The Louisiana Purchase
President Thomas Jefferson believed that the United States should be a nation of independent farmers. When France offered to sell the Louisiana Territory to the United States in 1803, Jefferson wanted to seize the opportunity to double the size of the nation and to provide future generations with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of new farmland. But Jefferson was a strict constructionist—he believed that the federal government had no powers other than those specifically listed in the Constitution—and the Constitution did not authorize the president to buy territory from foreign nations. The problem of Louisiana forced Jefferson to decide which principle was more important.
- Document 1: Notes on the State of Virginia. Query XIX: "Manufactures." (PDF)
- Document 2: Letter to To Robert R. Livingston (PDF)
- Document 3: "Letter to John Breckinridge" (PDF)
- Document 4: "Message of the President of the United States, Transmitting a Treaty Lately Concluded Between the United States and the Kaskaskia Tribe of Indians." (PDF)
- Document 5: A Treaty between the United States of America, and the Kaskaskia Tribe of Indians (PDF)
Divide students into groups and provide them with documents and relevant questions related to the Louisiana Purchase. Group members should analyze the documents, answer the questions, and prepare a presentation using one or more of the following activities: role playing, panel discussion, debate, or artistic (e.g. political cartoon) or theatrical interpretation.
Group I – Jeffersonian Philosophy (Economic Systems)
Document 1: Notes on the State of Virginia. Query XIX: "Manufactures."
- Compare Jefferson’s concepts of agrarian and industrial societies.
- How does the statement "The plough is to the farmer what the wand is to the sorcerer" reflect Jefferson’s concept of an agrarian society?
- How does Jefferson’s agrarian philosophy relate to the Louisiana Purchase?
- Did Jefferson’s agrarian philosophy justify the Louisiana Purchase?
- Based on your analysis, should Jefferson have purchased Louisiana in 1803?
Group II – Geopolitical Significance of Louisiana
Document 2: Letter to To Robert R. Livingston
- Locate New Orleans on a map. Who owned New Orleans prior to 1803?
- Why was New Orleans both important and dangerous to the United States?
- If you were Jefferson, how would you deal with this crisis?
- Would this decision be in the best interest of the United States?
Group III – Constitutionality of Purchase
Document III: "Letter to John Breckinridge"
- Does Jefferson retreat from strict construction in his purchase of Louisiana?
- List four key issues Jefferson must confront when considering the purchase of the Louisiana Territory.
- Describe Jefferson’s plan for obtaining congressional approval.
Group IV – Impact on the Native Americans
Document IV: "Message of the President of the United States, Transmitting a Treaty Lately Concluded Between the United States and the Kaskaskia Tribe of Indians."
- What stipulations were specifically given to the women and children of the Kaskaskia Tribe?
- How were religious practices emphasized in the treaty?
- What factor affected the movement of the Kaskaskia from the Southwest to lands east and northeast of the Mississippi River?
- Was the Louisiana Purchase a bargain or a burden?
- Today Americans can hop in a car or fly by plane coast to coast in the continental United States. Laws, currency, language, and individual rights flow freely throughout this domain. In other parts of the world, people must exchange currency, observe different laws, and speak different languages as they travel across their continents. If different nations controlled the territory between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, how would life be different today?
- Imagine that our president has just been offered the opportunity to buy the Maritime Provinces (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island) from Canada. Should he accept the offer? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such an acquisition? How would this differ from the Louisiana Purchase in 1803?
Choose one of the following topics for a short essay:
- Write an editorial for a Federalist (anti-Jefferson) newspaper stating your position on the Louisiana Purchase.
- Write an essay describing the goals and achievements of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
- Describe the impact of the Louisiana Purchase on Native Americans.
- Assume the role of a resident of New Orleans. How would you react to the Louisiana Purchase?