Thomas Jefferson faced a moral dilemma over the purchase of Louisiana from France. There were many advantages and disadvantages to the Louisiana Purchase.  Please address both sides, advantages...

Thomas Jefferson faced a moral dilemma over the purchase of Louisiana from France. There were many advantages and disadvantages to the Louisiana Purchase.  Please address both sides, advantages and disadvantages, in light of the moral dilemma Jefferson faced.

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

I think that the moral dilemma that Jefferson faced resided in political reality. Jefferson had always advocated a very strict platform of Republican values.. This position had been seen early on in his disagreements with Alexander Hamilton in President Washington's cabinet.  In the election of 1800, Jefferson was able to articulate a new type of government that was steeped in Republicanism.  Jefferson took office and carried himself as the embodiment of Republican values.  A significant aspect of this viewed limited government as essential.  Republicans believed that the role of government needed to be decreased.  Jefferson sought to minimize federal control through reducing its reach and scope.  He pursued a laissez- faire approach to governance in his time as President and embraced it as the natural leader of the Republican party.

The Louisiana Purchase strained this belief in limited government.  In the act of the purchase, Jefferson was increasing the power of government.  The Louisiana Purchase was an example of large government using its federal power to initiate action.  In purchasing Louisiana, it was out of concert with the other branches of government.  The Legislative Branch did not negotiate with the French government and did not sanction the sale. The treaty and understanding to purchase Louisiana was pursued by the Executive Branch, an example of active government which is far from limited. It was evident to Jefferson that there was a fundamental political dilemma in running on a platform that advocates for a lesser role in government only to increase it in the purchase of the Louisiana Territory.  It is here where the political dilemma might have caused a moral hesitancy in Jefferson.

Along these lines, the Louisiana Purchase violated Jefferson's strict constructionist view on the Constitution.  Jefferson believed in a very strict and rigid interpretation towards the Constitution.  Consistent with Republican principles, Jefferson believed that government must act within the stated boundaries of the Constitution.  It is not a document meant to be loosely interpreted.  In order for the rule of the Constitution to be respected and not vitiated, Jefferson believed that it had to be strictly interpreted.  If the Constitution did not say that the President is able to create a treaty of understanding with another nation or make a purchase of land that would double the size of the United States, both without consulting Congress, than a strict interpretation of the Constitution would mean that it could not be done. There was never a discussion or legislative debate about the President's actions.  This tested the boundaries of Constitutional checks and balances, ensuring that all branches act in concert with one another.  Jefferson's own strict reading of the Constitution, something that he valued as a Republican, would not have necessarily permitted the purchase of the Louisiana Territory: "Jefferson's philosophical consistency was in question because of his strict interpretation of the Constitution. Many people believed he, and other Jeffersonians such as James Madison, were being hypocritical by doing something they surely would have argued against with Alexander Hamilton."   In going against his own stated beliefs about the Constitution in purchasing Louisiana, it is fair to say that Jefferson would have experienced a political dilemma whose internalization would have made it a moral one.

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chrisyhsun's profile pic

chrisyhsun | Student, College Freshman | (Level 1) Salutatorian

Posted on

Jefferson's moral dilemma came from the fact that he had always advocated for a strict interpretation of the Constitution. He was a strong believer in states' rights and thought that rights not explicitly stated in the Constitution should be given to the states. However, in writing the Constitution, there was no way to predict that a deal such as the Louisiana Purchase would ever be possible. Therefore, the power to purchase land from another government, thereby expanding the size of the United States, was never explicitly given to the federal government. As such, although Thomas Jefferson realized what a deal the Louisiana Purchase was, he had lots of moral qualms about completing the transaction.

In terms of advantages and disadvantages linked to this moral dilemma, Jefferson took a big risk when he bought the Louisiana Purchase. Big risk means that there was not only potential for big rewards, but also the possibility of disastrous failure. One of the big factors in whether it turned out to be one or the other was the possibilities offered by the land. When the Louisiana Purchase went through, there was no way for the colonists to really know what lay out there, hence why an expedition had to first be sent out to map and understand the land. If the land turned out to be habitable and could eventually flourish (as we now know it has), this would be a big win for Jefferson. If, on the other hand, something about the land turned out to be inherently "wrong", the United States would be left with a large piece of territory that can't be used, and Jefferson's reputation would be shattered.

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