President Thomas Jefferson was presented with a chance to purchase a vast tract of land in the
Western reaches of North America from France in 1803. His Minister to France, Robert
Livingston, correctly read the geopolitical situation facing Napoleon Bonaparte and realized that
Napoleon might well accept a deal to sell the lands West of the Mississippi River while he focused
on other battles planned elsewhere. The US need, not only for access to both the Mississippi and
the port at New Orleans, but also the future need for farmland as revealed in the 1790 Census,
convinced Livingston to negotiate this land deal even though he knew that Jefferson had always
opposed any use of Federal authority not specifically granted to it by the Constitution. Nowhere in
that revered document did it give the Federal government any right to purchase land. So, by
default, such action would violate every political principle Jefferson advocated during his career.
Jefferson, however, was a staunch supporter of a nation based upon the yeoman farmer living a
rural life tied to the land, and in his region of the US that also meant embracing slavery. Jefferson
owned over one-hundred slaves, and later events revealed that he fathered at least two children
with a slave named Sally Hemmings. Jefferson was willing to compromise his publicly stated
beliefs when it suited him, and the chance to virtually double the size of the United States, with the
majority of that land being prime farming country was too good an opportunity to miss. He later
stated that, “the good sense of our country will correct the evil of loose construction (meaning a
loose interpretation of the Constitution) when it shall produce ill effects.” Remember, however,
that only White, Male, property-owners could vote and only then for the House of Representatives
and no other branch. Basically, Jefferson was willing to violate his own philosophical beliefs, and
embrace the same policies as his political rivals when it suited him—which it did in this case.
Some in Northern states not only objected to this purchase on financial and ethical grounds, but
also because they believed the primary reason for this land deal was to expand the institution of
slavery. Clearly there were contradictions with what Jefferson did and what he had stood for over
the previous decades of his political life. If you had been a member of the opposition party in
Congress, would you have supported this purchase, and accepted Jefferson’s rationale that the
“good sense” of the people would correct for any “ill effects” that such action by him might
produce? Where is the dividing line for any politician or citizen when facing challenges or
opportunities that might seem worthwhile but are not deemed legal under the Constitution or at
least violate your own often stated position on these issues?

 

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