It’s Tuesday, October 20, 2015. On this day 212 years ago, the U.S. Senate ratified the Louisiana Purchase. One of the greatest land transactions in world history, this pact paved the way for the western expansion — and future greatness — of the United States.
It also eased Thomas Jefferson’s geopolitical fears, namely that a French empire on America’s doorstep would force the United States into a problematic embrace with Great Britain. To forestall that unhappy necessity, President Jefferson instructed Robert Livingston, the U.S. minister to France, to ascertain whether “New Orleans” was for sale. Turned out that it was, and not just New Orleans but most of the vast territory encompassing present-day Louisiana all the way to the Rocky Mountains.
A price was agreed upon: $15 million. That would be more today, of course, although exactly how much more is difficult to calculate: Inflation calculators say it would be between $250 million and $300 million. However one figures it, the deal more than doubled the size of the country for the bargain price of 3 cents an acre. Almost everyone in the U.S. knew it was a steal. In the Senate, there was only one real question: Were Jefferson’s actions constitutional?
I’ll have a word on that question in a moment. First, let me direct you to RCP’s front page, which contains the latest poll averages, political news and video, aggregated opinion pieces ranging across the ideological spectrum — and much debate coverage. We also have a complement of original material from RCP’s reporters and contributors:
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Biden: One Long Speech, a Few Clues. The vice president was coy but chatty Monday as rumors roiled that he will launch his presidential bid this week, Alexis Simendinger reports.
Joe Biden and the Chicago Bears’ Backup QB. In an op-ed, Charles Lipson warns Democrats that the guy on the bench always looks like the answer — until he gets in the game.
The Bush-Trump 9/11 Feud. Caitlin Huey-Burns describes the candidates’ war of words over George W. Bush’s handling of the World Trade Center attacks.
Jeb’s Health Plan Empowers the States. In RealClearPolicy, John Daniel Davidsonexamines Bush’s blueprint for replacing Obamacare.
Panel Strains to Keep Benghazi, Not Itself, in Spotlight. James Arkin has thispreview of Hillary Clinton’s testimony Thursday before the controversial House committee.
Falling Gas Prices Mean Higher Medicare Costs. In RealClearHealth, Joseph Antosspells out the connection.
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In 1803, the phrase “Tea Party” wasn’t some cool retro label designed to evince images of super- patriotism and constitutional fealty to first principles. There were men in the Senate then who knew Samuel Adams, the leader of the actual Boston Tea Party, personally. Adams had served after the revolution, as governor of Massachusetts, and had died less than three weeks before the final vote on the Louisiana Purchase.
Massachusetts Sen. Timothy Pickering, a Federalist who fought in the Continental Army, certainly knew Sam Adams. Pickering knew Thomas Jefferson, too, and referred to him in vitriolic letters as “the supreme hypocrite.”
He wasn’t talking only of slavery, either. Jefferson was not a Federalist, and he maintained a strict interpretation of a president’s constitutional powers — right up until he negotiated on his own the purchase of some 500 million acres from France. Pickering asked: Where in the Constitution is a president afforded this authority?
James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” and other Framers offered the president some cover. They reasoned that since a president was granted the authority of governance over “territories,” it stood to reason that a president could acquire new ones.
This was thin gruel, but it was thickened by a political compromise that began with a rationale provided by Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin. He simply noted that extending the nation’s territory wasn’t expressly forbidden by the Constitution. In the end, Jefferson circumvented a constitutional crisis for submitting the purchase to Congress. The House had to approve the money, and the Senate had to approve the funds and the treaty itself.
In the end only six other senators voted with Pickering. The rest of their colleagues knew that whatever your politics or constitutional qualms, this was just too good a deal to pass up.
By Carl M. Cannon