The Louisiana Purchase Questions and Answers

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Was Thomas Jefferson a hypocrite because he purchased the Louisiana Territory?

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Alec Cranford eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The answer to this question is, of course, a matter of perspective. One could certainly argue that Jefferson betrayed his political principles by concluding the Louisiana Purchase. This is because the Constitution does not explicitly give the President the authority to purchase land from foreign powers, and Jefferson's emissaries had done exactly that. Jefferson had always been a strict constructionist, meaning he had argued that the federal government ought to adhere as closely as possible to those powers explicitly granted to it under the Constitution. He had opposed the chartering of the Bank of the United States on exactly these grounds. This placed him in opposition to Federalists like Alexander Hamilton and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, who promoted a more expansive vision of the Constitution that encompassed "implied powers."

Federalists immediately pointed out this inconsistency (though in doing so, one could argue that they were being equally hypocritical). Ultimately, Jeffersonian Republicans in the Senate, as well as a few Federalists, secured approval of the purchase. Personally, if one is to level the charge of hypocrisy at Jefferson, I would say his ownership of slaves throughout his life was far more hypocritical for a man whose rhetoric emphasized liberty. His decision to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase was opportunistic to be sure, but Jefferson was not in a position to turn it down. Originally only planning to gain the city of New Orleans, he was able to double the size of the nation's territory at relatively little expense ($15 million for almost 830,000 square miles). Like almost every President in American history, Jefferson was forced by the realities of the office to make difficult decisions that contradicted his principles.

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Thomas Jefferson certainly acted in a way that was contrary to his political beliefs when he agreed to purchase the Louisiana Territory from France.  However, this does not necessarily mean that he was a hypocrite.  It is not necessarily the case that political leaders should stick fanatically to their principles even when it would be better for the country if they were to bend a little.

Jefferson believed in a strict construction of the Constitution.  He and his political party believed more in states’ rights and less in the power of the national government.  Therefore, they wanted the federal government to only be allowed to do things that the Constitution explicitly said it could do.  In this case, there was nothing in the Constitution that said that the federal government could buy territory from any other country.  In order to be true to his ideas about the Constitution, Jefferson should have pushed (as he thought about doing) for an amendment to the Constitution.  However, he was persuaded that any delay might result in the US losing the chance to buy Louisiana.  Therefore, he gave in and went against his ideals.

But is this hypocrisy?  It seems more like wisdom to me. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”  In other words, it is only people with “little minds” that feel that they have to always stick to a set of ideas.  A wiser person knows that there are times when exceptions to rules must be made.  I would argue that it was good for Jefferson to betray his values when the result was so beneficial to the country.

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