Saturday, January 19, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Three, It's All Jefferson's Fault

It's a hell of a way to open up a blog post, you think?  Blaming Thomas Jefferson for everything?

Well, not everything.  But still...

We're up to the example of Presidential Character for the Active-Positive types.  The one word to describe this type is Adaptive: these are the guys who enjoy not just the perks of being the President but also the duties, self-deprecating but also self-confident, self-starters who seek accomplishments and problems to solve before anyone else even realizes there's a problem, and someone willing to compromise with others in politics to get things done.

The perfect example of Jefferson's adaptive style was the biggest event during his tenure: the Louisiana Purchase.  By Jefferson's administration France fell under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte, and during his reign building up to Emperor Napoleon had negotiated Spain - then a vassal state under his brother's rule - to hand over the Louisiana Territory that took up the middle third of the North American continent.  His intent was an overseas empire combined with French holdings in the Caribbean.  However, ongoing disasters with Haiti including a slave uprising discouraged Napoleon to where he decided against keeping it.  At the same time, Jefferson had sent envoys to France to negotiate either a lease or the purchase of the City of New Orleans, the key trading port of the Mississippi River.  Jefferson feared that if Napoleon secured Louisiana, he could tie up a major waterway route for the western edge of where the United States then reached.

Instead of negotiating over New Orleans, Napoleon offered up all of the Louisiana Territory.  For $15 million.  Even in that time, this was effing dirt-cheap (roughly 3 cents for every acre) and essentially the biggest land deal of the millennium (well, for the U.S.  For the native tribes already living in the Territory, they never saw one red cent).  Napoleon either didn't know the value of land, or simply wanted to get rid of what he then saw as useless (he also probably sought to buy off American neutrality as his war against Britain was kicking into high gear again).

This quickly became a major dilemma for Jefferson, for two reasons: One, he simply wasn't prepared for such a major land-mass addition to the nation's frontier; two, there wasn't any rule for this anywhere in the Constitution.

I need to back up a bit and note how Jefferson was the leader, the banner carrier of the Democratic-Republican Party.  Unlike the Federalists who used a loose interpretation of the Constitution to establish laws and precedence, the Democrats believed in strict interpretation of the Constitution, including the limitations of powers on the Executive and ensuring the states had rights nearly comparable to the federal government.  Jefferson's original view of government was opposed to a strong Federal system.

But now here was something challenging that view.  He may have had power to conduct treaties and leasing arrangements, but there was no authority in the Constitution to make a land purchase from a foreign nation of this size.  Jefferson could have gone to Congress, explained the deal Napoleon was offering, and wait for Congress to give him the political authority via amendment to get the deal done.  But that meant working with a Congress that could bicker over every detail, delaying what was clearly an impulse buy: Napoleon could well change his mind within another week or month waiting for something to happen and kill the offer.

So Jefferson did what any Active-Positive would do: he broke his own rules.  He authorized the purchase without first securing Constitutional authority to do so, pressing Congress to get the funds lined up as quick as possible.

And so, thanks to Jefferson's A-P attitudes, we went from being a decent-sized nation made up of states into an expanding pre-formed empire with enough territory to double in size and to equal the same land-mass as most of Europe.  Before this, no one had any notion of Manifest Destiny: the Pacific Coast seemed so far off.  After this, reaching the Pacific was now a genuine possibility (and the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery proved it, although their original intent to find a Northwest Passage water route didn't pan out).  And now all of a sudden the issue of slavery, which was confined to southern states and territories and could have moved no further than the Mississippi, became a bigger hot potato... underlying the passions under the colonization of Texas by southerners, leading to their rebellion against Mexico... leading to Texas annexation into the U.S. and soon after stirring up the Mexican-American War, solidifying our nation's reach between two oceans... adding even more territory that slave-owners sought to acquire for their ever-growing reliance on slave labor economics.

This kinda needs to be pointed out that Active-Positive Presidents are NOT always good things, no matter how... positive... the wording seems.  A-Ps are active and very aggressive with their powers... and while they resolve a lot of challenges they never take into consideration the consequences of their actions (political axiom: Every political action generates an unequal and disproportionate reaction (pa < dpr) ).  In short, they are quick to act, but fail to plan ahead (Active-Negatives tend to at least put more thought into what they're doing).

Another example is Jefferson's attempt to engage Great Britain for transgressions during the Napoleonic Wars.  The United States tried to remain neutral but England kept impressing - raiding American ships and taking crewmen the British claimed were deserters - to the point of the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair.  Rather than pursue the threat of war - Jefferson knew as his predecessors did that the U.S. was in no condition for war - Jefferson tried instead a series of embargoes blocking off all trade with Great Britain.  He figured that the lost trade would hurt England enough to force them to terms.  He failed to figure that the American traders would also get hurt in the process - and that England had other trade partners and colonial holdings to keep them stocked with supplies.  The embargoes failed quickly and spectacularly, causing major rifts across the U.S., and Jefferson ended his term of office repealing those acts before they caused more damage.

Jefferson's two terms of office were very active indeed, more than the administrations of the first two Presidents Washington and Adams.  But a lot of those actions had unintended consequences, which led to things like the War of 1812, the march of Manifest Destiny - which Natives, Mexicans, and even Americans would come to loath - and the increasing debate over slavery.  Whether or not Jefferson's actions were good, the positive aspects of his actions are obvious... and the negative aspects are obvious as well.  The debates will not end here.  Not until much later...

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