Have you heard the one about Thomas Jefferson
and the Louisiana Territory?
Thomas Jefferson, author of The Declaration of Independence,
was not a fan of the new constitution presented in 1787.
He was very worried
that The Constitution gave too much power
to the new, national government,
and not enough power to the states,
an issue known as “big government”.
Jefferson only reluctantly agreed to support it
when his friend, James Madison,
promised to propose a bill of rights after it was ratified.
But Jefferson’s fears about big government did not go away.
For example, Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton,
proposed a national bank in 1790,
and Jefferson knew there was no provision in The Constitution
to permit such a thing.
Hamilton claimed some sort of implied powers mumbo-jumbo.
Sure, it wasn’t written in The Constitution,
but The Constitution implied that it could be done.
But, Jefferson wasn’t buying it.
Nonetheless, the bank was established
by Hamilton and President Washington.
When Jefferson was sworn in as President in 1801,
he pledged to reduce the size and scope
of the national government.
But, of course, things didn’t go exactly as he had planned.
Spain secretly transferred the Louisiana Territory to France
right beneath Jefferson’s nose.
When Congress found out,
they quickly began discussions with France
to buy a piece of the territory
along the Mississippi River for about $2 million.
But, there was one little problem:
Jefferson knew there was no provision
in The Constitution to buy foreign territory.
So what was a strict constructionist to do?
First, he tried to get an amendment to The Constitution passed
that would expressly permit the purchase,
but Congress wasn’t willing to do it.
Then, without permission, the U.S. negotiators in France
cut a deal for all of the territory
for a cool $15 million dollars.
That new land doubled the size of the nation!
Now Jefferson was really stuck.
He knew that the territory would be a great acquisition for the country,
providing lots of new land for farmers and other settlers,
but how could he constitutionally justify it?
In the end, Jefferson turned to the argument
used by his old foe Alexander Hamilton.
He claimed that the power to purchase the territory
is implied in The Constitution’s treaty-making power.
This was the exact argument
that he had mocked openly a decade before,
so it must have crushed his pride to have to use it.
But more importantly,
he may have committed the biggest big government play ever!
How ironic is it
that one of the biggest opponents of big government
doubled the size of the young country
and did so while openly questioning its constitutionality?
At $15 million,
which is about three cents an acre,
it has been called by many
the greatest real estate deal
in the history of the United States.