After the malicious campaigning of the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson focused on reconciling the colonies and restoring the principles of the Revolution of 1776. “We have called by different names brethren of the same principle,” he declared in his first inaugural address. “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” The tall and lanky politician was, in many ways, the opposite of his short and rotund predecessor.
Unlike Federalist leaders who supported big business, big cities, and big government, Jefferson believed in an agrarian society with strong local governments. Farming, he believed, was a noble profession because it kept men away from the temptation of the cities and required an honest day’s work. He also favored a more informal style of government than the pomp and ceremony so conspicuous in the Washington and Adams administrations.
While Jefferson formulated his strategy to downsize the federal government and stimulate the country’s economy, Napoleon Bonaparte set in motion his plan to revive French imperialism in the New World. Spain’s agreement to give Louisiana back to France jeopardized Pinckney’s Treaty, which provided Americans free navigation of the Mississippi River. Jefferson feared that the power-hungry Napoleon had designs on controlling the American frontier and would forbid Americans access to New Orleans, the most important shipping port in the south. The prospect of losing rights to the Mississippi River and New Orleans endangered plans for western expansion and threatened the American economy.
In 1802, Jefferson ordered Robert Livingston, minister to France, and later James Monroe to visit Paris to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans and Florida. Jefferson did not know if Spain had also relinquished control of Florida to France, but he realized that the two territories were crucial to America’s success. The president, a pacifist who reduced the size of the American military, aggressively warned that if France took possession of New Orleans, the United States citizens would be forced to rely on the British military to help them win access to the waterway.
However, by 1803, the French army had suffered a humiliating defeat during a slave revolt in Saint Domingue—present day Haiti—and Napoleon’s plans to conquer Europe demanded more men, money, and weaponry than anticipated. These events forced the French ruler to alter plans to expand the French empire into America. Napoleon was no longer concerned with developing sugar plantations in the New World—he needed troops for European battles and money to support his conquest. Napoleon withdrew his soldiers from America and the surrounding islands and ordered Talleyrand to offer all of Louisiana to the Americans.
Livingston and Monroe were authorized to buy New Orleans and Florida for no more than $10 million, but they never dreamed they would have the opportunity to purchase more than 800,000 square miles. Since Napoleon demanded an immediate response, there was no time to send for Jefferson’s approval. The men negotiated with the French representatives and, in the spring of 1803, the United States government agreed to buy all of the Louisiana Territory for $15 million. The purchase more than doubled the size of the United States, but neither party knew the exact size of the territory or what it contained. “I can give you no direction,” said Talleyrand. “You have made a noble bargain for yourselves and, I suppose you will make the most of it.”
The deal garnered support from many Americans who were excited over the prospect of further westward expansion. Critics of the agreement, however, refused to remain silent. Many Federalists attacked Jefferson for undermining the Constitution, which did not mention the purchase of territory. Even Jefferson questioned whether the government had the power under the Constitution to add territory and grant American citizenship to the approximately 50,000 people living in the Louisiana Territory. Jefferson and Congress finally agreed to overlook the constitutional difficulties for the good sense of the country. The president had compromised his belief of a strict interpretation of the Constitution.
Although several prominent Federalists—including John Adams and John Marshall—favored the purchase, others in the party viewed the new land as a threat to their future. Some Federalists feared that an expanded United States would dilute their New England-based political power. They reasoned that the Louisiana inhabitants, including Indians, blacks, and commoners, would be more attracted to the Republican Party values that promoted class equality and extolled the virtues of agrarian life.
The Louisiana Purchase offered the United States much needed room to grow and access to an abundance of natural resources, waterways, and fertile farmland. Countless opportunities awaited the Americans, but they would first have to locate them. The Louisiana Territory was so large that France could not accurately define its contents or borders. Jefferson took advantage of the ambiguous agreement and asserted that it included the Missouri River, western Florida, New Orleans, and all of present-day Texas.
To evaluate the purchase, Jefferson planned an expedition. As a scientist, he wanted to know about the plants, animals, geographical layout, and inhabitants of the region. More importantly, however, the president was hoping to find a water route to connect the Mississippi River with the Pacific Ocean, and he expanded the expedition to investigate regions beyond Louisiana.
In 1803, Jefferson secured $2,500 from Congress to fund the journey. He then appointed his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to lead the expedition. To serve as joint commander, Lewis selected William Clark, a veteran army officer with considerable experience as a surveyor, mapmaker, frontiersman, and Indian negotiator. The duo assembled a team of 48 qualified men, called the “Corps of Discovery,” to accompany them on the trip. The members were chosen for their expertise, strength, and character. During the spring of 1804, the group departed from St. Louis and traveled northwest along the Missouri River toward the Pacific Ocean.
