Albert GallatinMemorandum on Louisiana Purchase

2.6 Albert Gallatin, Memorandum on Louisiana Purchase (1803), in Melvin I. Urofsky/ Paul Finkelman, Documents of American Constitutional History, Volume I, 2002, p. 162-165, excerpt

a) Background

In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson began to negotiate with the Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, for the purchase of the part of the French territory west of the United States. Specifically, Jefferson wanted to gain the city of New Orleans, and with it a Gulf Coast port for Americans who sent their products and goods down the Mississippi River. By the time serious negotiations began, Napoleon realized he would never recover what had been the crown jewel of the French Empire in America, Haiti, which he had lost when the slaves on that island overthrew their French masters. Thus, to Jefferson’s great surprise, Napoleon offered to sell the vast Louisiana Territory to the United States.
Jefferson badly wanted this huge tract of land, stretching from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains and from the Gulf Coast to Canada, but his belief in a narrow interpretation of the Constitution created a severe problem for him. Nothing in the Constitution, he believed, explicitly granted the national government power to acquire additional territory, a view shared by his attorney general, Levi Lincoln. For a while Jefferson thought he would have to secure a constitutional amendment in order to gain the territory but according to the introductory remarks to the document, his Secretary of the Treasury made an intervention to the contrary.

The text at hand is a personal memorandum of Albert Gallatin to President Thomas Jefferson, which is a set of arguments against the written arguments of attorney general Levi Lincolns in connection with the signing the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The Louisiana Purchase was the by far the greatest achievement of Thomas Jefferson as a President. It doubled the territory of the United States by a huge tract of land, stretching from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains and from the Gulf Coast to Canada. Albert Gallatin’s memorandum was instrumental for a swift and opportunity driven conclusion of the respective agreements with France.

Albert Gallatin deserved a title of statesman and is a special witness of Swissness in the Anthology. In the title of the new biography of Nikolaus Dongin, Gallatin is named “America’s Swiss Founding Father” (2011). The short biography of Albert Gallatin is described in the book as follows: “Born in Geneva to an older noble family and highly educated in the European tradition, Gallatin made contributions to America throughout his career that far outweigh any benefit he could claim for himself.  He got his first taste of politics in the Pennsylvania state legislature and went on to serve in the US senate – he had to resign, because he had not been a US citizen for the number of requested years in the constitution – and the House of Representatives. He became Secretary of the Treasury in the Jefferson Administration and later undertook a diplomatic mission for President Madison which ended the War of 1812 with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent and did give the United States its genuine independence. Gallatin continued in diplomatic diplomacy as minister to France and to Great Britain. At the age of 70 he retired from politics and started a new career in New York City as a banker, public figure and intellectual, helping to establish New York University and the American Ethnological Society and serving as president of the New York Historical Society. Gallatin died at the age of 88 and is buried in Manhattan’s Ttrinity Cchurch yard at Broadway and Wall Street.”

b) Summary

Albert Gallatin, Secretary of Commerce to President Thomas Jefferson, according to the introductory remarks to the document, realized that the time probably lost in seeking an amendment to the constitution could well lead the fickle Napoleon to withdraw his offer. In a memorandum to Thomas Jefferson on 13th January 1803, Gallatin laid out a constitutional basis for proceeding with the transaction. Gallatin, like Hamilton, in the dispute over the Bank of the United States took a broad view of constitutional powers and claimed that the treaty power included sovereign prerogatives such as acquiring new territory.

Eager to secure Louisiana, Jefferson followed Gallatin’s interpretation, which the Supreme Court later upheld. This document illustrates the remarkably flexible nature of American constitutional theory. While claiming to believe in strict construction as he did in his own arguments against the Bank of the United States, President Jefferson developed a far different notion of constitutional theory. This would be a pattern that most presidents would follow in subsequent years.

c) Text

You can find a scan (PDF) of the original text here:
A_2.6_GALLATIN_Memorandum Louisana

© Prof. Jens Drolshammer,,

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