Thomas Jefferson's Presidency: Louisiana Purchase, Lewis & Clark, and More

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  • 0:10 Completing D.C.
  • 1:46 Louisiana Purchase
  • 3:44 Essex Junto & Burr Conspiracy
  • 5:36 Exploring the West
  • 9:16 Outlawing Slave Trade
  • 10:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

Thomas Jefferson is often noted as one of the best presidents in history. In our lesson, learn about some of President Jefferson's many famous domestic accomplishments and the controversy surrounding most of them.

Completing Washington D.C.

Thomas Jefferson1801

Jefferson was the first president to be inaugurated in the new permanent capital, Washington, D.C., and live in the completed White House - though you may not recognize either building today. When he moved into the president's country mansion, he complained that it was 'big enough for two emperors, one pope and the Grand Lama in the bargain.' Jefferson claimed that he opposed grandeur and elitism, yet he immediately began designing additions to the White House (including the photogenic West Wing colonnade).

When Jefferson took office, only the north wing of the Capitol building was ready for occupation, and it was shared by Congress, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and the courts of the District of Columbia. In 1803, Jefferson approved funding to continue with construction. Though by the time the south wing was ready for use, the north section was in need of repair. Completing the Capitol might seem like an easy decision for us today, but Jefferson had promised that his administration would be frugal. However, this project wasn't nearly as controversial as his next big expenditure.

The Louisiana Purchase

Around the time of Jefferson's election, Napoleon Bonaparte was in secret negotiations with Spain to reclaim North American territory that France had lost after the French and Indian War. They reached an agreement, but soon after, events unfolded which left France nearly bankrupt in the middle of another war. Napoleon realized that he couldn't afford to defend the Louisiana Territory. So, when the United States approached him about buying New Orleans in order to control access to the Mississippi River, Napoleon offered to sell them all of his land on the continent for $15 million. While that may seem cheap (it works out to about $.04 an acre), and the land proved to be very valuable to America, the Constitution didn't give Jefferson power to make such a purchase. What's worse, he didn't consult with Congress over the deal, exactly the kind of expansion of presidential power that Jefferson said he opposed.

Think about how a modern president's opponents react when he oversteps his bounds. Now imagine if both his rivals and his friends were angry. Outrage over the Louisiana Purchase nearly split the country apart. Of course, some people approved, especially many Southerners. It doubled the size of the U.S. overnight, opening up huge amounts of inexpensive farmland. It guaranteed access to the Mississippi River. But many others vigorously opposed the purchase. Federalists thought it would lead to war with Spain. Congress, with its Democratic-Republican majority, opposed expanding the national debt, rather than eliminating it as Jefferson had promised. Members of both parties believed the purchase was unconstitutional. Some Northerners foresaw this as an expansion of slavery. Jefferson's opponents in the Northeast recognized that this would further reduce their political clout. Nonetheless, in 1803, the purchase was made and plans to explore it commenced.

The Essex Junto and the Burr Conspiracy

No political controversy today compares to the division in the country in 1803. The president's political enemies were ready to take action. The Essex Junto was a group of wealthy, powerful Federalists up in New England who thought Jefferson had overreached the power of the presidency with the Louisiana Purchase. They hatched a plot to secede from the United States. The key to their success would depend on getting New York to agree.

Thankfully, one of President Jefferson's staunchest political opponents - Alexander Hamilton - foiled the plot. The conspiracy had approached Vice President Aaron Burr and promised to help him win the governorship of New York if he'd make sure the state immediately seceded from the Union. Burr actually agreed, but his old nemesis, Hamilton, worked to secure his loss in that gubernatorial election. Without Burr and New York, the secession movement died. Burr was so angry he challenged Hamilton to a duel and killed him. Though murder charges against him were actually dropped, Burr's political career in the U.S. was, of course, over.

Upon leaving office, he went west and began planning what's known as the Burr Conspiracy. At that time, a lot of Americans thought that war with Spain was inevitable. Burr developed a plot to seize Spanish land in present-day Texas during the conflict and then create his own kingdom. Some evidence suggested that Burr was plotting to seize all of the Louisiana Territory, and Jefferson had him arrested for treason. Despite heavy pressure from Jefferson, the Supreme Court acquitted Burr on a couple of technicalities and a lack of hard evidence. The trial was a political and personal embarrassment for President Jefferson.

Exploring the West

In the same year that Burr was arrested (1806), Thomas Jefferson accomplished what may be his most enduring legacy as president: the successful completion of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Even before the purchase was made, Jefferson had created the Corps of Discovery to send explorers through the new land (and beyond) to the Pacific Ocean. The president hired his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, and Lewis' friend, William Clark, to lead the expedition.

The 33 members of the so-called 'permanent party' departed from St. Louis on May 14, 1804. Along the way, they were joined by various people, including a French trapper and his Shoshone wife, Sacajawea, who served as cooks, translators and diplomats. Their infant son, nicknamed Pomp, helped indicate the Corps' peaceful intentions to the people they encountered.

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