Jefferson deserves to be ranked among the better presidents. Yet he also deserves to be ranked as one of the most disappointing, since there was so much that he could have done, was expected to do, but did not do.

As we survey his presidency, it will be useful to keep in mind three questions. First, did Jefferson’s election to the presidency and the Republican capture of Congress in 1800 constitute “a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776,” as Jefferson himself contended ten years after he had retired to Monticello?1 Second, was Jefferson a true and consistent classical-republican statesman whose policies were consistent with his professed political and economic philosophy of small government, strict construction, states’ rights, low taxes, free trade, noninvolvement in foreign affairs, and peace? And third, does his presidency constitute a model for future leaders of a classical liberal and constitutional-federalist persuasion to follow?

The short answers to these questions are that Jefferson failed to carry through a revolution which he himself had helped to originate, that he was consistent in many ways but inconsistent in others, and that his presidency constitutes a useful model but also a warning.

The Election of 1800

Although the Federalists had controlled Congress and the presidency for 12 successive years, their policies had not been popular. If the Judiciary Act of 1789, the funding of the national debt, the assumption of the states’ debts, the national bank, the system of internal taxation, Jay’s Treaty with Great Britain (1794), and the creation of a professional standing army and navy had been submitted to a popular referendum, probably none of them would have been approved, nor would the federal Constitution have been ratified in the first place. Early Federalist political success in passing their program and holding on to power can be attributed to three factors: the lack of an organized political opposition until the late 1790s, the success of the new political system in thwarting the popular will, and General Washington’s tremendous popularity and prestige.

If the president had been elected directly by the people, Jefferson would have given his first inaugural address in 1797 instead of in 1801. However, the popular memory is short, and the Republicans could not hope to ride to power simply on the basis of the unpopularity of Federalist measures in the early 1790s. They finally triumphed in 1800 because the internal tax system provided a regular reminder that the Federalists believed in an intrusive and energetic government, and the quasi-war with France in 1798 demonstrated beyond any doubt that the Federalists were inveterate Anglophiles — Jefferson called them “Anglomen” — who wanted to build an expensive professional war machine to go to war against Spain and France in alliance with England.

The Republicans were right to believe that the Federalists wanted to turn the American confederation of states into an empire mightier than the British empire and one with a perpetual public debt, high domestic taxes, a large standing army, a navy with ships-of-the-line, large manufacturing establishments subsidized by government, a permanent civil bureaucracy, a strong executive, an irresponsible political judiciary, the consolidation of political power in the federal government, and financial corruption of the federal legislature. Jefferson could speak of his election as a “revolution,” because he believed that the people of the states had rejected the Federalist theory and program of government, which were British, neomercantilist, centralizing, and statist, in favor of the agrarian, decentralist, libertarian, and republican principles which had been dominant during the Revolution and were once again ascendant.

“Jefferson could speak of his election as a ‘revolution,’ because he believed that the people of the states had rejected the Federalist theory and program of government, which were British, neomercantilist, centralizing, and statist, in favor of the agrarian, decentralist, libertarian, and republican principles which had been dominant during the Revolution and were once again ascendant.” 

As president, Jefferson set out to reverse the Federalist program, to restore the federal government to its constitutional role (that is, protecting the confederacy and its trade from foreign enemies and managing relations between the states), and to ensure that the people of the states were left alone to regulate their own private pursuits in a state of freedom. He hoped to gradually break the alliance between the government and the moneyed elite which had already been forged by the Federalists. According to Albert Jay Nock, Jefferson “was for control of government by the producing class; that is to say, by the immense majority which in every society actually applies labor and capital to natural resources for the production of wealth,” and that he opposed Federalist efforts to forge a neomercantilistic alliance between the general government and “the exploiting classes,” that is, bankers, bondholders, and officeholders.2

Federal Spending Under Jefferson

In a 1799 letter to a Massachusetts Republican, Jefferson summarized what would be the fiscal policies of his administration, if he were elected:

I am for a government rigorously frugal and simple, applying all the possible savings of the public revenue to the discharge of the national debt; and not for a multiplication of officers and salaries merely to make partisans, and for increasing, by every device, the public debt, on the principle of its being a public blessing.3

In his first inaugural address Jefferson explained that for him, “the sum of good government” was a “wise and frugal” one “which shall restrain men from injuring one another, [but] shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”4

