Modern history

Extending U.S. Borders

Thomas Jefferson, like other leading Democratic-Republicans, favored limited government, imagining a nation made up of small, independent farmers who had little need and less desire for an expansive federal government (see chapter 7). Initially, the president was successful in imposing his vision on the young government. By the middle of his first term, however, developments in international affairs converged with Supreme Court rulings to expand federal power. Jefferson contributed directly to this expansion by purchasing the Louisiana Territory from France. In turn, the development of this vast territory raised new questions about the place of Indians and African Americans in a republican society.

A New Administration Faces Challenges

In 1801 Democratic-Republicans worked quickly to implement their vision of limited federal power. Holding the majority in Congress, they repealed the hated whiskey tax and let the Alien and Sedition Acts expire. The Senate also approved Jefferson’s appointment of Albert Gallatin, who served as a lawyer for the whiskey rebels, as secretary of the treasury. The president significantly reduced government expenditures, and he and Gallatin immediately set about slashing the national debt, cutting it nearly in half by the end ofJefferson’s second term. Democratic-Republicans also worked to curb the powers granted to the Bank of the United States and the federal court system.

Soon, however, international upheavals forced Jefferson to make fuller use of his presidential powers. The U.S. government had paid tribute to the Barbary States of North Africa during the 1790s to gain protection for American merchant ships. The new president opposed this practice and in 1801 refused to continue the payments. The Barbary pirates quickly resumed attacks on American ships, and Jefferson was forced to send the U.S. navy and Marine Corps to retaliate. Although the combined American and Arab mercenary force did not achieve their objective of capturing Tripoli, the Ottoman viceroy agreed to negotiate a new agreement with the United States. Seeking to avoid all-out war, Congress accepted a treaty with the Barbary States that reduced the tribute payment.

Jefferson had also followed the developing crisis in the West Indies during the 1790s. In 1791 slaves on the sugar-rich island of Saint Domingue launched a revolt against French rule. The Haitian Revolution escalated into a complicated conflict in which free people of color, white slave owners, and slaves formed competing alliances with British and Spanish forces as well as with leaders of the French Revolution. Finally, in December 1799, Toussaint L’Ouverture, a former slave and military leader, claimed the presidency of the new Republic of Haiti. But Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in France that same year and sent thousands of troops to reclaim the island. Although Toussaint was shipped off to France, where he died in prison, other Haitian rebels continued the fight. As the struggle intensified, thousands of Haitian refugees, black and white, fled to the United States. However, by November 1803, prolonged fighting, yellow fever, and the loss of sixty thousand soldiers forced Napoleon to admit defeat. Haiti became the first independent black-led nation in the Americas.

Incorporating the Louisiana Territory

Thomas Jefferson had enthusiastically supported the American and French revolutions, but he was not sympathetic to an independent black nation. Nonetheless, in France’s defeat he saw an opportunity to gain navigation rights on the Mississippi River, which the French controlled. This was a matter of crucial concern to Americans living west of the Appalachian Mountains. Jefferson sent fellow Virginian James Monroe to France to offer Napoleon $2 million to ensure Americans the right of navigation and deposit (that is, offloading cargo from ships) on the Mississippi. To Jefferson’s surprise, Napoleon offered instead to sell the entire Louisiana Territory for $15 million.

The president agonized over the constitutionality of such a purchase. Since the Constitution contained no provisions for buying land from foreign nations, a strict interpretation would not allow the purchase. In the end, though, the opportunity proved too tempting, and in late 1803 the president finally agreed to buy the Louisiana Territory based on a loose interpretation of the Constitution. Because the acquisition of the vast territory proved enormously popular among both politicians and ordinary Americans, few cared that it expanded presidential and congressional powers.

