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Celebrating The Expansion Of Our Nation

Jul 3, 2013
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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

If you picked up a newspaper on this day in 1803, one of the biggest stories in this country's history would probably have been front page, above the fold. Two hundred ten years ago today, President Thomas Jefferson announced that he doubled the size of the country overnight in a deal called the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson approved the deal, buying the land from the French in April of that year, but he waited until the young country's birthday, July Fourth, to announce it.

With just $15 million, he bought more than 800,000 square miles of land, and with that, Americans could add a great deal of land to their country. The giant stretch of land from the Mississippi River over the Rocky Mountains, from New Orleans to the Canadian border.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC)

HEADLEE: It was a great deal, possibly the best in history, at three cents per acre in today's value, but Jefferson anguished over the decision. There was no denying the land was important so the country could grow with the potential to one day stretch the states from sea to shining sea. But Jefferson thought the purchase would be unconstitutional because the Constitution had no provision allowing the purchase of foreign lands.

Still, he bowed under pressure, approved the deal and admitted in private he had, quote, stretched the Constitution 'til it cracked. The next year, Jefferson sent Captain Meriwether Lewis and William Clark out to explore the purchase. In their team there was a single Native American, Sacajawea. The territory was new to white settlers, but it was already home to countless tribes. And even though the Louisiana purchase came with some controversy, it focused American eyes out West. It brought us a million joys: the American bison, the Rocky Mountains and, who can forget, quintessential New Orleans jazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.