Examining the Constitutionality of the Louisiana Purchase
The acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase caused a political debate of the constitution in the early United States government. There was a difference of opinions between politicians including Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Many believed that the provisions outlined in the United States Constitution should be strictly followed, but others believe that the Constitution was open to interpretation. These differences of opinion over the interpretation came into play when Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase with France. Jefferson was a staunch Federalist who believed in applying the words of the Constitution verbatim. However, Jefferson would later justify a broader interpretation of the Constitution based on the argument that the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase would solidify the safety, security, and unity of the young United States. Spain had a contract with the young United States that they would share use of this major port for both imports and exports. Theriault states, “Americans much preferred Louisiana in the weaker and more benign Spanish hands.” (Theriault 297). However, Spain sold this territory to France. As a result, the United States lost access to a major trade route and citizens lost their businesses and goods. Jefferson recognized that the port of New Orleans was vital for the United States’ economic success and power. France was going to use the land to form a sugar empire. Having access to the Mississippi River would give France an advantage over the United States and other countries. Harriss explains, “When Jefferson heard rumors of Napoléon’s secret deal, he immediately saw the threat to America’s Western settlements and its vital outlet to the Gulf of Mexico” (Harriss). The Louisiana territory would also provide France with a geographical advantage over the United States should any tensions occur in the future. Theriault states, “Federalists could explain their strident view in protecting the West as an outgrowth of their strong defense policies” (Theriault 304). Additionally, the Louisiana Purchase would also ease current tensions between France and the United States, preventing a possible war. Jefferson also supported his decision in buying the Louisiana Purchase on the basis that it would provide additional land for the United States. This land could be used for western expansion as the population of the young country continued to increase.
Thomas Paine was one of the main politicians who voiced concern over the religious differences between the populations of the current United States and those that would inhabit the new territory. It was a problem of national unity. He was concerned over how the United States would add those who already resided in the territory. These inhabitants had gone through a transfer of power and control from Spain, France, and now the United States. The religions worshiped by these inhabitants were based on the prior countries that held control. Paine was very concerned by this because the territory had a large population of Catholics, whereas the majority of the United States was Protestant. These inhabitants had also been in control based on rulers based on divine right. Paine was concerned with how the newest citizens of the United Stated would accept the Constitution, based on a separation between church and state. Despite these concerns, Paine did acknowledge that assimilation would be successful, but it would take time.
The Louisiana Purchase marked the beginning of a debate over interpretation of the Constitution that still goes on today. Jefferson himself argued that “a president could step outside the Constitution but only with the knowledge and consent of the people for whose benefit the Constitution was framed and adopted” (Bernstein). While not directly stated, Jefferson’s actions could be supported by a broad interpretation of the tenth amendment. The tenth amendment states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people” (National Archives). This amendment justifies the acceptance of Louisiana as a state within the United States. It also addresses the rights of the people residing within Louisiana as citizens. The tenth amendment provides a solution over the concerns of Thomas Paine. Jefferson’s actions prevented possible conflict between the United States and France, using executive powers to ensure the safety, security, and unity of the United States.
Bernstein, R.B. “Thomas Jefferson and Executive Power.” Journal of the Early
Republic, 30.1 (2010): 139-142. Web. 27 Jan. 2013. Harriss, Joseph. “Westward Ho!” Smithsonian 34.1 (2003): 100. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 27 Jan. 2013. National Archives. “Bill of Rights Transcript.” The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Web. 27 Jan 2013. Theriault, Sean M. “Party Politics During The Louisiana Purchase.” Social Science History 30.2 (2006): 293-324. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 Jan. 2013.