The Louisiana Purchase was a deal brokered by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803 that nearly doubled the size of the United States, and ignited divisive debates over the future of slavery. The Federalists were largely in opposition. Some disagreed on constitutional grounds, others thought France’s claim to the Louisiana territory was illegitimate, and some feared the newly acquired territory would extend the power, reach, and representation of the slave-holding class in government. The Louisiana Purchase would go on to be a defining moment in the Jefferson presidency, one steeped in partisan controversy.
VA SOLs: VS.1, VS.6, VS.7, USI.1, USI.7, USI.8, VUS.1, VUS.6, VUS.7
By examining the protests of Federalists, and the justifications of Thomas Jefferson, students can begin to see how soon after the nation’s founding, westward expansion and the subsequent expansion of slavery began to divide Americans. This resource could either be introduced when studying the early republican period, or can be used by educators to create a throughline from the early republic all the way to secession as a form of review before studying the American Civil War. Simply put, students who study these documents can begin to understand that the divisions around slavery run deep in American history, and far pre-date the divisions we see in the 1840s and 1850s.
Thomas Jefferson’s letter will describe to students his idea for “diffusing” the enslaved population across western territory. This, he says, is necessary to keeping white American’s safe. This is also the policy largely maintained by the southern slave-holding class all the way through to the establishment of the Confederate States of America. At the same time, students will also be challenged as they see Jefferson making seemingly honest observations about the immorality of slavery, while advocating for its expansion.
It should be noted that Jefferson wrote this in 1820 in response to the Missouri Compromise, which post-dates the Louisiana purchase a fair bit. Nevertheless, it is still a unique source that gets into the mind of Jefferson and his vision for the vast territory he acquired in 1803.
Alexander Hamilton’s editorial won’t make any explicit reference to slavery. However, he objects to the dramatic expansion of the United States’ western boundary because he fears that a disbursement of the population over so vast a territory could lead to the dissolution of government. This is in stark contrast to Jefferson who believed expansion to be necessary to self-preservation of the government.
Timothy Pickering and Rufus King’s letters to one another give students an early example of the anti-slavery argument that became pervasive in the north leading up to and during the civil war. They don’t make any references to the immorality of slavery. Their qualms however, lie with the wealthy slave-holding class that are receiving increased representation in government because of the 3/5ths compromise. Pickering will go so far as to suggest that a confederacy of the northeastern states be established in opposition to this slave power. Sound familiar?
Suggested Guiding Questions
The following suggested questions are designed to get students to observe specific sections of these documents so they can grasp the main ideas outlined in the learning goals section. The links provided are to the full texts; shorter versions that have been edited down can be found at the end of this page. Because these documents are relatively straightforward, they are best taught to students with a guided discussion. This can be done as a class or in small groups, so long as students have people to guide them back towards the primary learning objectives.
• What does Thomas Jefferson mean by “diffusing” enslaved people? What does he hope diffusion will accomplish?
• How would the Louisiana Purchase help diffuse or spread out slavery?
• What consequences does Alexander Hamilton fear if the population is too spread out?
• Why does Rufus King object to the Louisiana Purchase? Or Rufus King objects to slavery in Louisiana, but he doesn’t say it’s because he thinks slavery is morally wrong. What issue DOES Pickering have with slavery in Louisiana?
• Do you know what “blemish” Pickering is referring to in the Constitution?
• Timothy Pickering brings up the idea of some states separating from the Union. Which states is he referring to? Why does he think it might be necessary for those states to separate?
• When Pickering mentions that “slaves… have fifteen representatives in congress,” who elected them?
Elementary Level Primary Sources
Thomas Jefferson’s Letter
to John Holmes:
“…as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other. Of one thing I am certain, that as the passage of slaves from one state to another would not make a slave of a single human being who would not be so without it, so their diffusion over a greater surface would make them individually happier and… their emancipation, by dividing the burthen on a greater number of co-adjutors.”
Alexander Hamilton’s Editorial on the Louisiana Purchase:
“But it may be added, that should our own citizens… become desirous of settling this country, and emigrate thither… a too widely dispersed population… must hasten the dismemberment of a large portion of our country, or a dissolution of the Government. On the whole, we think it may… be said, that whether the possession at this time of any territory west of the river Mississippi will be advantageous, is at best extremely problematical.”
Rufus King to Timothy Pickering:
“…as Slavery is authorized & exists in Louisiana…will not the present inequality, arising from the Representation of Slaves, be increased? …As the provision of the Constitution on this subject may be regarded as one of its greatest blemishes, it would be with reluctance that one could consent to its being extended to the Louisiana States;… ought not an effort to be made to limit the Representation to the free inhabitants only? Had it been foreseen that we could raise revenue to the extent we have done, from indirect taxes, the Representation of Slaves wd. `Never have been admitted; but going upon the maxim that taxation and Representation are inseparable, and that the Genl. Govt. must resort to direct taxes, the States in which Slavery does not exist, were injudiciously led to concede to this unreasonable provision of the Constitution.”
Timothy Pickering to Rufus King:
“…Were New York detached (as under his administration it would be) from the Virginian, influence, the whole union would be benefited. Jefferson would then be forced to observe some caution… And, if a separation should be deemed proper, the five New England States, New York, and New Jersey would naturally be united. Among those seven States, there is a sufficient congeniality of character to authorize the… harmony and a permanent union, New York the centre. Without a separation, can those States ever rid themselves of negro Presidents and negro Congresses, and regain their just weight in the political balance? At this moment, the slaves of the Middle and Southern States have fifteen representatives in Congress, and they will appoint that number of electors of the next President and Vice-President ; and the number of slaves is continually increasing. You notice this evil. But will the slave States ever renounce the advantage? As population is in fact no rule of taxation, the negro representation ought to be given up.