Jefferson opposed all but the most minimal taxes because he believed that taxes diminished public happiness by depriving individuals of a portion of their hard-earned money and hence of the means of supporting their families and improving their estates. He warned that ‘’the general tendency” of the government party was “to increase expense[s] to the ultimate term of burden which the citizen can bear” and leave “to labor the smallest portion of its earnings on which it can subsist,” so that “government shall itself consume the residue of what it was instituted to guard.”5

Jefferson also was determined to pay off the national debt. He opposed public borrowing on a number of grounds. First of all, by enabling the government to increase its expenditures without calling on the people for increased taxes, it minimized public opposition to increased spending. Second, public borrowing shifted the burden of payment to posterity. Jefferson believed that imposing financial burden on future generations in order to pay for the profligacy of the present generation was a profoundly unrepublican and immoral act. Third, public borrowing created a class of bondholders who had a vested interest in funding and increasing the debt and opposing its discharge. Last, a public debt created a justification for keeping up taxes to pay the interest.6

Thus Jefferson and his Swiss-born secretary of the treasury, Albert Gallatin, set out to reduce federal expenditures and federal taxes and pay off a considerable portion of the federal debt. Although the second goal appears to be in conflict with the third, Jefferson and Gallatin hoped that reductions in spending would compensate for the reduction in federal tax revenue.

In the State Department, Jefferson reduced the number of foreign missions to three — London, Paris, and Spain — one for each of the three great world powers. In the Treasury Department, he dismissed all of the collectors and inspectors of the internal revenue. This change alone reduced the number of federal employees by more than one-third.

However, Jefferson and Gallatin planned on saving the most money in the War and Navy Departments. By early 1802, Jefferson had reduced the size of the regular army by almost half, from 6,000 men when he took office to 3,312. Federalist expenditures on the War Department averaged $1.9 million from 1793 through 1800. Jefferson reduced them to an average of $1.3 million for 1801 through 1808, which was a reduction of almost $600,000 a year.

Federalist expenditures on the Navy Department had averaged $1.3 million a year from 1794 (the first year of the navy) through 1800. Jefferson actually spent a little more, averaging $1.5 million a year for his two terms. However, if one compares his naval expenditures to those of his immediate predecessor, John Adams, who averaged $2 million a year, Jefferson managed to reduce them by an average of almost $500,000 a year. He accomplished this by laying up seven of the 13 frigates built by the Federalists.

Through such measures of economy, Jefferson managed to reduce government expenditures, minus interest and debt reduction, from $7.5 million for fiscal year 1800 to less than $5 million for 1801 and to an average of $4 million for the years 1802–1804. However, increased military expenditures after 1804 significantly raised overall spending during his second term. All in all, while Federalist expenditures averaged $7.1 million from 1793 through 1800, Republican expenditures actually averaged $8.7 million, an increase under Jefferson of $1.6 million a year.7

Federal Taxation under Jefferson

The federal government had three sources of revenue in 1800: public land sales, customs duties, and internal taxes. Tariffs averaged only 13 percent ad valorem, although specific duties on sugar, tea, coffee, and salt ranged from 50 percent to 100 percent. The Federalists had imposed internal taxes on whiskey stills, domestic liquor sales, auction sales, carriages, and legal documents. These taxes produced $1 million in federal revenue in 1800, four-fifths of which came from the excises on whiskey and distilled spirits.

When Jefferson recommended repealing these taxes, the Federalists replied that import duties on such “necessities” as coffee, tea, and sugar should be reduced instead. They argued that reducing the duties on tropical commodities would be of more benefit to the people than reducing the whiskey excise.

The Federalists knew what they were about. They wanted to retain the internal revenue system with its host of revenue officers, collectors, and inspectors. They understood that a reduction in import duties could always be reversed by a future congress, but that it would be much more difficult to reimpose internal taxes and recreate a machinery of domestic tax collection after both had been repealed and abolished. They remembered well that the first attempt in 1794 to impose an excise on whiskey produced a tax revolt in the American backcountry.8 A future Federalist administration might face even greater domestic resistance in trying to bring back the excise than they faced in imposing it.

