Despite Objections, Louisiana Purchase Treaty Ratified
On Oct. 20, 1803, the U.S. Senate ratified the Louisiana Purchase Treaty by a vote of 24 to 7. With this one treaty the United States nearly doubled in size, acquiring 828,800 square miles from France for only $15 million—an astonishing bargain at less than 3 cents per acre. All or part of 15 current states were acquired, the port of New Orleans was secured, and France’s ambitions in North America were ended (Napoleon, preoccupied with European concerns, was quite amenable to this). With all these advantages, why was the Senate vote not unanimous? Why did 7 out of 31 senators vote no?
With hindsight, approving the Louisiana Purchase seems an obvious choice. The matter was far less clear in 1803, however. President Jefferson himself, who initiated the negotiations with France, was not convinced the acquisition was legal. A strict constructionist, he knew full well the U.S. Constitution did not specify any powers for acquiring territory. Mercantile and banking interests in New England opposed political power shifting westward as an expanding population settled the new territory. Abolitionists feared new slave states would be created. Looming over all these concerns was the very real threat of war with Spain.
The Louisiana territory had been a Spanish colony since 1762. Though it had secretly ceded the land to France in 1800 it remained under Spanish control, and Spain operated the port of New Orleans. When France sold the territory to the United States in 1803 the boundaries were not defined, and a land dispute between Spain and the U.S. immediately arose.
A possible war with Spain did not discourage all Americans, however. As a contemporary editorial exclaimed: “At such a crisis even age would throw by its crutches and infancy almost leap from the cradle to vindicate our sovereignty over Louisiana.” Here is that editorial, printed by the Republican Advocate (Fredericktown, Maryland) on November 11, 1803:
This interesting business appears to be drawing to a final issue; with no less advantage to the country than glory to the men who were instrumental in effecting it. Rumors have gone abroad, seemingly founded in fact, that Spain has officially warned the government of the United States against taking possession of the purchased territory. They may be styled Rumors, because there has been no public avowal that such is the fact from any department of the American government. If they be true, there will appear a caprice and an illiberality in Spanish policy, equally remote from justice and from generosity; and a line of conduct which will form a remarkable contrast to the exalted contrast given by our rulers to the world, of republican temperance in relation to a violated right.
If Spain labors under the fear that, at some future day (when increasing population shall have spread over the spacious surface of Louisiana) ambition will prompt the United States to invade the Spanish dominions in South America, there is very little reflection necessary to convince her that the principle of conquest is unknown to our constitution. Indeed Spain has already received a memorable evidence of the peaceable temper and unassuming disposition of the United States government. A Spanish officer having, in the first instance, violated the treaty guaranteeing the right to a place of deposit at New Orleans or some other convenient place on the Mississippi, the Spanish government was treated in the most friendly manner by the American administration, although, in the opinions of many persons, war would have been justifiable; and when too, had the United States entertained the most lurking thought of injuring the Spaniards in South America, they had an excellent pretext for resorting to arms. They might, in fact, at that moment have formed a connection with Great Britain which, by sea and land, could have swept the Spanish possessions from the Floridas to the southern extremities of the American continent. But, rejecting such unjust and baneful policy, the United States brought the misunderstanding to the tribunal of Reason, in preference to making an appeal to the Sword.
…The Spanish King having thus commanded the surrender of Louisiana to France, and the United States having purchased from the latter, the Spanish government can have no reasonable pretence for opposing the civil and military officers of the Union, when legally authorized, in taking possession of the territory thus fairly acquired.
If, nevertheless, such opposition is manifested on the part of Spain, she will make an ungenerous return for the magnanimous forbearance of the American government on the outset of the business, and will display an unsound policy, and, in some degree a very mischievous and wicked disposition.
The People of the United States, having viewed the just conduct of the administrators of the government in every stage of this business, and having borne testimony to the pacific disposition of our prudent executive, ought to stand prepared to enforce the most energetic measures that the event may require, or that the government may decide upon.
It is now, that the administration is to take an elevated position; it is now, that the President of the United States, representing the majesty of the People, is to speak in the language of a Warrior supported by the hearts and the arms of a nation of freemen; who, having carried their cause into the Temple of Justice, will not permit their Rights to be ravished from them at her shrine. At such a crisis even age would throw by its crutches and infancy almost leap from the cradle to vindicate our sovereignty over Louisiana. We hope, however, and do believe, that force will be unnecessary to finish the grandeur of this achievement; and that our legislators will have more employment this winter as lawgivers than as a military council.