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lousiana purchaseLast week, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) held a student leadership conference in Richmond, Virginia on “Traditions of Liberty.” ISI is an organization helping college students discover and explore the American political tradition of ordered liberty. This conference brought together several dozen bright, promising students from around the country and a number of important teachers and scholars to discuss the origins, development, and challenges to constitutional government in the United States.

One surprising theme emerged from several questions and comments after a variety of talks and, near the end of the conference, an excellent presentation on the American frontier and its role in public life. The topic: the Louisiana Purchase. The purchase of land by the United States in 1803 may sound of little relevance to ordered liberty today, particularly given the many intervening actions and events. But this addition of 828,000 square miles of land, stretching from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, from the Gulf of Mexico to modern-day Canada, doubled the size of the United Sates in one fell swoop. Americans today, should they think about it, no doubt would see the Louisiana Purchase as part of their nation’s natural progression to becoming a continental power. Yet many Americans at the time, and some historians to this day, have questioned the propriety of the purchase, in large part because the Constitution does not provide for presidential acquisition of property, but also because this property eventually would constitute 15 new states and transform the politics and the very character of the young nation.

The constitutional argument against Jefferson’s purchase has been largely abandoned. The Constitution grants the President no specific right to purchase land for the nation. But Jefferson argued at the time that it was within his power to negotiate treaties, that the nation-to-nation sale was in effect a treaty, and that the deal was duly submitted to the Senate for consideration, where it was ratified. And, of course, the purchase was, indeed, ratified by the Senate in the form of a treaty. Yet the case is much closer than historians’ seeming dismissal of the contrary argument would indicate. A purchase is in some ways a treaty; certainly it may be accomplished by a treaty. But if the end sought, in this case expansion of federal land holdings and, presumably, the nation itself, is not itself constitutional, accomplishing it by treaty cannot change that fact, indeed itself is not constitutionally possible.

Jefferson at the least acted precipitously and aggressively, given his claims to be a “strict constructionist” denying the federal government’s right to exercise any power or achieve any end not expressly laid out in the Constitution itself. In effect, one could argue that with the Louisiana Purchase Jefferson placed himself above the Constitution by choosing to expand his own power in what he himself deemed a doubtful case on account of the benefits of the particular deal. The deal was, indeed, a very good one, securing much land at a very low price and serving important strategic and material ends. Claims about the importance and quality of the “bargain” cut both ways, however, in some ways exacerbating the problem of Presidential overreaching by reducing constitutional procedures to the level of conveniences to be dispensed with when inconvenient.

There are other deeper and more worrying aspects of the Louisiana Purchase, generally ignored today. These aspects go to Americans’ conception of their country and the requirements for liberty, particularly in light of the seemingly inevitable drive for national power and expansion. Purchase of the Louisiana territory was a significant, even transformative event. It provided vast new lands for settlement as American territory and eventual states, encouraging those in the “old” states to move west. It also increased the possibility of new slave territories becoming part of a nation in which that institution was widely seen as on its way to extinction, altering the balance of interests and opinion in a way not settled until the Civil War. And the purchase increased exponentially the demand for government-funded improvements to facilitate commerce and government efficiency to bind together a new, much larger land mass into one workable nation. In a time of horse and buggy or barge travel this was no small new demand.

Americans of all political persuasions would be well served by considering the Louisiana Purchase in light of their perceptions of, and hopes for, their families and neighborhoods. Clearly, the purchase increased exponentially the military and economic power and potential of the specific nation state we call our own. And it is natural for people to view their own nation as the best in the world, worthy of being recognized as such and worthy of being the biggest and most powerful as well as the best. But is this always, inevitably true? Is it obvious that the United States as continental power was the Manifest Destiny of our Puritan forefathers and the immigrants who followed them, seeking better lives for themselves and their families? Was the struggle within the new nation to solidify national communications and commerce at the cost of local liberties necessary and obviously to the good? Were the increasing tensions regarding slavery and its protection by the central government themselves inevitable, even without territorial expansion? Was the Civil War a necessary consequence of an inevitable drive to continental domination?

One cannot know, of course, how these struggles (and others, including those with various Indian tribes) would have played out in the absence of national expansion. But it seems at least worthy of consideration whether the drive for “an empire of liberty” as America often has been called, might better have been a determination to maintain a series of smaller republics of liberty.

Certainly the past cannot be changed. But as we face a national government of ever-increasing power and hostility toward the institutions, beliefs, and practices undergirding ordered liberty and local affection, we should consider whether national empire is, in fact, inevitable and worthwhile. As important, as our national government flounders in its attempts to maintain American control over events in an increasingly unpredictable global environment, we should consider whether the price of national power has not been much higher than the benefits to our actual way of life as Americans-in-our-communities. That is, we should consider whether the cosmopolitan and international aspects of American power and unity are so clearly superior to the possibilities of being Western, Midwestern, Southern, Northeastern, and potentially other more local, regional Americans. Such consideration in turn might lead us to reconsider the price we pay to our own Imperial City on the Potomac and whether we should continue to see the price as in some sense worth paying.

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2 replies to this post
  1. The question rises, obvious as Venus from the sea, are we Bound by the Constitution, or only Guided by it. This debate has been ongoing since Jefferson and Hamilton clashed (at least), and for our society, as yet, has not been resolved. It may be the tension involved in the debate is good for the nation, I don’t know. (I should hate to find a monolithic opinion had one day triumphed.)

    The great irony, as noted, is that it was the man suspicious of governing power — Jefferson — who authorized the deal. One can but wonder if he gave a shamefaced nod to the shade of Hamilton afterwards.

    Someone, (Robert Heinlein perhaps?) once remarked, “Don’t let your principles stand in the way of doing what is right.” Which sums what’s right about America. Yes, we have principles. But sometimes we have to improvise.

  2. I think it would be worthwile to consider how it was possible to expand the United States territorially while still maintaining liberty. The immediate answer is the genius of the Federal constitution and its engineering as explained by Publius. The more fundamental answer is the culture of self-government. We still have the former, but have lost the latter. Figuring out how and why is key to preserving America from falling apart. I understand the temptation to revisit Brutus and wonder whether he was not right all along, but I find it unfair to blame the founders for a failure of American federalism centuries after the Constitution was ratified. America is not in trouble because the Constitution is ill thought out, it’s in trouble because Americans ignored the deep distress of the founders at the prospect of a culture that didn’t take citizenship seriously. Our economists, particularly the Public choice school, are somewhat to blame here. I do not believe that the tragedy of the commons comes about always and everywhere a public sphere arises. Rather, it begins when a great mass of erstwhile citizens effectively resign from self government. I do not know, given present culture, if this can be remedied.

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