American History in HD: Westward
In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson purchased the territory of Louisiana from the French government for $15 million. The Louisiana Purchase stretched from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and from Canada to New Orleans, and it doubled the size of the United States. To Jefferson, westward expansion was the key to the nation’s health: He believed that a republic depended on an independent, virtuous citizenry for its survival, and that independence and virtue went hand in hand with land ownership, especially the ownership of small farms. ("Those who labor in the earth," he wrote, "are the chosen people of God.") In order to provide enough land to sustain this ideal population of virtuous yeomen, the United States would have to continue to expand.
The westward expansion of the United States is one of the defining themes of 19th-century American history, but it is not just the story of Jefferson’s expanding "empire of liberty." On the contrary, as one historian writes, in the six decades after the Louisiana Purchase, westward expansion "very nearly destroy[ed] the republic."