President Thomas Jefferson’s view of the government and its functions was turned upside down by the unique opportunity to double the size of the young United States. Jefferson, a conservative when it came to the size of government and a proponent of the rural ideal, was presented with the opportunity in 1803 to purchase the Louisiana Territory from the French. The French, under Napoleon Bonaparte, had purchased the territory (essentially the land between the Mississippi River and most of the western North American continent) from the Spanish in 1800. However, the French war effort in Europe was going awry and Bonaparte wanted to consolidate the resources of France.
The American delegation to France in 1803 was commissioned only to purchase the rights to New Orleans, but Bonaparte was not interested in an American empire and wanted to rid himself of the entire territory. The Americans were ecstatic about the possibility and bought the massive territory for $15 million. However, Democratic-Republicans and other budget hawks were not interested in Jefferson’s move because it took the budget further into debt, which Jefferson had promised to balance. As well, the Constitution gave no provision for such a major addition to the nation and created a constitutional issue within the legal minded Jefferson.
At first, President Jefferson wanted a constitutional amendment to provide for a legal basis for the purchase but in the end, the opportunity was too good to pass up and he used the absence of restrictions on the purchase as a constitutional mandate. The Federalists and others who wanted to expand commerce westward were excited by the purchase. Jefferson organized an expedition to begin in 1804, to be lead by the famous explorers Lewis and Clark.
The Lewis and Clark expedition, consisting of 39 men, lasted between 1804 and 1806. The explorers traveled west and their final destination was Oregon but they explored much of the Pacific Northwest. A little known fact was that while the explorers were intrepid and enjoyed the walking, canoeing, and chronicling involved in the expedition, they did not enjoy much of the Northwest and especially found Oregon disappointing. The purposes of the expedition were fourfold: The Jefferson administration wanted to know what they had purchased, naturalists were curious as to the animals and plants within the territory, geographers wanted to find a water route to the Pacific Ocean, and Jefferson himself felt it was a strong political statement to send such an expedition to blaze a trail westward.
There are several reasons why the Louisiana Purchase was significant, not only for Jefferson’s legacy but for the development of the fledgling United States. With territory now expanding from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the United States could now stake claim to legitimacy as a nation and had the potential to become a world power. The Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition were great sources of pride in Americans because it embodied the pioneering spirit that would be paramount within the next century. The United States was no longer hemmed in by European claims to American land and there were more raw resources and land to decrease the dependency on the Europeans for finished goods.