Happy Presidents’ Day. The presidency has had its highs and its lows and the Oval Office, as well as being held by some of the greatest Americans, has also had its share of indignitaries (I’m talking to you, President Harding and President Clinton). But, in spite of the fact that it has not always been held by people who were up to snuff, the institution has proved much more enduring than so many who have embodied it.
It is easy to talk of profiles in courage. Too easy. Instead, this article will be devoted to the best presidential real estate deals that the country has yet known. These would not have been possible without men (so far, all have been men, though that might change in three years) who had the foresight to improve America by buying more of it.
Here are the greatest hits:
1. Thomas Jefferson.
If foresight had a name, "Tom Jefferson" would be it. Today, the Louisiana Purchase seems a no-brainer. Who else in history has doubled the size of a country for approximately the budget of the film Avatar (when adjusted for inflation)? But Jefferson still faced domestic opposition to the deal, not the least of which from his own party. The House of Representatives approved the deal — by two votes. Jefferson probably was conflicted about the purchase himself. After all, acquiring new lands was not strictly constitutional and if there was anything about which the Jefferson administration was Pharisaical, it was following the letter of the Constitution. Still, the Louisiana Purchase yielded agricultural and mineral treasures which we are only beginning to discover. Not only would generations of Americans grow crops from the soil but we are now beginning to discover all the treasures that lay underneath it, in places like Oklahoma and South Dakota and Montana. And that for only a few cents an acre. Now that is smart business.
2. James Monroe.
Monroe is forever doomed to be remembered as the guy who was president while John Quincy Adams was secretary of state. The chief legacies of the Monroe presidency, the purchase of Florida and the Monroe Doctrine, had Adams’s fingerprints all over them. But one must give credit for authorization where it is due. Florida was one acquisition that the United States had been after for years, but the opportunity did not arise until after Spain was weakened by the Napoleonic Wars and needed to think of ways to reconsolidate its American colonies. Adams realized the historic opportunity, but Monroe gave him support, even as some member s of the cabinet got cold feet. The treaty would also later serve to strengthen American claims to the Oregon Territory (which included Washington, Idaho and part of Montana as well). And at a very reasonable price of $5,000,000. Of course, to seal the deal, the United States threw in any claims it had to Texas. I suppose one cannot have everything.
3. Franklin Pierce.
Who? If Monroe is the president remembered for having Adams as secretary of state, Pierce (along with his illustrious contemporaries, John Tyler and Millard Fillmore) is remembered as being the president who no student remembers in 7th grade American History. Even so, Pierce may have managed to outgrow his predecessors’ shoes (barely) by getting one major purchase to his name. That was the Gadsden Purchase, the acquisition of a stretch of land that today constitutes southern Arizona and New Mexico. The purpose for the acquisition was less than admirable and strongly supported by Southern partisans like Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (who wanted to build a Southern transcontinental railroad which would shore up the business interests of slave-owning states.) The Civil War interrupted the development of the railroad which would not see significant development until the 1870s. But having lived in the territory, I can say it isn’t a bad place to get some dust on your boots. Just mind the tarantulas, scorpions, rattlesnakes, and javelinas.
4. Andrew Johnson.
One of the worst presidents in American history still made one of the best real estate decisions we have yet known. Again it was the secretary of state who made the significant overtures, but the president authorized the deal. A polar bear garden called Alaska? Most definitely. William Seward, one of the greatest statesmen in American history, considered the future state’s 1867 purchase from Russia to be his greatest achievement, though it was referred to at the time as “Seward’s icebox.” Seward himself admitted that it would take a generation for anyone to find out why the deal was worth it. And, with the Alaskan Gold Rush beginning in 1896, he was just about right on.
Whether you have a fishing cabin near Anchorage, Alaska; a ranch house in southern Arizona; a beach home in the Florida Keys; or a gold claim in the Wyoming Rockies, you didn’t build that alone. Some decision of a Jefferson or a Monroe or a Pierce or a Johnson built it too. And all of these purchases for less than one thousandth of the land value of New York City’s Central Park. That doesn’t mean it did not “seem like a bad idea at the time.” But these purchases are testament to the fact that creating so much more America was not just about investing in land. It was about investing in the future.