When we discuss the evolution of presidential power in early American history, it is sometimes alleged that the Louisiana Purchase was a particularly unconstitutional act and an example of presidential malfeasance.

According to this line of reasoning, President Thomas Jefferson expanded the bounds of the presidency and betrayed his republican inclinations by favoring desired outcomes over executive restraint. Those that express this viewpoint often bolster their claim by pointing to Jefferson’s own outlook, which held that the Louisiana Purchase was impermissible short of a constitutional amendment. But was the Louisiana Purchase truly unconstitutional?

It all began in early 1803 when Jefferson sent James Monroe and Robert Livingston – two extremely prominent figures in their own right – to France to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans. Possession of the city was desired because it would allow for easy navigation of the Mississippi River, then seen as a crucial element for western expansion. Perceiving this mission to be of the utmost importance, Jefferson wrote to Monroe: “All eyes, all hopes, are now fixed on you…for on the event of this mission depends the future destinies of this republic.”[1]

The Jefferson administration was understandably shocked when First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte offered the entire Louisiana territory to the United States rather than just New Orleans. Viewing the region as indefensible and relatively meaningless, and with France’s renewed War with Britain, Napoleon believed the territory was an asset that could be disposed of. Through his infamous foreign minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, Napoleon’s counteroffer would give up Louisiana – a huge swath of land – for $15 million.

After quickly agreeing to terms with France’s foreign minister, the diplomats sent word of this incredible bargain to the White House. On the surface, receiving the Louisiana territory for such a ridiculously low price seemed to be one of the greatest gifts the fledgling United States could be offered. However, there was one problem – Jefferson didn’t think it was constitutional.

JEFFERSON’S VIEW

In fact, Jefferson adamantly maintained that the general government lacked the power under the Constitution to acquire foreign territories, despite his own wishes to buy the Louisiana territory. However, he also admitted that there was a clear remedy available to legitimize the purchase – the addition of a constitutional amendment. Jefferson, therefore, sent the following proposed amendment to Congress, believing it to be the only solution:

“Louisiana, as ceded by France to the U S. is made a part of the U S. Its white inhabitants shall be citizens, and stand, as to their rights & obligations, on the same footing with other citizens of the U S. in analogous situations. Save only that as to the portion thereof lying North of an East & West line drawn through the mouth of Arkansa river, no new State shall be established, nor any grants of land made, other than to Indians in exchange for equivalent portions of land occupied by them, until authorised by further subsequent amendment to the Constitution shall be made for these purposes.”

According to Jefferson, the United States lacked the “power of holding foreign territory,” and thus a constitutional amendment “seems necessary” to acquire the region.[2] Those in Jefferson’s cabinet, several of whom wrote letters that justified the treaty on constitutional grounds, vehemently disagreed with the president.

As Jefferson remained reluctant to accept the treaty short of the addition of the proposed constitutional amendment, Secretary of State James Madison made strides to persuade the president to drop his objections and accept the treaty.