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The Washington Post Company


By Jonathan Yardley

April 27, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Washington Post Company. All rights reserved. 

The Louisiana Purchase And The Destiny Of America

Book by Jon Kukla

Knopf. 430 pp. $30

Two hundred years ago this week -- April 30, 1803, to be precise -- the United States and France reached an agreement of historic proportions. For a price not immediately specified -- it came, in the end, to $23,527,872.57 -- France sold to the United States the entire Louisiana Territory and the right to navigate the Mississippi River. The total of 529,402,880 acres, the vast majority of it never seen by anyone in the administration of Thomas Jefferson, was thus had for approximately four cents an acre. It stretched from what we now know as Louisiana northward along the course of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers all the way to the Pacific Northwest, which was first explored beginning the following year in the celebrated expedition of Lewis and Clark.

Jon Kukla, in A Wilderness So Immense, quotes Bernard DeVoto: "No event in all American history -- not the Civil War, nor the Declaration of Independence, nor even the signing of the Constitution -- was more important." Considering that the West was DeVoto's great subject, it is understandable that he made this claim, one that many other historians no doubt would be quick to challenge. But no one will dispute that the Louisiana Purchase forever changed the United States, bringing into it the vast territory beyond the Mississippi and thus enabling the settlement of the West: the frontier, Manifest Destiny and all that. More treaties and deals remained to be made before the country could reach its present dimensions, but the Louisiana Purchase opened the way for all of them, in a stroke transforming a struggling, troubled new nation at the far edge of civilization into an incipient world power.

It is a dramatic moment in American history, a turning point if ever there was one, yet the story of how it came to pass is surprisingly undramatic. It was accomplished after a couple of decades of diplomatic maneuvers primarily involving Spain along with the two parties to the treaty itself. There was a fair amount of saber-rattling by all involved, but no battles were fought and no casualties reported, at least none directly attributable to the purchase. Men of the utmost historical significance played roles in the tale, most notably Jefferson and Napoleon, yet these two never actually met each other, thus depriving us (not to mention historians) of what might well have been an extraordinary encounter.

The story begins just after the American Revolution. Spain had in the late 18th century a splendid empire: "The New World dominions of His Most Catholic Majesty Carlos III embraced all of Mexico, Central America, and South America except the Guianas and Brazil. Of the major Caribbean islands, he held Cuba, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, and Trinidad. Of the territory that now comprises the United States, he ruled Florida, coastal Alabama and Mississippi, the east bank of the Mississippi River from Natchez to the Gulf of Mexico, and virtually everything west of the river and south of Canada."

It was a mighty empire but a vulnerable one, especially in the lower Mississippi. The silver mines of Mexico "accounted for half the export trade of the entire Spanish empire," yet only Louisiana stood as "the buffer between those mines and a boisterous adolescent republic," the United States. Spain feared, with reason, that unruly Americans, if permitted to sail the Mississippi south to New Orleans, could use that small settlement as a launching point for raids on silver shipments from Mexico and for other mischief. Spain especially feared what might be done by unscrupulous men coming down the Mississippi on flatboats from the territory of Kentucky, where the rule of law was at best a sometime thing.

So Spain closed the Mississippi to American boats during the 1780s, or at least tried to do so, since smuggling and illegal passage were commonplace. At the time, the American government had little if any interest in expansion beyond the Mississippi, but it did want access to the river as a shipping lane for territory along the Ohio River, which was rapidly filling with settlers, so it entered into prolonged negotiations with Spain. These were stoutly resisted by many in New England, who feared that their own business interests would suffer with the advent of a western route, feared it so much that there was serious talk of secession -- of "a separate Northern confederacy and a commercial treaty with Spain" -- which serves as a useful reminder of just how fragile the Union was in these early years.

Then in 1788 the capable Carlos III died and was succeeded by the incapable Carlos IV, who was cursed, according to one biographer, with "just enough intelligence to realize his mediocrity." The Spanish position began to weaken, and the French moved in to fill the vacuum. Two years later, in the Second Treaty of San Ildefonso, Spain ceded the Louisiana Territory back to France in return for a bit of monarchical sleight of hand too complicated (and trivial) to recount. The development stunned the Americans, who feared that Napoleon could use New Orleans as his own launching point -- for an invasion of the United States -- but matters turned their way when "men and provisions originally intended for New Orleans" were swallowed up by France's unsuccessful attempt in 1881 to quell the Haitian rebellion led by Toussaint L'Ouverture.

Napoleon, masterful as ever but now tilting toward megalomania, wanted to invade and conquer England. America suddenly was a distraction and an unwelcome drain on his military resources. He wanted to cut his losses, and he needed money for his British ambitions, which, as it happens, were brilliantly thwarted by Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar. He was ready to deal, and so, suddenly, was Jefferson. They assigned negotiators to the task in Paris, and with remarkable speed -- when one considers that it took many weeks if not months for diplomatic pouches to cross the Atlantic -- the deal was done.

It was not received with universal joy in the United States. Some were concerned that it was unconstitutional, though Jefferson came up with enough rationalizations to settle that issue, while others thought that, as one put it, Louisiana was "a great waste, a wilderness unpeopled with any beings except wolves and wandering Indians," a "Gallo-Hispano-Indian omnium gatherum of savages and adventurers, whose pure morals are expected to sustain and glorify our republic." But objections gradually faded away as Americans began to appreciate, and to profit from, what may well have been the greatest land grab in all human history.

Jon Kukla has done a lot of research into the purchase and its background, but he hasn't gotten a very good book out of it. At one point he makes a parenthetical reference to "the clarity of our story," but many readers are likely to wonder what he means by clarity. He writes in a self-conscious fashion and occasionally indulges himself in strange fits of sarcasm ("monopoly is such an ugly word!"). He can be numbingly repetitious; writing, for example, about negotiations with Spain in 1775, he tells us that "President Washington . . . had no real hope for the success of the mission" and in the next paragraph that "President Washington . . . expected little from [the same] mission." He quotes interminably from contemporary documents, which certainly add the period touch but also lose the reader in archaic language and spelling. Unlike the American mission to Paris, A Wilderness So Immense is a missed opportunity.

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