When Jefferson became president, peace was pending in Europe and he could look forward to disentangling the nation from the vices and alliances of foreign politics. "Peace is my passion," he repeatedly affirmed. Yet he was no pacifist. One of his first executive acts was to send a naval squadron to the Mediterranean to enforce peace without tribute on the piratical Barbary states. The Tripolitan War, as it was called, met with partial success: a treaty with Tripoli in 1805.
Far more important, of course, was the burgeoning crisis on the Mississippi, which would end in the triumph of the Louisiana Purchase. By the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso in October 1800, as Jefferson learned six months later, Spain ceded the great province of Louisiana (Jefferson suspected the Floridas as well) to France, conditional on an Italian throne for the duke of Parma, Charles IV's brother-in-law. The retrocession of Louisiana, which France had lost in 1763, announced the revival under Napoleonic auspices of old French dreams of empire in the New World. Over the years the United States had worked out an accommodation with Spain on the Mississippi. The Pinckney Treaty (or Treaty of San Lorenzo) of 1795 granted the Americans free navigation of the river through Spanish territory to the mouth, together with the privilege of deposit and reshipment of goods at New Orleans. This was an enormous, indeed essential, boon to western development. American trade at New Orleans dwarfed that of the Spanish.
Spain was a weak and declining power, and given the pace of American expansion across the continent, Jefferson confidently expected that the river, the Floridas, and Louisiana would all fall to the Americans in due time. But Louisiana in the hands of France was another matter. In Napoleon's grand design, Louisiana and the Floridas would provide the necessary economic and strategic support for an overseas empire centered on St. Domingue (Hispaniola), the richest of the French colonies, then in the control of rebel blacks led by Toussaint L'Ouverture. The reconquest of the island was therefore the first step toward realizing the design. This would not be short work, as Jefferson recognized.
Considering all the difficulties and imponderables of Napoleon's plan, the president made as little noise as possible, kept his patience, and put Louisiana in the track of diplomacy. His strategy was one of delay and maneuver improvised to meet events as they unfolded. His first and minimal concern was to ensure that if France did actually come into power at New Orleans, Americans in the West would be accorded the same commercial rights and privileges as under the Spanish. In Washington the secretary of state constantly drummed into the French envoy the grave danger to his country of making enemies of the American people on the Mississippi issue; and the envoy, Louis Pichon, transmitted these perturbations to Paris. In Paris the American minister, Robert R. Livingston, composed a memoir setting forth in detail the great American interest in Louisiana and the Floridas. He was unheeded and unheard, however. "There never was a government in which less could be done by negotiation than here," he wrote home. "There is no people, no Legislature, no councillors—One man is everything."
In April 1802, Jefferson decided it was time to strike out on a bold new course. Through the good offices of a mutual friend, Pierre-Samuel du Pont de Nemours, who was returning to France, Jefferson gave stern warning to Napoleon:
There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans, through which the produce of three-eighths of our territory must pass to market, and from its fertility it will ere long yield more than half of our whole produce, and contain more than half our inhabitants.. . . The day that France takes possession of New Orleans fixes the sentence which is to restrain her forever within her low water mark. It seals the union of two nations who in conjunction can maintain exclusive possession of the ocean. From that moment we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation.
The fact that Jefferson, whose foreign politics had always been friendly to France and hostile to Britain, could contemplate a diplomatic turnabout of this kind—even an alliance with Britain—disclosed the gravity of the situation.
While Jefferson flourished this thunderbolt, Madison quietly worked up the project to purchase New Orleans and the Floridas, assuming the latter were France's to sell. This was a startling idea, which could only have originated with an administration bent on settling international disputes without resort to military force. Jefferson was still playing for time, which in this affair, as in all things, he believed was on the American side. Napoleon had yet to make good his policy. Yellow fever and rebel arms annihilated one French army after another in St. Domingue. The expedition mounted for New Orleans never sailed. Spain remained in control there and, it was reported, sickened at the bargain it had made with France. War clouds again gathered in Europe.