For the same reasons, Jefferson and his Republican allies were determined to repeal altogether, not just reduce, the internal taxes and to abolish the inspectors and collectors of the revenue. They were successful. Jefferson signed the reform bill into law in March 1802. Jefferson next set his sights on repealing the duty on imported salt, which brought in over $500,000 in revenue annually. Jefferson began to push for its repeal in 1806. His party abolished the salt duty early the next year.9

“The Federalists wanted to retain the internal revenue system with its host of revenue officers, collectors, and inspectors. They understood that a reduction in import duties could always be reversed by a future congress, but that it would be much more difficult to reimpose internal taxes and recreate a machinery of domestic tax collection after both had been repealed and abolished.”
In his second inaugural address, Jefferson noted with triumph and satisfaction that federal taxes were “being collected on our seaboards and frontiers only, and incorporated with the transactions of our mercantile citizens.” Thus, “it may be the pleasure and pride of an American to ask, what farmer, what mechanic, what laborer ever sees a tax-gatherer of the United States.”10

If federal expenditures on the whole were not reduced under President Jefferson and if taxes were twice reduced, then why did the Treasury Department run a surplus each year from 1801 to 1808? There are two reasons. First, Jefferson raised taxes. In early 1804, Gallatin and Jefferson proposed increasing the tariff duties by 2.5 percent and by adding an additional duty of 10 percent on all goods imported via foreign vessels. The change would have increased the average tariff rate to 16 percent ad valorem. Because its ostensible purpose was to finance the unexpected expenses arising from the Tripolitan War, it became known as the “Mediterranean Fund.” The Republican majority promptly passed the measure. The additional duties brought in about $1 million of increased revenue a year, thus compensating for the loss of revenue due to the repeal of the internal taxes.

Both Gallatin and the Republican congressional leaders promised that the increased tariff would be only a temporary measure. Their bill required that the tariff be brought back to its previous level three months after the close of hostilities with the Barbary powers. However, the Republicans renewed the tax in 1807 despite the cessation of hostilities the previous year.

The renewal was due also to the increase in the customs revenue during the 1800s. The increase was created by growing imports, the profitable carrying trade, and the acquisition of the port of New Orleans under the Louisiana treaty. Under the carrying trade, American vessels brought Spanish and French colonial goods to an American port, paid a duty, and then re-exported them to Europe. The volume of this trade was enormous in 1801 and 1805–1807.11

Federal Debt Reduction Under Jefferson

Jefferson and Gallatin inherited a national debt of $83 million. Annual interest payments on the debt averaged about $3.1 million a year under President Adams, thus accounting for about 42 percent of all federal expenditures during those years. Jefferson and Gallatin believed that continuing to discharge these high interest payments just to maintain the debt diminished their flexibility in spending money on legitimate national purposes, such as buying foreign territory, and created upward pressure on federal taxes. They also believed that having a large outstanding debt would be a serious financial handicap should the country go to war in defense of its territory or citizens. Interest payments for the previous debt would still have to be made, the principal would be further augmented by new borrowing, and many sources of loanable capital already would be invested in government stock.

Accordingly, Jefferson and Gallatin proposed creating an annual sinking fund of $7.3 million to be used for the dual purpose of paying interest on the debt and reducing the principal by retiring maturing bonds and buying still outstanding bonds in the market. If this plan were adhered to by Jefferson and his successors, and if no new debt were created, the national debt would be retired in 16 years. Congress passed this measure in April 1802.

Jefferson’s purchase of Louisiana from France in 1803 for $15 million threatened his debt reduction program. However, federal revenue was so great that he and Gallatin had little difficulty paying for the purchase, all the while maintaining their debt reduction plan. Gallatin proposed to pay for the purchase by selling $11.25 million in new 6 percent federal stock, which 6 percent was added to the long-term federal debt; by borrowing $1.75 million in a temporary loan, to be paid from future Treasury surpluses; and by appropriating $2 million in cash from the current Treasury surplus. In the immediate aftermath of the purchase of Louisiana, the administration decided to increase the sinking fund to $8 million a year. In eight years, Jefferson and Gallatin managed to redeem $37.2 million of the principal of the federal debt and bring the total amount outstanding down from $83 million in 1800 to $57 million at the end of 1808.12

Foreign Policy and Military Spending: The First Term

Jefferson believed that the happiness of his countrymen would be promoted best by a policy of “peace, commerce, and friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.” He envisioned his country as a peaceful, agrarian-commercial federal republic of self-sufficient farmers and mechanics slowly spreading across space to fill in the beautiful and bountiful land vouchsafed them by Providence. Possessing “a wide and fruitful land,” “with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation,” and “kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe.”13 America, Jefferson believed, had the blessed opportunity to keep itself free from the incessant rivalries, jealousies, and conflicts of the Old World. For Jefferson, the wise and patriotic statesman would take advantage of his country’s fortunate geography and situation by defending a policy of national independence, neutrality, and noninvolvement in European affairs.

