Early Constitutional Controversies

Early Constitutional Controversies

Early Constitutional Controversies




The constitution is touted as the most crucial document in the United States as it outlines the rights and responsibilities of both the people and the state towards each other. It outlines the manner in which every institution is supposed to conduct itself, as well as the structures that should be used. Needless to say, the constitution has been subjected to numerous amendments aimed at covering some gaps or extending its scope due to changing times and their consequent needs. In essence, the history of the United States has had numerous constitutional controversies that have shaped the United States to what it is today. While there are numerous constitutional controversies, none matches the magnitude of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 represents a territorial expansion of the United States where it made a deal with France. In this deal, the United States was to acquire approximately 827,000 miles square of a piece of land located west of Mississippi River. The United States, to close this deal, was supposed to make a payment of 15 million dollars (Brown, 2005). Previously, Louisiana was under the control of Spain since 1762. However, Napoleon Bonaparte expressed interest in owning the land and even went ahead to take control of Louisiana territory in 1800. He aimed at recapturing St. Domingue, in which case he sent vast armies to the area (Brown, 2005). The western expansion of France posed an immense security threat to the United States, especially considering the armies. In essence, President Jefferson made an offer for the purchase of Louisiana for 10 million dollars. Napoleon, on his part, offered to sell Louisiana for 15 million dollars. This was necessitated by the looming threat of war with US and England, as well as the weakening of his army from a severe bout of flu.

While President Jefferson had vouched for the purchase, he knew full well that the constitution did not give him powers over making any territorial purchases on behalf of the United States people. In fact, the United States Constitution did not give the president a direct assent to purchase another country’s land (Brown, 2005). Jefferson was known for his strict adherence to rule of law and the constitution, in which case he came up with two constitutional amendments that would avert the possibility of violating his ideas pertaining to constitutional construction (Brown, 2005). The federalists used this argument to fight against the purchase of Louisiana. They saw this as a ploy by the Republicans to establish more states that would politically align themselves to the Republicans. The federalists argued that the constitution specified that any state that sought to be admitted into the Union had to be within the limits of boundaries of the United States. On the same note, they quoted Section 3 of Article IV, which state that only the Congress had the authority for admitting new states (Brown, 2005). On the same note, the constitution provided that no state that had been formed out of or within any other states without both states’ consent. While acknowledging the fact that the United States constitution did not expressly give the president powers to purchase land from other countries, the Republicans pointed out that the president was constitutionally capable of acquiring another country’s territory via a treaty (Deutsch, 1967). This, according to Albert Gallatin who was President Jefferson’s Treasury Secretary, could be interpreted or seen as implied power, in which case President Jefferson only needed to offer the United States Senate a treaty that it would consequently ratify (Deutsch, 1967).

On the same note, Gallatin rebuffed the assumption that Congress’ power and authority in making rules respecting the United States’ territory was confined or restricted to the territory held by the Union at that time (Deutsch, 1967). He stated that these were mere suppositions as there was no express statement to that effect. He noted that the United States’ existence as a nation presupposed the power that every other nation enjoyed especially with regard to extending its territories through treaties (Deutsch, 1967).

While the two sides may have been bringing out controversial issues, it is imperative that one examines the politics or circumstances of the time in evaluating the efficacy of their arguments. Federalists were concerned about the implications that came with the guarantee. As Congressman Roger Griswold noted, Louisiana was supposed to be considered as a colony rather than being incorporated into the Union (Levinson & Sparrow, 2005). The argument was a reflection of the notion pertaining to the original 13 colonies’ superiority to other territories and states. On the same note, Senator Thomas Pickering stated that the new state needed to be admitted through unanimous consent, an argument that was founded on the principle that the power of the Federal Union emanated from other states and not from the people (Levinson & Sparrow, 2005). However, President Jefferson’s statement underlined the circumstances of in which the United States was at the time. He noted that the laws of self-preservation, necessity and saving the country when in danger had a higher priority than adherence to the law. He noted that scrupulous adherence to the law while losing the country would only lead to losing the law, as well (Levinson & Sparrow, 2005). This statement stood true considering the threat that Napoleon Bonaparte posed to the United States with his expansionist tendencies.


Deutsch, E.P (1967). The Constitutional Controversy over the Louisiana Purchase. American Bar Association Journal

Brown, E. S. (2005). The constitutional history of the Louisiana Purchase, 1803-1812. New York: Cosimo Classics.

Levinson, S., & Sparrow, B. H. (2005). The Louisiana Purchase and American expansion, 1803-1898. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers