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Louisiana, treble invalidity of sale, 339.

December 20, 2007, 4:53 pm

Sometimes even your index does interpretive work. The title of this post is a real index entry from Henry Adams’s History of the United States, which does not handle Thomas Jefferson and the Purchase tenderly.

Adams first shows Napoleon in the bath — “the water of which was opaque with mixture of eau de Cologne,” thank heaven for small favors — mocking his brother Lucien, who objects that the cession of Louisiana would be unconstitutional without consulting the Chambers.

Constitution! unconstitutional! republic! national sovereignty! — big words! great phrases!… Ah, it becomes you well, Sir Knight of the Constitution, to talk so to me! You had not the same respect for the Chambers on the 18th Brumaire!

Thus did Napoleon dismiss fraternal scruples — boldly, as a despot should. Contrast Adams’s portrait of Jefferson, who writes that conscience and his strict construction of the Constitution require him to get an amendment to buy Louisiana.

I had rather ask an enlargement of power from the nation, where it is found necessary, than to assume it by a construction which would make our powers boundless. Our peculiar security is in the possession of a written Constitution. Let us not make it a blank paper by construction.

But then he treads quietly on his inner Jiminy Cricket:

If, however, our friends shall think differently, certainly I shall acquiesce with satisfaction, confiding that the good sense of our country will correct the evil of construction when it shall produce ill effects.

So much for scruples. Adams interprets the case thus:

Within three years of his inauguration [after a tied election, recall] Jefferson bought a foreign colony without its consent and against its will, annexed it to the United States by an act which he said made blank paper of the Constitution; and then he who had found his predecessors too monarchical, and the Constitution too liberal in powers,–he who had nearly dissolved the bonds of society rather than allow his predecessor to order a dangerous alien out of the country in a time of threatened war, [yes, that's Adams family special pleading] –made himself monarch of the new territory, and wielded over it, against its protests, the powers of its old kings. Such an experience was final; no century of slow and half-understood experience could be needed to prove that the hopes of humanity lay thenceforward, not in attempting to restrain the government from doing whatever the majority should think necessary, but in raising the people themselves till they should think nothing necessary but was good.

You should hear Adams guffawing to himself on writing that last clause.

Okay, so Adams is having a bit of fun sticking skewers into the vastly hypocritical states’-rights project, and who doesn’t enjoy that? But is he prepared to say Jefferson shouldn’t have bought Louisiana? Adams himself points out that any delay might have led Napoleon in his whimsy to withdraw the offer.

Still. It does seem at least plausible that a chance might have arisen to buy Louisiana on more scrupulous and Constitutionally favorable terms. After all, it was changing hands pretty much every other day, wasn’t it? If you’re going to condemn Polk for hasty, racist, and unwarranted pursuit of manifest destiny, shouldn’t you likewise condemn Jefferson? These rushed and lawless annexations seem rarely to have turned out well. As it was, the Purchase contributed to a near-secession via the Burr conspiracy.

Below, a rarely seen Federalist Party-sponsored educational video on the Louisiana Purchase.

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