Jefferson’s defense policy was to maintain a peacetime military establishment composed of a small standing army (about 3,000 men) to defend the frontier against hostile Indians and possible Spanish incursions from the Floridas, and a small naval squadron to protect American commerce from the depredations of third-rate powers, such as the Barbary states of North Africa. Jefferson possessed a classical republican aversion to large military and naval establishments both for their expense (which required either taxes or debt to maintain) and their potential threat to the liberties of the people.

Far from being idealistic or Utopian, Jefferson’s vision and policies were based on a realistic understanding of America’s geopolitical situation in the Atlantic world. He believed that it would be pure folly and extravagance to build a large oceangoing fleet, composed of hundreds of frigates and ships-of-the-line. He rightly surmised that building such a fleet would alarm the British and encourage a preemptive strike by their navy in the event of hostilities. Thus, building a fleet could actually increase the possibility of war with England.

Jefferson did not believe that his country could be seriously threatened by the armies of either England, France, or Spain, the three great world powers. Although both England and Spain possessed territory contiguous to the borders of the young republic, both would have to transport large forces across the Atlantic and would be forced to fight on hostile territory far from their base of supplies. On the other hand, the Americans could mobilize hundreds of thousands of able-bodied militia to fight for their homeland. Not one of the great powers had the resources to send sufficient troops to conquer the American states.

Jefferson rejected the Federalist axiom that in order to have peace one must prepare for war — the theory being that the more powerful a country was in armaments the less likely it was to be attacked. Jefferson doubted both the wisdom of this theory and Federalist sincerity in invoking it. He believed that history demonstrated that the more a country prepared for war, the more likely it was to go to war. First, having a powerful military force offered a temptation to rulers to engage in wars for conquest and glory.14 And second, far from deterring aggression, a powerful navy and army often frightened other nations into building up their own forces and forming hostile alliances, tempting them to instigate hostilities for the purpose of gaining a strategic advantage or weakening their rival.

Jefferson believed that the Federalists, far from wishing to avoid war, actually welcomed war. In 1798 and 1799, the Federalists were eager to convert an undeclared naval confrontation with France into a full-scale war in order to obtain a formal military alliance with Great Britain. In the end, the only thing that kept the country out of a large war was President Adams’s last minute decision to reach an agreement with France. Jefferson was convinced that the Federalist leaders favored a war with France or Spain as a means to strengthen the federal government, increase the national debt, raise taxes, and place themselves in power.15

“Jefferson rejected the Federalist axiom that in order to have peace one must prepare for war — the theory being that the more powerful a country was in armaments the less likely it was to be attacked. Jefferson doubted both the wisdom of this theory and Federalist sincerity in invoking it.”
Early in his first term, Jefferson was faced with the question of whether he should use the naval force inherited from the Federalists to protect American trade in the Mediterranean. The pasha of Tripoli, the leader of one of the four Barbary powers on the northern coast of Africa (the others being Morocco, Algiers, and Tunis), demanded additional tribute from the United States as the price for allowing American shipping to trade in the Mediterranean free of piratical raids by his navy.

The Barbary powers had been long extorting payments from the European states for the “privilege” of trading with them and for the freedom to navigate the sea without attack. Rather than combining to suppress these piratical powers, the Europeans decided to pay them off, either in cash or in the form of ships, arms, or military supplies. The Washington and Adams administrations had followed the established custom and made treaties with Algeria in 1795, Tripoli in 1796, and Tunis in 1797; in ten years, the Federalists had paid these powers more than $2 million in tribute. When Jefferson assumed the presidency and was faced with the demand for more money from the pasha of Tripoli, he refused.

Jefferson’s moral nature was no doubt offended by the prospect of paying for the privilege of not being robbed, but even more he must have seen this system of sordid bribery and intrigue as an impediment to his hopes for establishing free trade between the American republic and all the world, as well as an affront to the code of republican honor.

