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Jefferson and Napoleon

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Despite popular perception, presidents are at the mercy of events. Historical factors can interfere, impede, advance, or help a presidential administration. Vietnam destroyed Lyndon Johnson, Lincoln transformed the Civil War into a moral crusade against slavery, and Barack Obama inadvertently aided Vladimir Putin’s Russian resurgence. Likewise, Thomas Jefferson fell victim to, and benefited from, events half a world away. The Napoleonic Wars impacted the entire western world, including the United States. The conflict allowed the U.S. to purchase Louisiana, but also led to a major economic depression. In the end, Jefferson’s greatest presidential achievement, and his greatest failure, came at Napoleon’s hand.

Napoleon proved invincible in the first few years of the nineteenth century. However, war cost an exorbitant amount to finance. The French emperor needed cash to pay for his army. At the same time, he had acquired the Louisiana Territory from Spain via conquest. For a moment, he toyed with the idea of creating an American empire, but the Haitian slave uprising changed his mind. By 1803, Napoleon felt the colonies not worth the effort. As a result, he approached the United States with an amazing offer.

Napoleon’s diplomats offered to sell the Louisiana Territory to America for about 3 cents an acre. The total amount came to $3.7 million ($236 million in today’s terms). The area comprised all or part of 15 future states. Jefferson recognized the advantages immediately. The territory provided land for a booming population, potential scientific discoveries, and the purchase eliminated any potential future French threat on the American border.

Many Americans believed the purchase unconstitutional because the document did not contain any clauses pertaining to geographic expansion. Additionally, Federalists worried that Louisiana would lead to the creation of many new states that would support the Democratic-Republicans. Spain protested claiming they actually held title to the land. Jeffersonians held a majority in congress, so the president forwarded the treaty to the senate for approval and requested the funds from the House of Representatives. Both bodies rubber stamped Jefferson’s requests and the United States officially gained control of the Louisiana Territory courtesy Napoleon Bonaparte. The Louisiana Purchase became Jefferson’s greatest accomplishment as president.

Napoleon handed Jefferson the triumph, but later the French emperor provided Jefferson’s greatest failure. Britain and France engaged in a death struggle in Europe and around the globe. The United States fell victim to the European power struggle on the high seas. Both nations violated American neutrality by hijacking vessels in the Atlantic. They imposed embargoes on one another and attacked shipping to enforce the acts. Napoleon decided to implement the Continental System by which his empire would acquire all the goods they needed within Europe. The French ruler planned to starve the British out through embargo and blockade. The British responded in kind and even went as far as kidnapping American sailors. These actions eventually led to the War of 1812.

Jefferson did not want war. He knew the United States was unprepared following his military cuts. As a result, the president had limited options. Jefferson decided to stop all trade to Europe through the Embargo Act of 1807. The president believed that Britain and France would crawl back to the United States once the lack of trade decimated their economies. However, Europe essentially became a French fortress, so Bonaparte did not need American trade. Meanwhile, the British still presided over a large empire that could fill their trade needs. As a result, Jefferson’s beliefs turned out erroneous. Europe did not need American trade and did not really notice the embargo.

While the embargo had little impact on Europe, it devastated the American economy. Jefferson created a depression, particularly in the New England shipyards. Lumber, shipping, and manufacturing all suffered dramatically. The act made Jefferson look hypocritical since he supported “small government.” Additionally, it breathed life into the terminally ill Federalist Party. Many desperate sailors ignored the act and became smugglers. Jefferson eventually admitted failure and signed the Embargo Act’s repeal.

Thomas Jefferson enjoyed a spectacularly successful first term in office, but his second term proved just as spectacular a failure. Napoleon provided the impetus for both Jefferson’s success and failure. He sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States and initiated the Continental System. In the former case, the president received the credit for the amazing acquisition. In the latter case, Jefferson responded with a devastating embargo which ruined the U.S. economy. Sometimes, presidents are at the mercy of events and other leaders for their success or failure.