Territorial Expansion - The Jeffersonian Republic
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The Closing of the Port of New Orleans. Jefferson had long dreamed of an agrarian republic whose boundaries would expand to the western oceans. This expansion would secure vast acreages with which to endow future generations of farmers. It would also eliminate the danger of America's becoming involved in the embroilments that shook the peace of Europe. Nevertheless, the territories west of the Mississippi were not an urgent matter so long as they remained the possession of a weak Spain In 1796, however, Spain ceded the vast Louisiana Territory to France, in the secret treaty of San Ildefonso. News of the transfer left Jefferson and the West profoundly shocked: Napoleon's aggressive designs seemed now to stand on the very threshold of the American nation. The matter was further complicated when, in 1802, the Spanish administrative official still responsible for the port of New Orleans closed the port to Americans. Westerners promptly threatened war against the Spanish Louisiana authorities, and the Federalist opposition called for an army of 50,000 with which to seize the port.
The Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson and Madison were both eager to to avoid war, and they concluded that a reasonable solution was possible if the French agreed to sell New Orleans or West Florida as an outlet for Western commerce on the Gulf of Mexico. Under the skillful guidance of John Randolph, Congress appropriated $2,000,000 to be used for "expenses in relation to the intercourse between the United States and foreign nations." Jefferson then dispatched an outspoken friend of France, James Monroe, to aid Robert R. Livingston, American minister at Paris, in negotiating the purchase. No one had foreseen the possibility that Napoleon, confronted with a critical military situation in Europe, might agree to sell the whole territory.
Jefferson and his cabinet were actually contemplating the possibility of a war with France when they first received news of Napoleon's decision to sell the whole region for the price of $15,000,000. Jefferson, fully aware that he lacked the constitutional power to negotiate the purchase, nevertheless urged Congress to approve the purchase treaty of April 30, 1803. Congress acceded to his request, with only minor opposition from the Federalists, and so expanded the territorial domain of the United States by about 140 per cent. Ultimately, thirteen states were to be formed, in whole or in part, from the new American territory. But the treaty nowhere strictly delimited the boundaries of the land acquired, and this was to bring about the kind of American entanglement with foreign countries that Jefferson hoped to avoid.
Through the Louisiana Purchase, the President who had once argued for a strict interpretation of the Constitution enormously expanded the executive authority. "The Executive," Jefferson admitted, "in seizing the fugitive occurrence which so much advances the good of the country, have done an act beyond the Constitution." The Federalist Gouverneur Morris noted with amused aloofness, "The [Republicans] have as I expected done more to strengthen the Executive than Federalists dared think of even in Washington's day."
West Florida. Even as Jefferson wrestled with his constitutional scruples, he contemplated further expansion into West Florida. Some thought his preoccupation with obtaining control of river outlets in the Mississippi Territory, and the harbor of Mobile, tantamount to an obsession. After strenuous efforts to establish that West Florida was included in the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson hinted in his message of December 5, 1805, that he was prepared to go to war. John Randolph, who had energetically supported the Mobile Act of February 24, 1804 (which provided for the collection of American customs in Mobile on the assumption that the Louisiana Purchase included West Florida), was prepared to support the proposal. To his dismay, Randolph learned that what Jefferson really wanted was two million dollars to buy the territory. Outraged, convinced that Jefferson was displaying both duplicity and cowardice, Randolph broke with the Republicans to follow an independent course in politics. Since Spain stubbornly refused to sell Florida, the issue was left for final settlement until a decade later.
Jeffersonian Foreign Policy
American Neutrality. Though Jefferson identified himself with a pro-French policy during the Federalist period, he soon made it clear that, as President, he stood for making "neutrality the ground of gain to [our] country," and that he was prepared to do anything reasonable to keep the peace. "We are friendly, cordially and conscientiously friendly to England," he declared. "We are not hostile to France," he added. By this policy of avoiding entangling alliances, he expected to escape having "as much to swallow from [France and Britain] as our predecessors had. . . ." To the strong he accorded a respectful aloofness; to the weak, a display of firm determination.