In October 1802 the clock was turned ahead dramatically for the United States. The intendant at New Orleans abruptly closed the port to the Americans. Had he acted on Napoleon's dictate or was Charles IV trying to create havoc for the French? The Spanish minister in Washington, the Marqués de Casa Yrujo, assured Jefferson that the intendant had acted on his own authority, in response to abuses of entrepôt privileges; and before much damage could be done Yrujo and Madison negotiated an end to the crisis.
Meanwhile, westerners threatened to take their fate into their own hands, and Federalist congressmen, always eager to embarrass the administration, clamored for war against France and Spain. Something tangible was needed to calm the West and deflate the Federalists. Jefferson moved to appoint his friend James Monroe, who was popular in the West, minister extraordinary to join Livingston in treating for the purchase of New Orleans and the Floridas for up to $10 million. Monroe was instructed to take the country's problem to London if he failed in Paris.
But the problem would be resolved just as Monroe arrived in Paris in April 1803. Neither he nor Livingston had much to do with the result. The Louisiana Purchase was made in France, not in America, and it owed more to the vagaries of Napoleon's ambition than to Jefferson's cautious diplomacy. With his dream of New World empire fading, Napoleon revived his older dream of empire in the East—Egypt, the Levant, India—and he renounced Louisiana. He could not defend, or even possess, Louisiana while marching to the East; he needed assurances of American neutrality in that venture; and he needed money to fuel his war machine.
The purchase treaty was quickly arranged. It was neither the bargain Jefferson had sought nor within the price he had authorized. It included the whole of Louisiana, which had never been contemplated, together with New Orleans, but omitted the Floridas, which remained Spanish. "They ask for only one town of Louisiana," Napoleon remarked, "but I already consider the colony completely lost." The United States thus acquired an immense uncharted domain, stretching from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains or beyond. No one knew its exact boundaries or size, but at one stroke the Louisiana Purchase practically doubled the land area of the United States. The total price, which included the government's assumption of about $3 million worth of debts owed to France by American citizens, was $15 million.
Jefferson never boasted that he bought Louisiana, but he resented the grumblers and doubters who, from one side of the mouth, denounced him for acquiring a "howling wilderness" and, from the other side, denied him any credit for the good it might contain. The whole proceeding was, in truth, an impressive demonstration of the ways of peace in American affairs. In the end Jefferson was saved by the return of European war. But the probability of renewed warfare, like the probability of French defeat in St. Domingue, had entered into Jefferson's calculations from the beginning. He weighed the imponderables in the European power balance, shrewdly threatened to throw the country into the British scale, worked up an attractive proposition for Napoleon, and was therefore prepared to take advantage of the démarche when it came. It came sooner than he had expected, and it brought the United States much more than he sought. The trans-Mississippi West had not been an object. The United States was not threatened there; it lay almost a thousand miles from the frontier in Ohio. This is not to say that Jefferson had no eyes for Louisiana. In his inaugural address he spoke of the United States as "a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation." Surely he did not mean the country bounded by the Mississippi but rather the country of his continental vision, which would materialize as Americans multiplied and pressed westward. Louisiana, coming all at once in 1803, altered the timetable of American expansion but not its destination.
For several months Jefferson had been planning a voyage of discovery across the continent. Now, by happy coincidence, Captain Meriwether Lewis, whom he had chosen to lead this expedition, set forth from Washington on 5 July 1803 amid public rejoicing over the Louisiana Purchase. The plan of the expedition was thoroughly characteristic of the president. Presenting it to Congress and hoping to head off constitutional objections, he emphasized its commercial purpose: to chart a continuous line of navigation along the Missouri River route to the Pacific. But Jefferson had larger scientific ends in view. Much of the country was terra incognita, so he instructed Lewis to observe everything:
. . . the soil and face of the country . . . the animals . . . the remains . . . the mineral productions of every kind . . . volcanic appearances . . . climate . . . the dates at which particular plants put forth or lose their flower, or leaf, times of appearances of particular birds, reptiles or insects.
The expedition proved to be a spectacular success. Lewis, Lieutenant William Clark, and their crew went up the Missouri, crossed the Stony Mountains, and in 1805 descended the Columbia River to its mouth. After wintering there, the expedition returned overland to St. Louis in 1806. Many years would be required to absorb the knowledge gathered by the expedition. Of course, it failed in its commercial aim. The gap between the Missouri and the Columbia turned out to be 350 miles of formidable terrain. Jefferson and the many Americans who shared his continental vision of an "empire of liberty" were not discouraged. In its appeal to the imagination, the Lewis and Clark expedition foreshad-owed the American future.
