Envisaging the West: Thomas Jefferson and the Roots of Lewis and Clark


Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Dickinson

Thomas Jefferson to John Dickinson, August 9, 1803
Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress
Thomas Jefferson expresses his pleasure at the Louisiana Purchase, and explains the importance of the territory as a buffer against Spanish expansion.

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Monticello, Aug 9, 1803.

Dear Sir,

Your friendly favor of the 1st inst. is received with that welcome which always accompanies the approbation of the wise & good. The acquisition of New Orleans Maps: would of itself have been a great thing, as it would have ensured to our western brethren the means of exporting their produce: but that of Louisiana is inappreciable, because, giving us the sole dominion of the Missisipi Maps: , it excludes those bickerings with foreign powers, which we know of a certainty would have put us at war with France immediately: and it secures to us the course of a peaceable nation.

The unquestioned bounds of Louisiana are the Iberville & Missisipi Maps: on the east, the Mexicana Maps: , or the Highlands east of it, on the west; then from the head of the Mexicana Maps: gaining the highlands which include the waters of the Missisipi Maps: , and following those highlands round the head springs of the western waters of the Missisipi Maps: to its source where we join the English or perhaps to the Lake of the Woods Maps: . This may be considered as a triangle, one leg of which is the length of the Missouri Maps: , the other of the Missisipi Maps: , and the hypothenuse running from the source of the Missouri Maps: to the mouth of the Missisipi Maps: . I should be averse to exchanging any part of this, for the Floridas, because it would let Spain into the Missisipi Maps: on the principle of natural right, we have always urged & are now urging to her, that a nation inhabiting the upper part of a stream has a right of innocent passage down that stream to the ocean: and because the Floridas will fall to us peaceably the first war Spain is engaged in. We have some pretensions to extend the western territory of Louisiana to the Rio Norte Maps: , or Bravo Maps: ; and still stronger the eastern boundary to the Rio Perdido between the rivers Mobile Maps: & Pensacola. These last are so strong that France had not relinquished them & our negotiator expressly declared we should claim them, by properly availing ourselves of these with offers of a price, and our peace, we shall get the Floridas in good time.

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and in the mean time we shall enter on the exercise of the right of passing down all the rivers which rising in our territory, run thro' the Floridas. Spain will not oppose it by force. But there is a difficulty in this acquisition which presents a handle to the malcontents among us, though they have not yet discovered it. Our confederation is certainly confined to the limits established by the revolution. The general government has no powers but such as the constitution has given it; and it has not given it a power of holding foreign territory, & still less of incorporating it into the Union. An amendment of the Constitution seems necessary for this. In the meantime we must ratify & pay our money, as we have treated, for a thing beyond the constitution, and rely on the nation to sanction an act done for its great good, without its previous authority. With respect to the disposal of the country, we must take the island of New Orleans Maps: and west side of the river as high up as Point coupee, containing nearly the whole inhabitants, say about 50,000, and erect it into a state, or annex it to the Missisipi territory: and shut up all the rest from settlement for a long time to come, endeavoring to exchange some of the country there unoccupied by Indians for the lands held by the Indians on this side the Missisipi Maps: , who will be glad to cede us their country here for an equivalent there: and we may sell out our lands here & pay the whole debt contracted before it comes due. The impost which will be paid by the inhabitants ceded will pay half the interest of the price we give: so that we really add only half the price to our debt. I have indulged myself in these details because the subject being new, it is advantageous to interchange ideas on it and to get our notions all corrected before we are obliged to act on them. In this idea I receive & shall receive with pleasure anything which may occur to you.

Accept my affectionate salutations & assurances of my constant & great esteem & respect.
Th: Jefferson