The Barbary Coast War. Shortly after Jefferson assumed the presidency, he was compelled to face the prospect of war with the Barbary Coast pirates. Accepting European practice, the United States under Washington and Adams had paid tribute to the beys and deys of Northern Africa as insurance against piratical attacks upon American commerce. When Tripoli decided to demand increased tribute in 1801, Jefferson resolved to send four warships to the Mediterranean Sea to protect American commerce. The Bey of Tripoli responded by cutting down the flagpole before the American consulate - the Barbary method of declaring war - and shortly afterward, dispatched warships to blockade the Straits of Gibraltar.
A small American fleet under the command of Commodore Edward Preble seized Tangier and forced the Emperor of Morocco to accept American terms, but the Tripolitans captured one of his vessels and enslaved its crew of almost three hundred men. The administration promptly established a special Mediterranean fund, with which to finance the war. During the summer of 1804, Preble effectively blockaded the Tripoli coast. William Eaton, an American adventurer, staged an unsuccessful coup d'etat against the reigning Bey of Tripoli. Obtaining the reluctant support of Jefferson, Eaton returned to Egypt, where he raised a force of several hundred Arabs and Greeks with whom he marched five hundred miles, to capture the Tripolitan town of Derne. Only the availability of American naval and marine support saved the Eaton force from a massacre; but the successful invasion of his homeland convinced the Bey of Tripoli that a peace treaty was required. The final treaty (1805) restored payments to about what they had been before the Bey had raised his tribute charges, but the Americans agreed to pay an additional $60,000 ransom for the captured American sailors. So ended the Barbary Coast War.
The Napoleonic Wars. As the Napoleonic Wars swept the European continent, Jefferson found it ever more difficult to avoid involvement. Frequent seizures and confiscations of American ships and impressment of American sailors by the British navy made it seem likely that the United States would find itself at war with Great Britain. Between 1805 and 1806, no less than 120 American ships were taken by British forces. When repeated American protests had been ignored, Congress, on April 18, 1806, passed the nonimportation act. By severely limiting British imports, they hoped to persuade the British to relent in their interference with American trade. But the Americans were tilting against windmills. Each antagonist in the British-French struggle used every means available to lessen the economic potential of the other. When the British instituted a blockade of northwestern Europe, Napoleon responded with the Berlin Decree blockading "the British islands." Britain answered with an extended blockade of all French ports, as well as those of French allies. The Paris government replied with the Milan Decree of December 17, 1806, which declared that every neutral ship searched by the British automatically became enemy property. This proved particularly painful to American merchants, since it denied them access to Continental ports at the same time that it made their ships liable to seizure, even when acts of British search were beyond American control.
The Embargo. Jefferson, trying to find a solution to the American dilemma, obtained authorization from Congress (December 22, 1807) to impose an embargo on all American vessels trading with foreign ports. The Jeffersonians saw this as the only practical alternative to war. Any active defense of American rights would have committed the country to a war with the greatest naval power in the world, or the most powerful land power, or both (with the latter a distinct and frightening possibility, since both Britain and France had violated American commercial and political rights). Having committed himself to restraining American commerce, Jefferson was willy-nilly engaged in an internal struggle with domestic interests reluctant to accept the cost of the embargo.
From the outset, Jefferson made it clear that his intention was "to keep our seamen and property from capture, and to starve the offending nations." He also admitted that the national defenses were grievously weak, though not that this situation stemmed directly from the Jeffersonian passion for economy and debt reduction. At the behest of Jefferson and Gallatin, the navy had been cut down to small gunboats whose primary function was to protect ports from attack. Jefferson committed himself to restoring freedom of the seas but he (and his successor) systematically reduced naval and military expenditures; and the embargo was at least partly a device to circumvent the costs of creating a defense organization that would be capable of forcing international respect. It also revealed the overwhelming desire of Jefferson and his supporters to keep the peace at almost any cost. The idealism that underlay these hopes was eloquently expressed by Albert Gallatin even as he left it behind: I had conceived that our distance from the European world might have prevented our being involved in the mischievous policies of Europe, and that we might have lived in peace without armies and navies and without being deeply involved in debt. . . . I had conceived it would have been our object to have become a happy and not a powerful nation, or at least no way powerful except for self-defence.
