Jefferson, the Louisiana Purchase, and the Constitution
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Jefferson, the Louisiana Purchase, and the Constitution

September 25, 2019


One of the things that inevitably comes up
when we’re talking about the Louisiana Purchase is that Jefferson betrayed his strict constructionist
principles when he purchased Louisiana – that he had to stretch out the constitution a little
bit more than he did before he became president. Of course, if you’re taking a standardized
test, note that this controversy exists, but I think this is largely a controversy of Jefferson’s
own making. When France offered to sell us Louisiana,
the first thing that Jefferson did is he went to the Constitution and he’s looking for some
very specific language. As a strict constructionist, he wants to see, ideally, something in the
Constitution that says, “Oh… The United States can add land. That is a power of the
federal government.” That would make Jefferson happy to see that explicitly as a delegated
power, but then again, the Constitution doesn’t get that specific. Now, Jefferson is asking
these questions and he’s wondering, “Is this purchase constitutional?” and he asks his
advisors about this and he really grapples and struggles and really agonizes over the
constitutionality of this. Now, his advisors, of course, just say, “Hey,
look. It’s right there in the Constitution. It says that the federal government has the
power to approve treaties. And this treaty-making power is what enables the United States to
make any treaty – including a land transaction. Now, let’s think about what a treaty is. A
treaty is an agreement between two nations and if we look back at a few of the treaties
of the eighteenth century – think about the Treaty of Paris (1783) that ended the American
Revolution. There was a transfer of land in that treaty. Then, we go back to 1763, the
end of the French and Indian War, the Treaty of Paris 1763, which also included a land
transaction. So, we have a couple of precedents, there.
When the Framers were drawing up the Constitution and they wrote that the federal government
has the power to make treaties, the last two treaties that the United States had been part
of – first, as colonies and then as victors in the American Revolution – both of these
treaties included land transactions. So, it’s really unquestionable that the Framers’ intent
included the ability to transact land through treaties because this had happened before. So, really, Jefferson’s kind of making this
a problem for himself. Instead of looking at Jefferson as betraying
his principles, when I look at this situation, I’m thinking, “Hey! I’m glad that he asked.
Really, Jefferson’s being MORE true to his strict constructionist principles because
Jefferson is agonizing over the constitutionality of this measure. Wouldn’t it be nice if presidents today agonized
like this. You think for a second that George W. Bush agonized over the constitutionality
of the Patriot Act? Or that President Obama thought for a second about whether Obamacare
is constitutional? OF COURSE NOT! Neither one of these presidents really gave a hoot
about whether the legislation they were signing was constitutional or not. Nowadays, politicians tend to sit back and
think, “Now, let’s just pass what we can, let’s sign what we can, let’s do what we can
and maybe the Supreme Court will come back and declare it unconstitutional. We’ve really
lost sense this day and age of the president’s responsibility to interpret the Constitution.
This is not just the Supreme Court that is responsible for this, but we tend to be lazy
and just let them decide. It is every American’s responsibility – and especially people in
our government – to consider whether something is constitutional or not. So, I challenge you to re-think the way you
look at Jefferson, the Constitution, and the Louisiana Purchase. This guy wasn’t a traitor.
This guy was a hero – a constitutional hero. And I challenge all of our elected leaders
– presidents, senators, representatives – to think before you vote, before you sign, “Is
this constitutional?” Because it’s everybody’s responsibility. And if our leaders spent more
time asking these questions and less time thinking about what they can get away with,
we as a country would be much better off.

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  1. I agree with your thesis that Jefferson did not compromise his strict constructionist beliefs by adding land to the US. Jefferson agonized over the constitutionality of the Louisiana Purchase, therefore not compromising his beliefs. Your argument is valid and has no fallacies and I agree with it.

  2. Wow, new lesson learned today of the Louisiana Purchase, I never knew that Jefferson struggled so much on this decision. 

  3. I believe Thomas Jefferson remained true to his strict constructionist belief because he wanted to make sure the power of adding land was within the delegated powers. The constitution clearly states the federal government has the power to negotiate treaties with foreign nations. Jefferson fretted over an action that was utilized many times before, the only reason this was different was the lack of a war that preceded these negotiations. Due to this assessment I concur with you thesis that Jefferson remained true to his strict constructionist beliefs by keeping his actions for America within the powers delegated to the federal government.

  4. I think it's a little idealistic to think that Jefferson really AGONIZED over the constitutionality of the Louisiana Purchase. He probably was just thinking about what this "agony" would do for his reputation among his fellow republicans. Whether it was truly sincere or not is irrelevant, though, because I appreciate the gesture either way. I agree that leaders today need to follow his example. Perhaps there would be fewer bipartisan disputes.