Along the way, Lewis and Clark recruited additional help. Among those added were a French trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau and his 16-year-old Shoshone wife Sacajawea who served as guides and interpreters for the journey. Clark believed that having an Indian woman as a member of their party would show that their intentions were peaceful. Just weeks before the group departed from the upper Missouri, Sacajawea gave birth to her first son. The new Indian mother carried her baby boy on a cradleboard as the group continued its trek.
Four months later, the Corps of Discovery encountered a Shoshone band. When Sacajawea advanced to negotiate the purchase of horses for their leg over the Rocky Mountains, she discovered that it was her brother who led the Shoshone tribe. Sacajawea had been kidnapped at the age of ten and lost touch with her people. Although the reunion with her family was emotional, she remained loyal to the expedition.
Lewis and Clark valued Sacajawea as a guide. Clark wrote in his journal how she remembered Shoshone trails from her childhood and led them along an important trail that passed through a gap in the mountains to the Yellowstone River. The expedition leaders respected Sacajawea for the courage and strength she displayed and formed a strong bond with her son.
In the fall of 1805, the Corps of Discovery crossed the Continental Divide and descended the Snake and Columbia Rivers to the Pacific Ocean. The group marveled at the scenery they believed marked their western destination.
"Great joy in camp we are in View of the Ocian, this great Pacific Octean which we been So long anxious to See. And the roreing or noise made by the waves brakeing on the rockey Shores (as I Suppose) may be heard distictly."--William Clark, November 7, 1805
However, Clark’s journal entry was premature: The group was actually at the Columbia estuary. It would be another two weeks before they would reach Cape Disappointment and look out over the Pacific Ocean. The group constructed Fort Clatsop and suffered through a cold, wet winter. In March, they started their trek home and separated into two parties to explore more land. The two groups rejoined each other at the juncture of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers and arrived back in St. Louis in September of 1806.
The Corps of Discovery finally completed the mission that Thomas Jefferson assigned to them nearly three years earlier. The group recorded more than 100 animals and nearly 200 plants new to American science. They traveled thousands of miles over various terrains and created approximately 150 maps. The expedition established friendly relations with Indians and identified strategic locations for trading posts. However, the group did not find the item Jefferson most wanted—a water passage connecting the Mississippi River with the Pacific Ocean.
Between 1806 and 1807, Jefferson continued to gather information about the territory west of the Mississippi River. He sent Lieutenant Zebulon Pike to find the source of the Mississippi and to explore the Colorado region. Although he did not keep detailed notes like Lewis and Clark, Pike’s excursion offered Americans valuable information regarding the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Jefferson had feelings of both triumph and trepidation over the purchase of Louisiana. On the one hand, he had doubled the size of the United States and presented to Americans access to some of the richest land in North America. On the other hand, the government he directed was not designed to regulate the huge territory. Fears of foreign occupation and secession dominated his thoughts.
One man who challenged the president’s authority was Aaron Burr, Jefferson’s first-term vice president. When he was dropped from Jefferson’s administration, Burr collaborated with a group of radical Federalists to organize the secession of New England and New York. Alexander Hamilton, who detested Burr and previously opposed his attempt to become governor of New York, uncovered the plan and blocked the conspiracy. An irate Burr then challenged Hamilton to a duel. Although dueling was banned in several states and Hamilton despised the practice, he reluctantly accepted the challenge to defend his honor. The two men walked the agreed number of paces but Hamilton refused to fire. With one shot, Burr killed Hamilton and eliminated one of the leaders of the Federalist Party.
Burr then set his sights on the new American territory. The desire to create his own empire again pushed him to plot breaking up the nation. This time he planned to separate the western portion of the United States from the eastern section. He formed a partnership with General James Wilkinson, the corrupt governor of the Louisiana Territory who also served as a spy for Spain. Burr and about sixty followers rafted down the Mississippi River toward New Orleans. They were to meet up with Wilkinson’s army along the way. Wilkinson, however, changed his mind and sent Jefferson a letter warning him of Burr’s scheme.In 1807, Burr was arrested and taken to Richmond, Virginia where he was to stand trial for treason. Jefferson desperately wanted Burr convicted and played a key role in the prosecution. He published affidavits and offered pardons to conspirators who would help convict Burr. Chief Justice John Marshall presided over the hearing and displayed a bias in favor of Burr. Marshall followed a strict reading of the Constitution and insisted that two witnesses were required to verify the overt acts of treason. Since the prosecution could not produce the witnesses, the jury acquitted Burr. Marshall’s narrow interpretation of the Constitution placed a high burden of proof on the prosecution and established an important legal precedent that defended the rights of the accused.
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