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Robert Kennedy's United States History Class


Learning Objective IV

Discuss Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase and show how there was very little change from that of his Federalist predecessors in his (1) domestic (Embargo Act of 1807) and (2) foreign policies (Tripolitan War of 1801-05 )and (3) interpretation of the Constitution. Discuss the views of his critics as well.   

Buttressed by robust public support, Jefferson sought to implement policies that reflected this rhetoric and political activity. He worked to reduce taxes and cut the government’s budget believing that this would cause the economy to expand and prosper. His cuts included national defense and Jefferson restricted the regular army to three thousand men. England may have needed taxes and debt to support its military empire, but Jefferson was determined to live in peace—and that belief led him to successfully reduce America’s national debt while getting rid of all internal taxes during his first term.


In a move that became the crowning achievement of his presidency, Jefferson authorized the acquisition of Louisiana from France in 1803 in what is considered the largest real estate deal in American history. During the massive reorganization of North American property following the Seven Years’ War, France ceded Louisiana to Spain in exchange for West Florida.


In October 1800, Napoleon (France) secured from Spain in a secret treaty (San Ildefonso) the territory of Louisiana. Rumors of the transfer were partially confirmed in October 1802 when the Spanish who still controlled the territory for the French canceled the right of deposit given the United States under the Pinckney treaty in 1795.


With the right of deposit lost, this meant that most of the American trade of the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys would be tied up at New Orleans. Consequently, the American farmers would be unable to get their produce to market.


A roar of anger rolled up and down the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys as many westerners talked of either descending upon New Orleans with rifles in hand or of following Spanish leadership if Jefferson and the United States government failed to protect their commercial rights

To avoid conflict with the French and Spanish and to keep the support of the westerners Jefferson instructed Robert Livingston, the United States minister in Paris, to purchase the port of New Orleans for $2 million.


In January, 1803, Jefferson asked James Monroe to join Livingston in Paris and offer up to $10 million for New Orleans and the Floridas. By the time Monroe joined Livingston, Napoleon had lost interest in establishing an American empire and offered to sell the entire Louisiana Territory for $15 million.

On April 30, 1803, the deal was closed and the agreement provided that $4 million of the $15 million would be used to settle past claims by American ship owners against France. Neither Livingston or Monroe were certain how much land they had actually purchased.


When they asked Talleyrand, the French foreign minister, whether the deal included Florida, he responded ambiguously, "you have made a noblebargain for yourselves, and I suppose you will make the most of it." Even at that moment, Livingston realized that the transaction would alter the course of American history. "From this day on the United States take their place among the powers of first rank."


Napoleon's desire to create an empire in the Americas faded when the French lost the island of Santo Domingo due to military resistance and yellow fever. Also the threat of a new war against Britain in Europe prevented France from sending reinforcements and Napoleon now feared a possible invasion of Louisiana by American settlers or to lose the area to the British if and when war broke out in Europe.


Napoleon also had to consider a possible war with the United States as Jefferson had stated: "The day that France takes possession of New Orleans, we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation."


The Constitution said nothing about the purchase of territory by the federal government, and as Jefferson felt an amendment would take too long, the territory was purchased by way of treaty. From this point on, Jefferson could no longer appeal to a strict interpretation of the Constitution. The Louisiana Purchase illustrates Jefferson's pragmatism and, at the same time, it's a contradiction of his own previous political philosophy. But Louisiana was so desirable that Jefferson found it less embarrassing to reverse himself on strict construction than to loose this magnificent windfall. If Louisiana made Jefferson a loose constructionist, it made many Federalists strict constructionists. Jefferson made an inquiry to his cabinet regarding the constitutionality of the Louisiana Purchase, but he believed he was obliged to operate outside the strict limitations of the Constitution if the good of the nation was at stake as his ultimate responsibility was to the American people. Jefferson felt he should be able to “throw himself on the justice of his country” when he facilitated the interests of the very people he served. He believed that a strong executive was essential to a lasting republican nation. The Federalists argued that there was no constitutional bases for the transfer of land. (The same argument the Republicans used to oppose the Bank of the United States). What really worried the Federalists was that the signing of the Louisiana treaties was the signing of their own political death warrant. New states would be carved from the new territory that would outvote the 13 charter states including Federalist New England.