The pasha responded by taking down the American flag — a tacit declaration of war — and dispatching his warships to attack and capture American merchant vessels in the Mediterranean. In the spring of 1801, Jefferson dispatched three frigates and an armed schooner to the Mediterranean to protect American commerce and to intimidate Tripoli into honoring the 1796 treaty. Upon reaching Gibraltar in the late summer, the naval squadron found two Tripolitan cruisers on blockade duty awaiting American vessels. The American squadron chased off the two cruisers; the schooner Enterprise engaged one of them in battle and captured it; and the squadron proceeded to Tripoli where it blockaded the harbor. Thus, for the second time in only four years, the United States found itself in an undeclared naval war.

Jefferson sent additional forces to the Mediterranean each year until, by the summer of 1805, almost the entire American navy was deployed off the shores of Tripoli. In addition to escorting American merchant vessels and blockading Tripoli (in 1801 and 1803–1805), the American fleet bombarded Tripoli five times in August and September of 1804. By the early summer of 1805, facing a renewed and even more destructive series of bombardments from the American navy, and hearing of the fall of the town of Derbe to a land force composed of Americans, Greeks, and Tripolitan exiles commanded by William Eaton (the former American consul at Tunis), the pasha sued for peace and signed a treaty ending the war. The June 1805 treaty abolished annual payments from the United States to Tripoli and provided for the payment of a $60,000 ransom for more than 200 American captives, mostly sailors from the U.S. frigate Philadelphia that had been captured after running aground off Tripoli in 1803.

Was this war for free trade and national honor consistent with Jefferson’s stated policy of strict construction, peace, and economy in the public expenditure? Two things are clear. The pasha of Tripoli was the aggressor in this conflict, and Jefferson was committing armed forces to protect American lives and property from aggression. Yet because he failed to obtain a declaration of war from Congress, Jefferson was soon waging an undeclared war in violation of the Constitution. He thus set a dangerous precedent for future, more militaristic presidents.

The Tripolitan war naturally resulted in greater naval expenditures and higher annual federal spending than Gallatin had planned. Not only did Jefferson shelve his plans to lay up all the American frigates in dry dock but he even constructed five new brigs. Jefferson continued to pay tribute to the other Barbary States through the end of his second term. (Madison would continue making payments until 1816.)

“Yet because he failed to obtain a declaration of war from Congress, Jefferson was soon waging an undeclared war in violation of the Constitution. He thus set a dangerous precedent for future, more militaristic presidents.”
When he assumed office, Jefferson’s major foreign policy objective was to purchase the city of New Orleans from France and the two provinces of Florida from Spain. The commercial importance of New Orleans was immense, for it was the major port through which Americans who lived west of the Appalachians sold their agricultural products abroad. Because it could at any time close the port to American commerce, the power that controlled New Orleans possessed tremendous leverage against the United States.

West Florida was important for similar reasons. It contained the port of Mobile, and it controlled the outlet for the rivers that drained the fertile Mississippi territory. The Floridas were strategically important, for they provided Spain, one of the three great world powers, with a foothold contiguous to the southern border of the United States. By acquiring them, Jefferson not only hoped to provide more territory for American settlement but to secure the southeastern border against Spain without having to build forts and deploy regiments of regulars in Georgia and Mississippi. It would also lessen the potential of conflict between Spain and the U.S.

Such an acquisition, provided it could be accomplished without war, would be fully consistent with his policy of economy, peace, strategic isolation, and a small military establishment. In 1806, after Napoleon’s conquests reduced Spain to the status of a French vassal state, Jefferson had his secretary of state James Madison instruct the American ambassador to France to offer Napoleon $5 million for the Floridas and Texas.

The Louisiana Purchase

Arguably the greatest accomplishment of Jefferson’s presidency was the acquisition of Louisiana, bought from France for $15 million. The province was enormous at 828,000 square miles, and it contained some of the richest farmland in the world. Louisiana was comprised of New Orleans, a bustling city; St. Louis, a small city; a few isolated French settlements along the Mississippi; and some scattered Indian tribes. Other than that it was virtually uninhabited.

The story of its acquisition is a familiar one to most students of American history. After hearing of the Spanish retrocession of Louisiana to France, Jefferson instructed the American minister to France, Robert R. Livingston, to negotiate for West Florida and New Orleans. If that failed, he was to try to acquire some land on the lower Mississippi for an American port; and if that failed, he was to seek a French guarantee for free navigation of the Mississippi and the right of deposit at New Orleans.

