Because the U.S. Constitution did not explicitly grant the president the power to purchase territory, when the 'Now or Never' moment came to purchase the Louisiana territory, he had 'stretched presidential prerogative up to, if not past, the constitutional breaking-point'.

Why didn't Jefferson (being a srict constitutionalist) petition Congress to pass an amendment granting him, or Congress itself the right to purchase the territory instead of having to resort to 'stretching' the constitution?

1 Answer 1


Henry Adams' History of the United States of America During the First Administration of Thomas Jefferson explains the developments e.g. in the following excerpt (pp. 80). In short, it seems that Jefferson was "just" being pragmatic in a matter that he deemed important for the nation and for his party.

... the President, according to his letters, had little hope of quick success in the purchase of territory [because it would need express sanction from the States in the shape of an amendment to the Constitution.] His plan was to "palliate and endure", unless France should force a war upon him; the constitutional question could wait, and it was accordingly laid aside ...

Already Jefferson had ordered his ministers at Paris to buy [the Floridas and New Orleans], although he thought the Constitution gave him no power to do so ... Jefferson foresaw and accepted the consequences if the necessity; he repeatedly referred to them and deprecated them in his letters; but the territory was a vital object, and success there would, as he pointed out, secure forever the triumph of his party even in New England.

[He wrote in a letter] "I believe we may consider the mass of the States south and west of Connecticut and Massachusetts as now a consolidated body of Republicanism ... If we can settle happily the difficulties of the Mississippi, I think we may promise ourselves smooth seas during out time."

[The "Chronicle" of June 30, 1803] contained a single headline ... "Louisiana ceded to the United States!" ... The President's first thought was of the Constitution. Without delay he drew up an amendment, which he sent at once to his Cabinet.

Stephen Ambrose (in Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West) recommends Henry Adams as the primary source:

Napoleon's decision to sell not just New Orleans but all of Louisiana , and the negotiations that followed, and that Jefferson waived his strict constructionist views in order to make the purchase, is a dramatic and well-known story. It is best described by Henry Adams in [ibid.]

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.