Congress soon appropriated funds for an exploratory expedition known as the Corps of Discovery to map the terrain. This effort, which Sacagawea and her husband joined, was led by Captain Meriwether Lewis, who had served as Jefferson’s personal secretary, and William Clark, an army officer. Beginning on May 14, 1804, Lewis, Clark, and three dozen men traveled thousands of miles up the Missouri River, through the northern plains, over the Rocky Mountains, and beyond the Louisiana Territory to the Pacific coast. Members of the expedition meticulously recorded observations about local plants and animals as well as Indian residents, providing valuable evidence for young scientists like Parker Cleaveland and fascinating information for ordinary Americans.

Sacagawea was the only Indian to travel as a permanent member of the expedition, but other native women and men assisted the Corps when it journeyed near their villages. They provided food and lodging for the travelers, hauled baggage up steep mountain trails, and offered food, horses, and other trade items. The one African American on the expedition, a slave named York, also helped negotiate trade with local Indians. York recognized his value as a trader, hunter, and scout and asked Clark for his freedom when the expedition ended in 1806. York did eventually become a free man, but it is not clear whether it was by Clark’s choice or because York escaped.

Other expeditions followed Lewis and Clark’s successful venture. In 1806 Lieutenant Zebulon Pike led a group to explore the southern portion of the Louisiana Territory (Map 8.1). After traveling from St. Louis to the Rocky Mountains, the expedition traveled into Mexican territory. In early 1807, Pike and his men were captured by Mexican forces. They were returned to the United States at the Louisiana border that July. Pike had learned a great deal about lands that would eventually become part of the United States and about Mexican desires to overthrow Spanish rule, information that proved valuable over the next two decades.

Early in this series of expeditions, in November 1804, Jefferson stood for reelection, winning an easy victory. His popularity among farmers, already high, increased when Congress passed an act that reduced the minimum allotment for federal land sales from 320 to 160 acres. This act allowed more farmers to purchase land on their own rather than via speculators. Yet by the time of his second inauguration in March 1805, the president’s vision of limiting the powers of the federal government had been shattered by his own actions and those of the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court Extends Its Reach

The Supreme Court, the last bastion of Federalist power, extended its reach during Jefferson’s presidency. In 1801, just before the Federalist-dominated Congress turned over power to the Democratic-Republicans, it passed a new Judiciary Act. The act created six additional circuit courts and sixteen new judgeships, which President Adams filled with Federalist “midnight appointments” before he left office. Jefferson accused the Federalists of having “retired into the judiciary” and worried that “from that battery all the works of Republicanism are to be beaten down and destroyed.” Meanwhile John Marshall, who sat as the chief justice of the Supreme Court (1801—1835), insisted that the powers of the Court must be equal to and balance those of the executive and legislative branches.

One of the first cases to test the Court’s authority involved a dispute over President Adams’s midnight appointments. Jefferson’s newly appointed secretary of state, James Madison, refused to deliver the appointment papers to several of these appointees, including William Marbury. Marbury and three others sued Madison to receive their commissions. In Marbury v. Madison (1803), the Supreme Court ruled that it was not empowered to force the executive branch to give Marbury his commission. But in his decision, Chief Justice Marshall declared that the Supreme Court did have the duty “to say what the law is.” He thus asserted a fundamental constitutional point: that the Supreme Court had the authority to decide what federal laws were constitutional. The following year, the Court also claimed the right to rule on the constitutionality of state laws. In doing so, the Court rejected the view of Democratic-Republicans who claimed that state legislatures had the power to repudiate federal law.

MAP 8.1

Lewis and Clark and Zebulon Pike Expeditions, 1804-1807 The expeditions led by Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and Zebulon Pike illustrate the vast regions explored in just four years after the purchase of the Louisiana Territory by the United States. Lewis and Clark as well as Pike journeyed through and beyond the borders of that territory, gathering important information about Indian nations, plants, animals, and the natural terrain throughout the West.