In January 1803, Jefferson named James Monroe as minister plenipotentiary to France and sent him to Paris prepared to offer $10 million for New Orleans and West Florida. Just as Monroe was arriving in Paris, Talleyrand shocked Livingston by offering to sell not only New Orleans but the whole of Louisiana to the United States. Recognizing the advantages of such a purchase, Livingston negotiated a treaty. Both Livingston and Monroe signed the treaty and sent it to Jefferson.

When news of the Louisiana treaty reached Jefferson and Madison, they were exultant. Not only did the cession obtain New Orleans, but it secured the free navigation of the Mississippi River, removed a potentially hostile power from the west bank of the Mississippi, and provided a seemingly inexhaustible reserve of land for American settlement. It was fully in accord with Jefferson’s policy of making the country secure without resorting to war or funding an expensive military and naval establishment. They also believed that it would help preserve the agrarian character of the American confederation for generations to come.

How much credit does Jefferson deserve for acquiring Louisiana? Many Federalists charged that he deserved none at all, that he just happened to be president when Napoleon made his unexpected offer. While that is true, it is also true that Napoleon would never have offered the province to a pro-British Federalist administration. Napoleon regarded the Republicans as anti-British and in basic sympathy with his country. Napoleon hoped to cement ties of friendship with the Americans, to increase their debt of gratitude, and to entice them into joining France in a military alliance against the British Empire. Jefferson’s policy of neutrality and his well-known French sympathies created an environment in which Napoleon could feel safe in parting with Louisiana and could even hope to gain from it.

The Federalists opposed the purchase on two grounds. First, they warned that such a vast enlargement of territory would endanger the cohesion and the existence of the union. Jefferson responded by arguing that the confederal nature of the American republic made expansion safe:

Who can limit the extent to which the federative principle may operate effectively? The larger our association, the less will it be shaken by local passions; and in any view, is it not better that the opposite bank of the Mississippi should be settled by our own brethren and children, than by strangers of another family? With which shall we be most likely to live in harmony and friendly intercourse?16

The “federative principle” was the principle of divided, or decentralized, power between the national and the state governments, under which the former was “charged with the external and mutual relations only of these states” while “the states themselves have principal care of our persons, our property, and our reputation.”17 Jefferson was asking why, given such a decentralized and flexible system, the union could not be doubled or even tripled in size? And in addition, the acquisition actually made it easier for the federal government to fulfill its constitutional responsibility of providing for the common defense.

“Jefferson’s policy of neutrality and his well-known French sympathies created an environment in which Napoleon could feel safe in parting with Louisiana and could even hope to gain from it.”
The Federalists also objected that the treaty was unconstitutional. After all, the Constitution conferred no power on the federal government to acquire foreign territory and incorporate it into the Union. On this point, Jefferson reluctantly concurred. He believed that the Louisiana treaty required not only Senate ratification but additional constitutional authorization through an amendment.

In fact, soon after receiving news of the treaty on June 30, he drew up an amendment that stated that “the province of Louisiana is incorporated with the United States and made part thereof,” and he distributed it to his cabinet.18 His cabinet did not seem to think that an amendment was necessary. His attorney general Levi Lincoln was indecisive; so was Madison; and Gallatin was emphatic that it was not needed at all. Earlier in the year, the latter had written Jefferson explaining that “the United States as a nation have an inherent right to acquire territory,” and “Congress have the power either of admitting into the Union as a new State, or annexing to a State with the consent of that State.”19

Jefferson, however, remained convinced that an amendment was both necessary and prudent:

There is a difficulty in this acquisition which presents a handle to the malcontents among us, though they have not yet discovered it. Our confederation is certainly confined to the limits established by the revolution. The general government has no powers but such as the constitution has given it; and it has not given it a power of holding foreign territory and still less of incorporating it into the Union. An amendment of the constitution seems necessary for this. In the meantime we must ratify and pay our money, as we have treated, for a thing beyond the constitution, and rely on the nation to sanction an act done for its great good, without its previous authority.20

This passage from an August letter to John Dickinson represented Jefferson’s settled opinion on the matter, which he had arrived at after conferring with his chief constitutional advisers — Madison, Gallatin, and Lincoln. He expressed the same idea in a letter to his friend John Breckinridge of Kentucky but added that an amendment adopted after the treaty had been ratified and paid for would constitute a popular endorsement of the acquisition and actually “confirm and not weaken the Constitution, by more strongly marking out its lines.”21

Upon receiving a warning from Livingston in Paris that Napoleon might change his mind, Jefferson urged his cabinet and political associates to keep quiet for a time about the constitutional question so as not to give Napoleon a pretext for withdrawing his offer. Jefferson wanted the treaty ratified as soon as possible. However, he still thought it wise and necessary to adopt an amendment sanctioning the treaty. The draft amendment he distributed to members of his cabinet stated that

Louisiana as ceded by France to United States is made a part of the United States. Its white inhabitants shall be citizens, and stand, as to their rights and obligations, on the same footing with other citizens of the United States.22

His draft also authorized the incorporation of Florida into the United States “whenever it may be rightfully obtained.”

