Study Guide

Louisiana Purchase and Lewis & Clark Analysis

  • War

    While the Lewis and Clark expedition isn't usually thought of in terms of military history, the voyage of the Corps of Discovery was in fact one of the most successful military ventures in American history.

    At Jefferson's request, Congress authorized the expedition early in 1803—before the Louisiana Purchase—as an audacious incursion into foreign territory. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, commissioned officers in the United States Army, would lead a small corps—ultimately comprised of 35 enlisted men, five civilians, and one dog—on a transcontinental reconnaissance mission, literally charting the course for the future expansion of the American republic.

    That Lewis and Clark's journey proved an epic success is largely due to the captains' heroic restraint in resisting the recourse to armed force. In all their potentially hostile encounters with various Native American nations along their travels, only once did members of the Corps of Discovery resort to violence, shooting two Blackfeet Indians who attempted to rob them in the night. Those two Blackfeet were the only two Native American victims of the two-year military expedition through Native American Country. Meanwhile, the Corps of Discovery suffered only a single casualty—Sergeant Charles Floyd, who died of a burst appendix just weeks into the journey.

    The story of the Corps of Discovery's epic journey has been preserved for posterity in the incredible journals written by Lewis and Clark during the course of the expedition. Anyone interested in Lewis and Clark ought to read at least some of the journals, which 200 years later, still evoke the intense drama of the journey. Not even Captain Clark's imaginative spelling can obscure the elation of finally reaching the Pacific coast after 20 months of hard travel—"Ocian in view! O! the joy!"

    After a miserable winter spent in incessant rain at Fort Clatsop on the Oregon coast, the party set off to return the way they'd come in late March 1806. They received a heroes' welcome in St. Louis in September.

  • Economy

    How Sweet It Is

    Sugar's so pervasive in modern life—flavoring and sweetening everything from our desserts to our drinks to our McDonald's french fries—that it's difficult for us to imagine that the substance was once both rare and incredibly valuable. But it was.

    The sugarcane's a tropical plant native to the Indian Ocean, which spread slowly along trade routes as humans discovered its addictively sweet taste, reaching the Mediterranean by the late Middle Ages. Prior to cane sugar's arrival, the sweetest taste available to the European palate was honey, which provides a much milder sweetness kick—most Northern Europeans prior to the 16th or 17th century never tasted anything in their lives as sweet as our modern breakfast cereals. So, cane sugar arrived in Europe as a revelation, imported as a rare luxury spice, first available only to royalty. 

    For a time, a king's wealth and power were demonstrated no less by his gold and jewels than by the sugar in his cakes. However, demand for sugar quickly spread downward through all classes of European societies, especially once people discovered that sugar provided a perfect accompaniment to the bitter new caffeinated drinks—coffee and tea—that had entered the European diet from faraway lands in the Americas and Asia. What we now consider to be the traditional European beverages—tea with milk and sugar in Britain, café au lait in France—truly manifested globalization in a cup.

    The enormous and growing demand for sugar by European consumers drove sugar prices high enough to justify massive speculative ventures in tropical sugar colonies. First mastered by the Spanish in the Canary Islands off the northwest coast of Africa, the sugar island model—great factory-like plantations worked by imported slave labor—soon spread to the West Indies. There, the emerging sugar islands of the Caribbean became the driving economic forces of the age. The backbreaking labor required to grow and harvest the cane, combined with the immense profits that accrued to the planters, created the African slave trade and helped to fund the early stages of capitalist development in Europe.

    Sugar, unsurprisingly, drove patterns of colonial development. Prior to 1670, the most important British colonial venture in America was neither the Puritan spiritual utopia of New England nor the tobacco-farming estates of the Chesapeake, but rather the sugar island of Barbados. One quick measure of the comparative importance of the islands and the mainland in the 17th century: South Carolina was founded essentially as a colony of Barbados. Similarly, the Caribbean sugar island of Martinique—all 436 square miles of it—was more valuable to France than all of Canada.

    By the time of American independence in the late-18th century, the world's most important producer of sugar was French Saint-Domingue—the western half of the island of Hispaniola, a country we know today as Haiti. In the memorable phrase of Caribbean historian C.L.R. James, Saint-Domingue was "an integral part of the economic life of the age, the greatest colony in the world, the pride of France, and the envy of every imperialist nation."blank">Louisiana Territory for a relative pittance—just $15 million, not much more than the $10 million the Americans had been authorized to offer for New Orleans alone. In effect, Napoleon rid himself of the burden of Louisiana and prevented its takeover by one of his European rivals, Spain or Britain.

    However, absent the Haitian Revolution, the Louisiana Purchase would've been impossible. Americans pushing west into the Mississippi Valley and beyond would've encountered not free land acquired by the United States for pennies an acre, but instead a fortified French empire commanded by Napoleon Bonaparte, the most imposing imperialist of his time. The American republic may never have achieved its now-familiar transcontinental scope, so Thomas Jefferson's "empire of liberty" was built, to no small degree, on the heroic resistance of Haitian slaves. 