In his interpretations of the Constitution and in domestic policy, Jefferson demonstrated a loose interpretation of the Constitution which was needed to create a strong federal government so that the government might have the power to act in the best interest of the people.


In foreign policy Jefferson's purchase of Louisiana proved to be a landmark decision. Overnight he avoided a possible rupture with France (holding to his previous pro-French position) while at the same time he avoided an entangling alliance with England and allowed the nation to continue its noninterventionist policies of the Federalists before him. Again, Jefferson showed his pragmatism by his willing if necessary to support the foreign allies of the Federalists to preserve American neutrality In foreign policy Jefferson thus demonstrated that there was little difference between himself and his Federalist predecessors.

Another example of Jefferson's application of a loose interpretation of the Constitution to meet the countries domestic and foreign needs as can be his actions during his attempt to win respect for the American right on the high seas with his war with Tripoli in 1801 and the Embargo Act of 1807 . 

Tripolitan War of 1801-05 -- Declaration of War


The First Barbary War (1801–1805), also known as the Tripolitan War was the first of two wars fought between the United States and the Northwest African Berber Muslim states known collectively as theBarbary States. These were the Ottoman provinces of Tripoli, Algiers, and Tunis, which were enjoying a large autonomy, as well as the independent Sultanate of Morocco. The war was fought because U.S. President Thomas Jefferson refused to pay the high tributes demanded by the Barbary states and because they were seizing American merchant ships and enslaving the crews for high ransoms. It was the first military conflict authorized by Congress that the United States fought on foreign land and seas.

Immediately prior to Jefferson's inauguration in 1801, Congress passed naval legislation that, among other things, provided for six frigates that 'shall be officered and manned as the President of the United States may direct.' ... In the event of a declaration of war on the United States by the Barbary powers, these ships were to 'protect our commerce & chastise their insolence—by sinking, burning or destroying their ships & Vessels wherever you shall find them.'" On Jefferson's inauguration as president in 1801, Yusuf Karamanli, the Pasha (or Bashaw) of Tripoli, demanded $225,000 from the new administration. (In 1800, Federal revenues totaled a little over $10 million.) Putting his long-held beliefs into practice, Jefferson refused the demand. Consequently, on 10 May 1801, the Pasha declared war on the U.S., not through any formal written documents but in the customary Barbary manner of cutting down the flagstaff in front of the U.S. Consulate.


Before learning that Tripoli had declared war on the United States, Jefferson sent a small squadron, without informing Congress, consisting of three frigates and one schooner, under the command of Commodore Richard Dale with gifts and letters to attempt to maintain peace with the Barbary powers. However, in the event that war had been declared, Dale was instructed "to protect American ships and citizens against potential aggression," but Jefferson "insisted that he was 'unauthorized by the Constitution, without the sanction of Congress, to go beyond the line of defense.'"

He told Congress: "I communicate [to you] all material information on this subject, that in the exercise of this important function confided by the Constitution to the Legislature exclusively their judgment may form itself on a knowledge and consideration of every circumstance of weight."


Although Congress never voted on a formal declaration of war, they did authorize the President to instruct the commanders of armed American vessels to seize all vessels and goods of the Pasha of Tripoli "and also to cause to be done all such other acts of precaution or hostility as the state of war will justify." The American squadron joined a Swedish flotilla under Rudolf Cederström in blockading Tripoli, the Swedes having been at war with the Tripolitans since 1800.


The Embargo of 1807


In a desperate attempt to avert war, the United States imposed an embargo on foreign trade. Jefferson regarded the embargo as an idealistic experiment--a moral alternative to war. He believed that economic coercion would convince Britain and France to respect America’s neutral rights.

The embargo was an unpopular and costly failure. It hurt the American economy far more than the British or French, and resulted in widespread smuggling. Exports fell from $108 million in 1807 to just $22 million in 1808. Farm prices fell sharply. Shippers also suffered. Harbors filled with idle ships and nearly 30,000 sailors found themselves jobless.


Jefferson believed that Americans would cooperate with the embargo out of a sense of patriotism. Instead, smuggling flourished, particularly through Canada. To enforce the embargo, Jefferson took steps that infringed on his most cherished principles: individual liberties and opposition to a strong central government. He mobilized the army and navy to enforce the blockade, and declared the Lake Champlain region of New York, along the Canadian border, in a state of insurrection.