Jefferson found himself almost alone in insisting that the Constitution did not sanction the acquisition of new territory, whether through conquest, purchase, or treaty. Not only was his cabinet not behind him, neither were his chief congressional supporters. The stalwart John Randolph, the Republican majority leader in the House, saw no constitutional difficulty in the purchase. Neither did Senator Breckinridge of Kentucky, nor Representatives Joseph Nicholson of Maryland or Caesar Rodney of Delaware.23

Jefferson’s friend and political supporter Senator Wilson Cary Nicholas even wrote the president, urging him to drop his constitutional scruples. He warned that if Jefferson’s opinion were made public, it could produce mischief by creating a precedent for future infractions and giving the Federalists an issue with which to assail the administration. But creating a precedent was exactly Jefferson’s fear, and he did not think it a proper solution to pretend that they were not subjecting the Constitution to a very liberal reading when that was exactly what they would be doing. Nicholas argued that the Constitution already authorized incorporating new territory outside the territorial limits of the U.S. in 1783. Jefferson’s reply is one of the most cogent and eloquent expressions of the doctrine of strict construction ever penned:

I do not believe it was meant that they might receive England, Ireland, Holland, etc. into it, which would be the case on your construction. When an instrument admits two constructions, the one safe, the other dangerous, the one precise, the other indefinite, I prefer that which is safe and precise. I had rather ask an enlargement of power from the nation, where it is found necessary, than to assume it by a construction which would make our powers boundless. Our peculiar security is in the possession of a written Constitution. Let us not make it a blank paper by construction. I say the same as to the opinion of those who consider the grant of the treaty making power as boundless. If it is, then we have no Constitution. If it has bounds, they can be no others than the definitions of the powers which that instrument gives. It specifies and delineates the operations permitted to the federal government, and gives all the powers necessary to carry these into execution. … Nothing is more likely than that their enumeration of powers is defective. This is the ordinary case of all human works. Let us go on then perfecting it, by adding, by way of amendment to the Constitution, those powers which time and trial show are still wanting. … I confess, then, I think it important, in the present case, to set an example against broad construction, by appealing for new power to the people.24

However, Jefferson conceded that he would not insist on his view but would acquiesce in the prevailing opinion of the Republican Party for he trusted “that the good sense of our country will correct the evil of construction when it shall produce ill effects.”25  Jefferson’s concession would prove to be a fatal one, for the evils of broad construction would begin to work their mischief under Jefferson’s successor, James Madison, and “the good sense of the country” on this question would fall silent.

Henry Adams argued that “the Louisiana treaty gave a fatal wound to ‘strict construction’ and the Jeffersonian theories never again received general support.”26  This is simply not true. The “Jeffersonian theories” continued for 60 years to be the heart and soul of American political culture, and strict construction was by no means dead. Yet even if the wound were not fatal, it was serious; for the idea was planted that legislation for the good of the country should not be obstructed by an overly scrupulous adherence to the terms of the compact. Although he fails to note that the Federalists were the first to commit a serious breach of the Constitution when they chartered the first National Bank, the historian Henry Cabot Lodge understood the damage that the Jeffersonians had done.

Thus the first example was given of both the will and desire to violate the Constitution, if the popular feeling would sustain the executive and legislature in so doing; and in this fact lies the pernicious and crying evil of the Louisiana Purchase. It was the first lesson that taught Americans that numerical majority was superior to the Constitution and was a safe protection against it when violated, and that when policy approved the necessity of change, it was easier to break than to legally and regularly amend the provisions of our charter.27

It is also true that the easy ratification of the treaty without even a discussion of an amendment made the Republicans seem inconsistent and hypocritical and provided ammunition for those consolidationists who saw the Constitution as an impediment to their dreams of national greatness. John Quincy Adams declared that the purchase of Louisiana represented

an assumption of implied power greater in itself and more comprehensive in its consequences, than all the assumptions of implied power in the twelve years of the Washington and Adams administrations put together. … After this, to nibble at a bank, a road, a canal, the mere mint and cumin of the law was but glorious inconsistency.28

Jefferson acquiesced when he should have stood firm. While party leaders were not supportive, he still could have appealed directly to the people by penning a special message imploring them to ratify a new amendment specifying which territories could be incorporated in the Union and spelling out the exact procedure for admitting them as new states. Jefferson failed to understand that the Constitution was written to protect the people from themselves and that to rely on those very people to correct defects in the Constitution, only when those defects had been already exploited for ulterior purposes, was foolish indeed.