Senate ratification of the Louisiana treaty was a foregone conclusion. Yet it did not escape opposition. "Adopt this Western World into the Union," warned a Federalist senator, "and you destroy at once the weight and importance of the Eastern States and compel them to establish a separate and independent empire." Feelings of this kind contributed to an abortive New England disunionist conspiracy in 1804.
Jefferson himself worried about the constitutionality of the treaty. As he explained to a Republican senator, John Breckinridge of Kentucky,
The Constitution has made no provision for our holding foreign territory, still less of incorporating foreign nations into our Union. The executive in seizing a fugitive occurrence which so much advances the good of this country, have done an act beyond the Constitution. The Legislature in casting behind them metaphysical subtleties, and risking themselves like faithful servants, must . . . throw themselves on their country for doing for them unauthorized what we know they would have done for themselves had they been in a situation to do it.
Jefferson therefore drafted a constitutional amendment to sanction the acquisition retroactively. The amendment also sought to control the future of the trans-Mississippi West by, among other things, prohibiting settlement above the thirty-third parallel, which would become a vast Indian reserve.
The proposed amendment found little support either in the cabinet or in Congress. Spain, still in possession of Louisiana, expressed unhappiness with the treaty, raising fears it might be lost by delay. Weighing the risks, Jefferson backed away from the amendment. He was still troubled, however. "Our peculiar security is in the possession of a written Constitution," he observed. "Let us not make it a blank paper by construction." As his friends felt differently in this instance, he yielded the point while reserving the principle. A revolution in the Union perforce became a revolution in the Constitution as well.
Jefferson spent much time and effort gathering information on the new territory and its people—the Indian tribes scattered throughout but especially the Creoles of the more thickly inhabited portion below the thirty-third parallel, the northern boundary of the later state of Louisiana. To the territory as a whole, the treaty gave no precise limits. Not surprisingly, Jefferson tried to make the most of the situation. After a detailed inquiry into the boundaries, he concluded that there were respectable grounds for claiming Texas to the Rio Grande, West Florida to the Perdido, and the westernmost limits of the Stony Mountains. From this position he would offer Spain $2 million and half of Texas for East Florida. Spain disdained the overture, of course, insisting that the lower boundaries were the Iberville (now Bayou Manchac) and the Sabine. Jefferson's relentless scheming for the Floridas vitiated his diplomacy abroad and exposed him to attack at home for the next five years.
The treaty provided for the incorporation of Louisiana, with its "foreign" and slave populace, into the Union; but Jefferson concluded from his study of the Creoles—their laws, institutions, and manners—that they were unprepared for republican citizenship. A period of apprenticeship was necessary during which Americans would be encouraged to settle in Louisiana, and society there would be gradually reformed.
The Creole sugar planters reacted angrily to this plan, demanding immediate self-government and admission to the Union, together with retention of most of their customary laws and institutions. They threw back at Jefferson his own eloquent words in the nation's birthright on human rights and liberties and self-government. In this potentially dangerous conflict, the president again showed flexibility and moderation. In 1805 he yielded to the demand for a representative assembly in the territory. With the loyal assistance of his handpicked governor, William C. C. Claiborne, Jefferson found the path of political conciliation in Louisiana, and the Territory of Orleans—the first of many from the purchase lands—would be admitted to the Union as the state of Louisiana in 1812. This was a vindication of his own principles, even in the face of doubt, including the idea of an expanding union of equal self-governing states.
An event of the magnitude of the Louisiana Purchase affected everything to come after. The prospects of the Union were at once grander and more terrifying than before, and the government would have to assume new responsibilities addressed to this condition. The nation's destiny was firmly oriented westward; hundreds of millions of acres of land—the heartland of the continent—guaranteed that the economy would remain primarily agricultural for decades to come and that dispersal rather than concentration would characterize American society and government. All this undergirded Jeffersonian ideals. The United States acquired much greater security on its own borders as well as greater power and self-assurance in international affairs. Finally, the Louisiana Purchase enabled the Republicans to tighten their political grip on the nation, causing them to grow bold in power and making bigots and bunglers of the opposition.