Pressure to abandon the embargo mounted, and early in 1809, just 3 days before Jefferson left office, Congress repealed the embargo. In effect for 15 months, the embargo exacted no political concessions from either France or Britain. But it had produced economic hardship, evasion of the law, and political dissension at home. Upset by the failure of his policies, the 65-year-old Jefferson looked forward to his retirement: "Never did a prisoner, released from his chains, feel such relief as I shall on shaking off the shackles of power.'' The problem of defending American rights on the high seas now fell to Jefferson's hand-picked successor, James Madison. In 1809, Congress replaced the failed embargo with the Non-Intercourse Act, which reopened trade with all nations except Britain and France. Then in 1810, Congress replaced the Non-Intercourse Act with a new measure, Macon's Bill No. 2. This policy reopened trade with France and Britain. It stated, however, that if either Britain or France agreed to respect America's neutral rights, the United States would immediately stop trade with the other nation.


Jefferson’s foreign policy, especially the Embargo of 1807, elicited the most outrage from his Federalist critics. As Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies moved across Europe, Jefferson wrote to a European friend that he was glad that God had “divided the dry lands of your hemisphere from the dry lands of ours, and said ‘here, at least, be there peace.’” Unfortunately, the Atlantic Ocean soon became the site of Jefferson’s greatest foreign policy test, as England, France, and Spain refused to respect American ships’ neutrality. The greatest offenses came from the British, who resumed the policy of impressment, seizing thousands of American sailors and forcing them to fight for the British navy.


Many Americans called for war when the British attacked the USS Chesapeake in 1807. The president, however, decided on a policy of “peaceable coercion” and Congress agreed. Under the Embargo Act of 1807, American ports were closed to all foreign trade in hopes of avoiding war. Jefferson hoped that an embargo would force European nations to respect American neutrality. Historians disagree over the wisdom of peaceable coercion. At first, withholding commerce rather than declaring war appeared to be the ultimate means of nonviolent conflict resolution. In practice, the Embargo hurt America’s economy and Jefferson’s personal finances even suffered. When Americans resorted to smuggling their goods out of the country, Jefferson expanded governmental powers to try to enforce their compliance, leading some to label him a “Tyrant.”

Criticism of Jefferson’s policies began to use the same rhetoric that his supporters trumpeted. Federalists attacked the American Philosophical Society and the study of natural history, believing both to be too saturated with Democratic Republicans. Some Federalists lamented the alleged decline of educational standards for children. Moreover, James Callender published accusations (confirmed much later by DNA evidence) that Jefferson was involved in a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves.14 Callender referred to Jefferson as “our little mulatto president,” suggesting that sex with a slave had somehow compromised Jefferson’s racial integrity.15 Callender’s accusation joined previous Federalist attacks on Jefferson’s racial politics, including a scathing pamphlet written by South Carolinian William Loughton Smith in 1796 that described the principles of Jeffersonian democracy as the beginning of a slippery slope to dangerous racial equality.16

Arguments lamenting the democratization of America were far less effective than those that borrowed from democratic language and demonstrated how Jefferson’s actions were, in fact, undermining the sovereignty of the people. Historian David Hackett Fischer has written that the Federalists set out to “defeat Jefferson with his own weapons.”


As Alexander Hamilton argued in 1802: “[W]e must consider whether it be possible for us to succeed without in some degree employing the weapons which have been employed against us.”


Indeed, when Federalists attacked Jefferson, they often accused him of acting against the interests of the very public he claimed to serve. This tactic represented a pivotal development. As the Federalists scrambled to stay politically relevant, it became apparent that their ideology—rooted in eighteenth century notions of virtue, paternalistic rule by wealthy elite, and the deference of ordinary citizens to an aristocracy of merit—was no longer tenable. The Federalists’ adoption of republican political rhetoric signaled a new political landscape where both parties embraced the direct involvement of the citizenry.


The Democratic- Republican Party rose to power on the promise to expand voting and promote a more direct link between political leaders and the electorate. The American populace continued to demand more direct access to political power. Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe sought to expand voting through policies that made it easier for Americans to purchase land. Under their leadership, seven new states entered the Union. By 1824, only three states still had rules about how much property someone had to own before he could vote. Never again would the Federalists regain dominance over either the Congress or the presidency; the last Federalist to run for president, Rufus King, lost to Monroe in 1816.