  • 1Jefferson to Spencer Roane, September 6, 1819, Thomas Jefferson: Writings (New York: Library of America, 1984), p. 1425.
  • 2Albert Jay Nock, Mr. Jefferson (Tampa, Fla.: Hallberg Publishing [1926] 1983), p. 116.
  • 3Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, January 26, 1799, Thomas Jefferson: Writings, p. 1056; see also, Jefferson to Gideon Granger, August 13, 1800, ibid., pp. 1078–79.
  • 4Jefferson, “First Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1801, ibid., p. 494.
  • 5Jefferson, “First Annual Message,” December 8, 1801, ibid., pp. 504–05.
  • 6Jefferson to Madison, September 6, 1789, ibid., pp. 959–64.
  • 7Davis R. Dewey, Financial History of the United States (New York: Longmans, Green, 1903), pp. 111, 120, 124.
  • 8Thomas P. Slaughter, The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).
  • 9Dewey, Financial History, pp. 120, 122; Paul Studenski and Herman E. Krooss, Financial History of the United States: Fiscal, Monetary, Banking, and Tariff (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1952), p. 67; Alexander Balinky, Albert Gallatin: Fiscal Theories and Policies (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1958), pp. 116–19, 122–25.
  • 10Jefferson, “Second Inaugural Address,” March 5, 1805, Thomas Jefferson: Writings, p. 519.
  • 11Dewey, Financial History, p. 121; Studenski and Krooss, Financial History, p. 68; Balinky, Gallatin, pp. 116, 120–21.
  • 12Dewey, Financial History, pp. 124–26; Studenski and Krooss, Financial History, pp. 69–71; Balinky, Gallatin, pp. 90, 107.
  • 13Jefferson, “First Inaugural Address,” Thomas Jefferson: Writings, p. 494.
  • 14Ibid., p. 503: “[S]ound principles will not justify our taxing the industry of our fellow citizens to accumulate treasure for wars to happen we know not when, and which might not perhaps but from the temptations offered by that treasure.”
  • 15Jefferson to Thomas Lomax, March 12, 1799, ibid., p. 1063; Jefferson to the Special Envoy to France (Monroe), January 13, 1803, ibid., p. 1111; Jefferson to Barnabas Bidwell, July 5, 1806, ibid., p. 1164; Jefferson to Dr. Thomas Leib, June 23, 1808, ibid., p. 1188.
  • 16Jefferson, “Second Inaugural Address,” Thomas Jefferson: Writings, p. 5
  • 17Jefferson, “First Annual Message,” December 8, 1801, ibid., p. 504.
  • 18Henry Adams, History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, 2 vols. (New York: Library of America, 1986), vol. 1, p. 358.
  • 19On Levi Lincoln’s opinion, see Dumas Malone, Jefferson the President: First Term, 1801–1805 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970), pp. 312 and 321; Gallatin to Jefferson, January 13, 1803, quoted in Everett S. Brown, Constitutional History of the Louisiana Purchase (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1920), pp. 20–22.
  • 20Jefferson to John Dickinson, quoted in ibid., pp. 23–24.
  • 21Jefferson to John C. Breckinridge, August 12, 1803, Thomas Jefferson: Writings, p. 1139.
  • 22Adams, History of the United States, vol. 2, pp. 360–61.
  • 23Brown, Constitutional History, pp. 62–65
  • 24Jefferson to Wilson Cary Nicholas, September 7, 1803, Thomas Jefferson: Writings, pp. 1140–41.
  • 25Ibid., p. 1141
  • 26Adams, History of the United States, vol. 2, p. 363
  • 27Quoted in Brown, Constitutional History, p. 32.
  • 28From John Quincy Adams, Memoirs, vol. 5, pp. 364–65, 401, quoted in ibid., p. 30.
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