    That the Louisiana Purchase ended up extending the American slave system farther into the South and West is one of history's great ironies.

  • Politics

    The Country Grows Up—Well, Just Grows

    The Louisiana Purchase's effect upon the American political landscape was almost as dramatic as its effect upon the country's geography.

    In 1803, the democratic experiment of the American republic remained very much in its infancy. The Constitution had been ratified just over a decade earlier. Only four new states—Vermont, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio—had joined the original 13 in the Union. Thomas Jefferson was only the third president, and his election in 1800 was the very first peaceful transfer of power from the incumbent party, John Adams' Federalists, to the opposition, Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans.

    The Louisiana Purchase literally expanded the horizons of American opportunity, but it also raised thorny political and constitutional questions for the country's fragile young democracy.

    The first problem was the Purchase's constitutionality. Nowhere does the Constitution authorize the executive branch of the government to spend public funds to expand the boundaries of the nation. This was problematic for Jefferson, who'd been elected behind a political philosophy that emphasized small government, low taxes, and "strict construction" of the Constitution—in other words, adhering rigidly to the Tenth Amendment's stricture that all "powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution [...] are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." 

    During the 1790s, Jefferson had fought vigorously against Alexander Hamilton's Federalist plan to charter a National Bank, since the Constitution delegated no specific bank-chartering powers to the government and Jefferson rejected Hamilton's argument that such powers were "implied" by the Constitution.

    So, by Jefferson's own standards, the Louisiana Purchase was clearly unconstitutional. When he received word of the Purchase from his emissaries in Paris, Jefferson first response was to draft a proposed constitutional amendment that would have legitimized his actions by authorizing the president explicitly to purchase new territory. However, fearing the amendment wouldn't pass in time to ratify the treaty, Jefferson quickly abandoned his plans for amending the Constitution, instead taking the easier—if more hypocritical—path of claiming the power to acquire territory was "implied" in the Constitution's clause on treaty-making.

    Jefferson's flip-flop on "strict construction" and implied powers could be seen as a straightforward abandonment of principle for power. Jefferson's own rationalization for the decision was less than entirely convincing, offering little to counter the perception that simple expediency had carried the day. "It is the case," he said, "of a guardian, investing the money of his ward in purchasing an important adjacent territory; and saying to him when of age, I did this for your own good."blank">Civil War often centered on the Louisiana Territory.

  • Diplomacy

    Luck with Louisiana

    The Louisiana Purchase was one of the greatest diplomatic accomplishments in American history, a peaceful and cheap acquisition of territory that doubled the size of the United States and enabled its transcontinental destiny. Ironically, the Purchase occurred through no great feat of negotiation or careful treaty-making, but almost as an accident—what Thomas Jefferson called "a fugitive occurrence." 

    In other, less weird words, French restriction of American access to New Orleans would have led to an almost-irresistible clamor for war among Americans in the West—and war against Napoleon was the last thing Jefferson wanted.

    So, Jefferson sent Livingston and Monroe on their urgent mission to Paris to attempt to buy New Orleans outright, or if Napoleon proved unwilling to sell, at least to purchase American rights to access the port. Little did Jefferson, Livingston, or Monroe know that Napoleon's losses in Haiti had caused him to abandon his plans for empire on the American mainland altogether. When Napoleon's ministers made an unsolicited offer to sell the entire Louisiana Purchase to the Americans, Livingston and Monroe jumped to seize the opportunity—despite the fact that they'd been authorized to make no such purchase and that Jefferson himself believed that such a purchase was unconstitutional.

    In the end, the Louisiana Purchase wasn't so much a shrewd bargain on the part of the Americans as a virtual gift to the fledgling American republic from Napoleon Bonaparte. Or perhaps, more accurately, from the freed Haitian slaves.

  • Science & Technology

    More than a mere military expedition, the journey of Lewis and Clark was a true voyage of discovery, a paragon of the systematic scientific observation of nature that epitomized the Age of Enlightenment.

    Jefferson's instructions to Meriwether Lewis set out an ambitious agenda, not only to map the uncharted wilderness of the American West and establish friendly relations with the Native Americans who lived there, but also to conduct detailed observations of flora and fauna, of climate, of soils and minerals, even of fossils of extinct species.

    Prior to the journey, Lewis received special training in scientific methods and in the use of instruments like the sextant, telescope, and chronometer. He brought with him on the journey an extensive—and heavy—library of scientific references, including books on botany, mineralogy, and astronomy.

    And Lewis and Clark's journals were peppered with careful illustrations of newly discovered species. The explorers collected more than 300 specimens of plants and animals for shipment back to Washington, D.C. Three animals—two magpies and a prairie dog—even made it back alive.

    Considering the obstacles faced by Lewis and Clark in simply surviving their journey, the quality and quantity of their scientific observations were truly remarkable.