Over the next dozen years, the Supreme Court continued to assert Federalist principles. In 1810, to strengthen its claims for judicial review, the nation’s highest court insisted that it was the proper and sole arena for determining matters of constitutional interpretation. In another case, McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), the Federalist-dominated Court reinforced its loose interpretation of the Constitution’s implied powers clause. This clause gave the federal government the right to “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper” for carrying out the explicit powers granted to it by the Constitution. Federalists had used this clause to establish the first national bank. Despite Democratic- Republicans’ early opposition to a national bank, Congress chartered the Second Bank of the United States in 1816. Its branch banks issued notes that circulated widely in local business communities. Legislators in Maryland, believing that these banks had gained excessive power, approved a tax on their operations. Marshall’s Court ruled that the establishment of the bank was “necessary and proper” for the functioning of the national government and rejected Maryland’s right to tax the branch bank, claiming that “the power to tax involves the power to destroy.”

By 1820 the Supreme Court, under the forceful direction of John Marshall, had established the power of judicial review—the authority of the nation’s highest court to rule on cases involving states as well as the nation. From the Court’s perspective, the judiciary was as important an institution in framing and preserving a national agenda as Congress or the president.

Democratic-Republicans Expand Federal Powers

Although Democratic-Republicans generally opposed Marshall’s rulings, they, too, continued to expand federal power. Once again, international developments drove the Jefferson administration’s political agenda. By 1805 the security of the United States was threatened by continued conflicts between France and Great Britain. Both sought alliances with the young nation, and both ignored U.S. claims of neutrality. Indeed, each nation sought to punish Americans for trading with the other. Britain began stopping American ships carrying sugar and molasses from the French West Indies on the pretense of searching them for British deserters. Between 1802 and 1811, the Royal Navy impressed (forced into service) more than eight thousand sailors taken from such ships, including many American citizens. Remembering similar abuses during the colonial period, Americans demanded action. Yet the United States was in no position to launch a war against Great Britain. France claimed a similar right to stop American ships if they continued to trade with Great Britain.

Unable to convince foreign powers to recognize U.S. neutrality, Jefferson and Madison pushed for congressional passage of an embargo that they hoped would, like colonial boycotts, force Great Britain’s hand. In 1807 Congress passed the Embargo Act, which prohibited U.S. ships from leaving their home ports until Britain and France repealed their restrictions on American trade. Although the act kept the United States out of war, it had a devastating impact on national commerce.

New England merchants immediately voiced their outrage. Some merchants began sending items to Europe via Canada. In response, Congress passed the Force Act, granting extraordinary powers to customs officials to end such smuggling. The economic pain spread well beyond the merchant class. Young professionals like Parker Cleaveland were affected by the embargo-fueled recession; he was forced to sell his home to the Bowdoin trustees and become their tenant in 1807. Farmers and planters also suffered the embargo’s effects, as did urban workers, especially in port cities where sailors and dockworkers faced escalating unemployment. The recession raised deep concerns about the expansion of federal power. Congress and the president had not simply regulated international trade; they had brought it to a halt.

In Jefferson’s first inaugural address, he acknowledged that “it will rarely fall to the lot of imperfect man to retire from this station [the presidency] with the reputation and the favor which bring him into it.” Not only had Jefferson failed to contain the powers of the federal government, but the Embargo Act also threatened the livelihood of those who had once seen him as their champion. At the end of his second term, a Philadelphia seaman wrote to him, claiming that because of the Embargo Act he had lost what little he owned and threatening to “throttle his honored neck.”

Despite such sentiments, many Americans still viewed Jefferson favorably. He had devoted his adult life to the creation of the American Republic, and he had purchased the Louisiana Territory, opening up vast lands to American exploration and development. This geographical boon had encouraged inventors and artisans to pursue ideas that would help the young nation take full advantage of its resources and recover from its current economic plight.


• How did Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans contribute to the expansion of the role of the federal government in American life?

• How did the conflict between France and Great Britain in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries lead to domestic problems in the United States?

You can support the site and the Armed Forces of Ukraine by following the link to Buy Me a Coffee.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!