Jefferson discovered that his advisers viewed the embargo with dismay. Gallatin bluntly told his mentor, "In every point of view, privations, sufferings, revenue, effect on the enemy, politics at home, etc., I prefer war to a permanent embargo." But the presidential response was one of stubborn persistence, and Jefferson even pressed for a strengthening of the act. On January 9, 1808, Congress placed all coasting vessels under bond, to prevent sailings to foreign ports. Similar restrictions were placed on fishing and whaling vessels. A program of heavy penalties was instituted to enforce the embargo. On March 12, 1808, a third Embargo Act was passed to permit small supply vessels to transport goods without payment of bond, but it also added new penalties to strengthen the act. The slightest hint that exceptions to the act might be made brought a deluge of mercantile petitions to the President, who commented: "I imagine they will come in bales every day." In the face of repeated violations, Jefferson proposed even more drastic penalties.
From April 25, 1808, all sailings, no matter what the size of the ship, its cargo, or its destination, required the supervision of a revenue officer during the loading process. Only presidential authorization permitted sailings from American ports adjacent to foreign territory. Naval craft were ordered to inspect all suspicious ships. And the decision of Congress to adjourn after passage of the third act left Jefferson to maintain the experiment unhindered. "Congress," he promptly declared, "has just passed an additional embargo law, . . . which, if we act as boldly as I am disposed to do, we can make . . . effectual." With equal forthrightness, he admitted that the major victim of the program would be the commercial interests. "I set down the exercise of commerce, merely for profit," he wrote Gallatin, "as nothing when it carries with it the danger of defeating the objects of the embargo."
But the great experiment carried within it the seeds of a primary dilemma. Since many of the staple supplies consumed within the United States were transported by coastal vessels from one point on the eastern seaboard to another, the prohibitions placed on the coasting trade threatened to starve America before they reduced Great Britain. As the results of the embargo became apparent in America, local pressure was brought to bear on the authorities in a number of ports, forcing serious modifications to be made in the embargo restrictions. Jefferson responded with the proposal that communities guilty of violation be themselves placed under a blockade. Congress, well aware what the political consequences of such proposals might be, granted instead a new enforcement act (January 9, 1809) to instruct enforcement agents for more effective application of the law. Enforcement was not made easier when it was suspected that Republican merchants were granted exemptions denied known opponents of the administration. Indeed, almost all commercial interests, Republican or not, employed subterfuge and open defiance to frustrate enforcement of the embargo.
The New England Merchants. As news of the administration's embargo spread along the Atlantic seaboard, New England and New York merchants and shipowners felt the cold breath of ruin on their necks. Boston went into open defiance. From both that great port and the thousands of inlets and bays that dot the New England shore, vessels sailed loaded with contraband cargo. It was not unusual to find a ship authorized to sail to Norfolk arriving in Lisbon - driven there, of course, by the "stress of weather." Though Philadelphia and Southern ports were less defiant, Jefferson received ample evidence that the embargo was abused even in these citadels of Republicanism. Along the vast northern frontier, smuggling became a large-scale enterprise. Behind much of this open defiance lay the increasingly large profits to be made from the successful transport of a cargo either into or out of the country. Yet the actual volume of smuggling should not be exaggerated. On the whole, the embargo proved moderately successful. Large amounts of shipping lay idle at American wharves, while in more than one port, and especially in New England, the surface placidity of the scene masked the bitter fury of the merchants.
New Englanders contemplated tearing a leaf from Jefferson's own book as they explored his doctrines of nullification and secession. As the cost of Jefferson's experiment mounted, the Massachusetts General Court ominously warned that continuation of the policy would endanger "our domestic peace, and the union of these States." The governor of Connecticut flatly refused to provide state militia to enforce the embargo. Ships violated the restrictions in full awareness that state authority would be used in their defense. And the impending political consequences made the Jeffersonian contingent in Congress unwilling to press the experiment further. Fearful of civil war, and with his supporters in a "kind of panic," Jefferson, on March 1, 1809, signed a bill repealing the embargo. So ended "a noble and magnificent effort." Three days later Jefferson surrendered the presidency to James Madison.