- Historic Sites
The Moment Of Decision
When Harry Truman was President of the United States he kept on his desk a little sign with the reminder: “The buck stops here.” This was his way of telling himself that when the responsibility for decision conies to a President, he has to meet it all alone. He can ask for all kinds of advice, and any amount of briefing, but he has to make up his mind by himself. Once in a generation or so his decisions send powerful echoes down the years. They may take the country along a path never before followed, enlarge the powers of the American government itself, or commit the whole nation to a policy or a program that will have permanent and vital effect. At such moments the President has to have vision, courage, and a sense of historic mission. To illustrate the matter, we consider below five moments in time in which a President made a decision whose consequences to the republic still endure.
August 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 5
Consider, to begin with, the situation that confronted President Thomas Jefferson in 1803. The United States then was a very young country, of uncertain unity and with dubious prospects for survival, and it was trying to steer a middle course between the imperial rivalries of England and France. Most of its people lived east of the Alleghenies, but the westward movement had begun and the land beyond the mountains was being settled all the way to the Mississippi; by 1800 nearly a million Americans lived in that western country, and more were going there every year. Because it was so hard and costly to transport goods across the moun: tains, these settlers could not hope to prosper unless they could use the Mississippi River as their commercial highway to the outer world.
For a time this was no problem. The immense area known as Louisiana, over 800,000 square miles of wilderness running westward from the river to the Rockies, was held by Spain, a weak and declining power, and Spain left the river open. The westerners could send their farm produce to New Orleans for export, importing manufactured goods in the same way, and all was well. Then, in 1802, it became known that Spain had secretly transferred all of Louisiana to France. Napoleon obviously wanted to re-create the New World empire France had lost a generation earlier. His grip on the Mississippi and its mouth was certain to be firmer and more aggressive than that of Spain had ever been. Once he took full possession, the American West would be entirely at his mercy.
Jefferson knew he might have to discard the American policy of avoiding entangling alliances and, as he put it, “marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation.” First, however, he would try peaceful negotiations. He sent fames Monroe to Paris to join Robert Livingston, the American minister, and see whether Napoleon woidd sell New Orleans, which would give America control of the mouth of the Mississippi.
By this time, however, Napoleon was oft on a new tack. The war in Europe was to be renewed, and he suddenly abandoned his plan for a New World empire in order to concentrate on his struggle with Great Britain. To the amazement of Monroe and Livingston he calmly offered to sell, not just New Orleans, but the entire territory of Louisiana. Price: $15,000,000.
Thomas Jefferson was not really taken by surprise. He was as acute a master of geopolitics as the world ever saw, and the notion that the United States should someday possess all of this western country had been in his mind for a long time. He was well aware that to buy New Orleans woidd be, ultimately, to get all of Louisiana; as early as 1801 he had laid plans for American exploration of the Missouri country, and at the beginning of 1803 he persuaded Congress to vote money for what presently became the Lewis and Clark expedition, specifying that this was “for the purpose of extending the external commerce of the United States.” When he learned that Napoleon was willing to sell all of Louisiana he wrote that “I believed the event not very distant, but acknowledge that it came on sooner than I had expected.”
In other words, Jefferson knew very well what he wanted to do. He was also fully aware that if he did it he would change America forever. His own dream of America as a homespun agricultural country would vanish; America would become a continental power, ultimately a world power, and homespun simplicities would be gone forever. Also, to buy Louisiana might not even be legal; perhaps it would be necessary to amend the Constitution before the deal could be made. But to do that would mean delay, Napoleon might again change his mind—and, on the whole, Jefferson decided to go ahead.
So he submitted the proposed treaty to the Senate and pushed it through, got Congress to appropriate the necessary money—and changed the whole future course of American history. The point is that at the crucial moment the decision was Jefferson’s to make. He made it, and the seeds of greatness began to sprout.
“Our Union: it must be preserved!”
The problem that faced Andrew Jackson early in the 1830’s was of a different sort altogether. It involved not the expansion of the United States but the matter of holding it together. What Jackson ran into was the first vigorous assertion of the southern belief that the Union could be dissolved whenever an individual state felt that its own interests were threatened.
The tariff question lay at the bottom of it. By and large, the North wanted tariff protection and the South wanted free trade, and a moderately protective tariff passed in 1828 struck southerners as highly discriminatory. Vice President John C. Calhoun, from South Carolina, became principal spokesman for the theory that the states were sovereign and so could nullify any act of the federal government which seemed harmful to them.