Jefferson's reelection to a second term was never in doubt. The Republican caucus in Congress renominated him in February 1804. Burr was replaced as the vice presidential candidate by George Clinton, his rival in New York politics. Burr's undoing began with the suspicions that he had solicited Federalist votes in the House election of 1801. The Twelfth Amendment, then in the course of ratification, would prevent a repetition of that election, with more Federalist maneuvering to defeat Jefferson, by requiring separate votes for president and vice president. The factional struggle between Burrites and Clintonians culminated in the New York gubernatorial election of 1804, featuring Burr as a candidate. Jefferson pleaded neutrality in this contest, although he secretly favored the Clintonians and stood by silently as they drove Burr out of the Republican party.
The Federalist caucus nominated Charles Cotes-worth Pinckney of South Carolina and Rufus King of New York. They were little noticed, as the Republicans again ran against the record of John Adams. The contrast between four years of Adams and four years of Jefferson was striking: new taxes versus no taxes; profusion versus economy; mounting debt versus debt retirement; oppressive army and wasteful navy versus defensive arms only; multiplication of offices versus elimination of judges, tax collectors, and useless functionaries; alien and sedition laws versus freedom and equality; judicial arrogance versus judicial chastisement; monarchical forms and ceremonies versus republican simplicity; war and subservience to foreign power versus peace, independence, and national expansion.
The election resulted in 162 electoral votes for Jefferson and Clinton against 14 for Pinckney and King. Only Delaware and Connecticut, with two stray Maryland electors, voted Federalist. Even Massachusetts entered the Republican column. This was particularly gratifying to Jefferson, who saw in it proof that the "perfect consolidation" he had prophesied four years before was indeed coming to fruition.
A self-congratulatory tone pervaded Jefferson's second inaugural address. Contrasting it with the first, he said, "The former was promise ; this is performance ." Because of the rapid liberation of the revenue from debt it was not too soon to plan for national internal improvements—"rivers, canals, roads, arts, manufacturing, education, and other great objects"—and he subsequently proposed a constitutional amendment to this end. The Louisiana Purchase gave an urgency to this undertaking that overrode the restraints of Republican dogma. Jefferson rebuked the fainthearted who feared that the Union would become too big to survive. "But who can limit the extent to which the federative principle may operate effectively?" he asked.
Jefferson spoke glowingly of his policy of peaceful acquisition of Indian lands and of drawing Indians into the paths of civilization. The policy would result, during eight years, in fifteen treaties with Indian tribes and the cession of 95 million acres of land to the United States—an astounding achievement. Jefferson boasted, too, of the "experiment" he had made in freedom of the press to determine whether, despite the reign of falsehood and defamation, the people were able to detect the truth and act upon it. The experiment had been tried, and the election had given the verdict—"honorable to those who had served them, and consolatory to the friend of man, who believes he may be intrusted with his own affairs."
But if Jefferson's first term was a triumph, his second proved to be an ordeal. His method of working with Congress through unofficial channels of personal and party leadership lost its charm. The Republicans began to quarrel among themselves, especially after Jefferson's decision against seeking a third term became known, and the Federalists grew more desperate as their numbers shrank.
In 1805 president and cabinet worked up a secret diplomatic project to obtain the Floridas through Napoleon's influence with Spain. The policy was one of peace and bargain; its effectiveness required, however, a warlike posture in public. It required, too, the silent appropriation of $2 million by Congress in behalf of the secret project. John Randolph of Roanoke, the Republican leader in the House, balked at this. He objected to "this double set of opinions and principles—the one ostensible, the other real," and believing the money would flow into Napoleon's coffers, he denounced the project as "a base prostration of the national character, to excite one nation by money to bully another nation out of its property."
The Two Million Bill was enacted over Randolph's opposition. But the ensuing diplomacy failed, mainly, the president thought, because Randolph had "assassinated" the project in its infancy. Only a handful of doctrinaire Republicans followed Randolph into opposition. Jefferson continued to control Congress. His loss was less one of followers than of prestige—the aura of invincibility that had surrounded him—and as prestige waned, so did the zeal, the trust, and the unity of the Republicans.