In 1844, Asa Whitney, a merchant in New York, proposed that a transcontinental railroad be built. While he hoped to lead the construction of the railroad and reap the benefits of the ambitious project, that was not to be. However, three components of his plan captured the spirit of Americans toward the construction of the railroad: “There must be a railroad to the Pacific; it must be financed by grants of public lands along the route; and it must be built by private interests which received these grants.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 146. Read more
Upon President Zachary Taylor taking office, he sent a message to Congress deploring the sectionalism that was pervading the country. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 91. He looked to George Washington’s warnings against “characterizing parties by geographical discriminations,” which appeared by 1849 to be a prescient warning. Id. citing James D. Richardson, ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents (11 vols.; New York, 1907), V, 9-24. President Taylor offered hope for northerners and those Americans who wanted to preserve the Union with his vow: “Whatever dangers may threaten it [the Union] I shall stand by it and maintain it in its integrity.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 91 citing James D. Richardson, ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents (11 vols.; New York, 1907), V, 9-24. Read more
In the 15 years leading up to the Civil War, a wide variety of theories emerged for how the federal government should deal with slavery expanding, or not expanding, into the territories acquired by the United States.
By 1819, the area west of the Mississippi River, known as the Missouri Territory, had obtained a population qualifying it to be admitted to the Union. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1819-1848, 147. The only requirement to be admitted was that an enabling act be presented to Congress “authorizing Missouri voters to elect a convention to draft a state constitution.” Id. That bill was proposed, but Representative James Tallmadge proposed an amendment prohibiting further “importation of slavery” and “all children of slaves born after Missouri’s admission to the Union should become free at the age of twenty-five.” Id. This provoked great “consternation in the House of Representatives.” Id. citing Annals of Congress, 15th Cong., 2nd sess., 1170.
John Quincy Adams, Secretary of State from 1817 to 1825, was a principled, “tough negotiator.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 107.
By 1815, the Native Americans had been pushed mostly out of the New England area and into territories just east of the Mississippi River and the entirety of the territory west of the Mississippi River. The Native Americans were a significant obstacle to expanding American territory.
Thomas Jefferson, from his earliest years, imagined that all of the North American land known in the 1790s would one day belong to the United States. He imagined that Florida would become part of the United States, that Cuba would join, that Mexico’s provinces would join, and that ultimately, Canada would join as well. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 376.
Some may see this as an imperialistic tendency. It was. Jefferson stated that “we should have such an empire for liberty as she has never surveyed since the creation.” Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, April 27, 1809. He strongly believed that “no constitution was ever before so well calculated as ours for extensive empire and self government.” Id.
Jefferson long had a passion for expansion, pre-dating both his presidency and his vice-presidency. Almost immediately after the Revolutionary War, Jefferson began planning how this vast area of land could benefit the United States and how it could be explored.
Ultimately, this led to the monumental exploration of the Louisiana Territory by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, which would captivate the nation and spread the expansion fever.
Jefferson’s firmly held belief that the Louisiana Purchase and its territory would become America’s is one of the best examples of firm leadership guiding the nation’s people toward a common goal that benefits all. The best presidents did not always have unanimous support in their decisions, but history cherishes and fondly remembers those presidents, like Jefferson.
The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 added approximately 823,000 square miles to the United States’ territory. At that time, Thomas Jefferson favored the purchase, as it protected America from the threat of France or Britain invading the United States, particularly through New Orleans. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 369. The acquisition also would force the territory of Florida, owned by Spain then, to join the United States, which it of course eventually did.
A majority of Americans saw the Louisiana Purchase as a momentous occasion for America, in that it ended the struggle for control of the Mississippi River but it also allowed America to gain independence from the European powers of France and Britain. Id.
Fisher Ames, a Representative of Massachusetts from 1789-1797, declared that the Louisiana Purchase was “a great waste, a wilderness unpeopled with any beings except wolves and wandering Indians.” He explained that it was a waste by stating: “We are to spend money of which we have too little for land of which we already have too much.” Id. He saw it as instead a way for “Imperial Virginia to move its slaveholding population westward to gain influence. Id. at 370.
Even Alexander Hamilton favored the purchase, but expressed his reservations as to its effect on the United States as a whole: Could it be made “an integral part of the United States,” or would it merely be a colony of America? Id.
Certainly, very few modern Americans would now question the wisdom and the investment of the Louisiana Purchase, for territorial purposes alone. The short term security benefits are long forgotten, as the European powers who then threatened the United States are now its strongest allies.
Nonetheless, these views by Fisher Ames and Alexander Hamilton show that even the most popular and beneficial decisions by presidents are not without dissent. Now, sometimes analysts and commentators are tempted to speculate that there was a moment in American history where a presidents’ actions were widely appreciated and admired and free of dissent.
While that may occasionally be true, even with the Louisiana Purchase, that added so much territory for settlers to use and security for the existing states, there was dissent.
From its declaration of independence to the start of Thomas Jefferson’s first term as president in 1800, the federal government had consistently taken on a significant amount of debt: $80 million in total. See Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 298. Prior to that, the federal government had taken out millions of dollars from Europe, including from the French government and from Dutch bankers, to finance the Revolutionary War effort. United States Department of State, available at https://history.state.gov/milestones/1784-1800/loans.
By the time Thomas Jefferson took office in 1800, the Revolutionary War debt had been paid off, however, Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans were especially concerned about the growing debt that the United States had taken on. In fact, in 1798, Jefferson considered the idea of amending the Constitution to take the power of borrowing away from the federal government. See Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 298. While Jefferson never accomplished such a drastic step, he prioritized paying the debt down each year. He foretold that the United States would “be committed to the English career of debt, corruption and rottenness, closing with revolution. The discharge of the debt, therefore, is vital to the destinies of our government.” See Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 298.
Throughout the 1790s, the United States shifted all of its obligations from the governments of Europe to private investors. By 1795, America only owed money to private investors. United States Department of State, available at https://history.state.gov/milestones/1784-1800/loans. This, combined with the federal government’s payments created a solid credit rating in Europe, which enabled taking low-interest loans from European lenders for the Louisiana Purchase. Id.
By 1810, the Republicans reduced the debt to approximately $40 million, even after having spent $15 million in cash on the Louisiana Purchase. See Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 298. Thomas Jefferson had made significant progress in moving the federal government away from its borrowing spree. Perhaps Jefferson was fearful that the federal government would default on its obligations as it had in 1785 on interest payments to France and further installments in 1787. United States Department of State, available at https://history.state.gov/milestones/1784-1800/loans.
This brief history of the federal government’s debt illustrates the difficulty of balancing spending with saving. Few would question significant investments like borrowing for the financing a war for independence or for a purchase that effectively doubled the size of the country. The question that arises nearly every year is rather, how much discretionary spending is necessary?
Jefferson’s fear of corruption leading to revolution is likely at the furthest end of the spectrum of possibilities. Regardless, a default on indebtedness held by the federal government would have significant consequences that could not be ignored in the early Republic and cannot be ignored now. Where there are benefits to be gained, investments are necessary.
While some may be opposed to debt as a matter of principle, Jefferson’s concerns show the true threat of excessive liability for the federal government. Simply having debt to pay down is not a threat to the future of the country. When America’s wellbeing is endangered or America’s credit rating is threatened, action is unquestionably necessary to prevent those results.