Land-as-Growth (2): Why Thomas Jefferson Wanted So Much New Land

In early 1803, when President Thomas Jefferson sent ambassadors to Paris to purchase New Orleans and the immediate area around it, his goal was to acquire a port for agricultural goods grown in what was then the American West—Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. But when Napoleon offered to sell the entire territory, Jefferson accepted. (this purchase is mentioned in Part X of A Larger Pie, Book I.)

Jefferson’s decision contradicted his belief in strict construction of the U.S. Constitution and in a weak Federal government; indeed, nothing in the U.S. Constitution explicitly (or even implicitly) permitted the Federal government to buy new land. But Jefferson nonetheless acted. The purchase needed congressional approval, and in his State of the Union Message issued on October 17, 1803 the President made his strongest argument in favor of buying the entire Louisiana Territory: the need for safe shipment of goods on the Mississippi River, freedom from conflict with other powers, and finally, money for the federal treasury thanks to the fertility of newly acquired land:

While the property and sovereignty of the Mississippi and its waters secure an independent outlet for the produce of the western States, and an uncontrolled navigation through their whole course, free from collision with other powers and the dangers to our peace from that source, the fertility of the country, its climate and extent, promise in due season important aids to our treasury, an ample provision for our posterity….

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