  5. I've always admired Thomas Jefferson's strict constructionist values and his dedication to the constitution.  From his stand on the National Bank(and agraianism), to agonizing over the Louisiana Purchase, my opinion hasn't wavered one bit.  I back your side of the argument 110%.  Even though Jefferson's cabinet said the constitution implied the power of the federal government to transact land, because the constitution does not explicitly say that, Jefferson agonized over the decision. Because he was so distraught over a decision that would benefit the U.S. because it wasn't directly in the constitution, my opinion of Jefferson has only increased.  Like you mentioned, the politicians of today would benefit greatly from learning a lesson from the people that founded the country they now run and glance at the constitution every now and then.

  6. I agree with your argument, Mr. Richey! I respect Jefferson's loyalty to this idea of strict construction. It's cool to see that he wrestled with this decision & thought of the constitutionality of it instead of trying to find a loophole right off the bat just so he could get his way (like a Federalist or, as you said, certain presidents nowadays). His virtue & ability to maintain his values proves that he is the epitome of republicanism– I guess that's why they named it after him!

  7. ALL HAIL Thomas Jefferson, the constitutional president! I totally agree with the way Jefferson went about purchasing Louisiana. Even though he was not going to harm the US in anyway, he still asked if the land transaction could be made. He made GREAT use of the traditional government power and more should follow in his footsteps. Like you had said, if Obama would do so as much as to be constitutional, maybe he wouldn't have so many haters. So indeed it is relevant to US politics today and I 100% agree with your argument!

  8. I definitely agree with you, Mr. Richey! I think that it says a lot about what kind of guy Jefferson was knowing that he followed his own rules, and didn't just make them an order to those around him. Jefferson truly cared about the matter of what he was signing, and not just the fact that he had the power to sign it. I think that is a significant act for a man in Jefferson's position of capability to just do as he pleased. Additionally, I absolutely do not think that Jefferson violated his principles of a strict Constitutional construction because it can obviously be seen that the section of the Constitution regarding treaties/ land transactions was written with situations like the Louisiana Purchase in foresight.

  9. I agree that Jefferson was constitutional in making the Louisiana Purchase.  Considering that treaties had been made throughout the 1800s to transfer land I don't think that Jefferson compromised on his belief of strict construction.  This was obviously a practice well before Jefferson's presidency, and if Jefferson hadn't made such a big deal and "agonized" over the constitutionality of it – then it would not have been such a problem.  Also, the constitution could not address each and every issue that America would face for the indefinite future.  Using the fact that treaties can be used to transfer land, and treaties are  power given to the federal government, it should be known that the government can transfer land. 

  10. Ignore the previous comment, I've got my autocorrect on… It should not be a controversial issue whether or not Jefferson sold out on his constructionist principles. The Purchase was completely Constitutional because it was in a Treaty, so why is it an issue? And though it would be positive for modern politicians to become strict constructionists, this would be too much to ask for. The popular political demographic has changed so much that the general public is apathetic to judicial matters and

  11. … most people believe the Constitution to be a breathing document that can be changed on an as-needed basis. (see bellow for rest of comment)

  12. great video! i will say though that Barrack Obama taught constitutional law and the idea that he didn't think about the constitutionallity of the affordable care act is bogus, IMO of course. and in my opinion the supreme courts decision to say no to the medicaid mandate for states will hurt alot of americans in poor states that republicans have control of. i know in my state the decision to not expand the medicaid program will at the end of the day hurt alot of poor people because they wont be able to afford insurance on the exchanges.

  13. You make some good points Tom.  However, I think our country would be much better off also if "the people" were more informed when they voted regardless of what party they voted for.  Then we would not get some of this extremist garbage that is circulated through the political system and for that matter the news cycle.

  14. Before the concept of judicial review the concept of legislation being unconstitutional was left up to the states for the most part. Jefferson was not the only one who thought about this issue and it was debated until the civil war when it seems the Constitution was circumvented often. Even and annexation and statehood of Texas was debated on whether it was constitutional or not. Today we often hear that the Constitution does not apply to today's issues and should be a "living document" that changes over time. Well it really does change but through the proper process of amendment. If we could amend the Constitution with the 18th and 21st amendments (crazy as that entire thing was) then why not use this process instead of twisting and re-inventing the English language to make it say what 5 justices can agree on. For those that oppose the 2nd amendment why not put forth an amendment that changes it and let the people (states) decide? (No answer needed as it is self evident).

  15. Didn't Jefferson send his representatives to France with an offer of $10 Million for (at the time) a piece of foreign land known as the port city of New Orleans? Where was Jefferson's Constitutional crisis then?

  16. Could you not argue that the ACA is constructional by way of the government helping to protect its citizens? If Jefferson can by land by using treaties then could you not argue medicine protects as much a military arms? I’m an idiot so please judge my question kindly 🙂

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