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Posted July 28, 2003
The Louisiana Purchase: How the West was bought
By Les Coles Daily, Yomiuri Staff Writer
A Wilderness So Immense
By Jon Kukala
430 pp,
Knopf, 30, $30

In 1803, the United States was doubled in size with the stroke of a pen when the Louisiana Purchase was signed.

The bicentennial of the bargain-basement land sale, 2 million square kilometers for 15 million dollars--about four cents an acre--is being celebrated in print by a number of books. One of these is Jon Kukla's A Wilderness So Immense, a beautifully written, well-researched narrative of the complex historic origins of the purchase and the diplomacy and men who pulled it off.

The story is complex. On the one hand, it is the story of transatlantic politics involving Spain, France, Britain and a newly independent United States. On the other, it is one of factional infighting that challenged the Constitution and came close to destroying the new republic.

Kukla tells the tale admirably, assembling the diverse swatches of the story--the Haitian Revolution, Napoleon's failed empire-building adventures, the increasing vulnerability of Spain's New World Empire, and the desire of Western settlers to navigate the Mississippi River--and sewing them into a quilt of U.S. history set in global context.

Kukla presents an evenhanded treatment of the protagonists in one of the key events in the shaping of the United States and the redrawing of the political maps of France and Spain.

The author sets the stage by documenting the changing ownership of Louisiana, starting with how a France vanquished in the Seven Years' War (1756-63) was forced to cede control of Louisiana to Spain, which, as Kukla points out, principally saw Louisiana as a buffer zone to protect its silver mines in Mexico from Britain's aggressive colonists to the north. These mines were of immense importance to Spain, producing half the revenue of the entire Spanish empire.

But while Kukla devotes ample space to Spain's and France's positions, he reserves center stage for the American actors, among them Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, James Monroe, Timothy Pickering and Robert Livingston. Drawing extensively on collections of letters written by the principal players, the author brings the characters alive as people and not just names in a history book.

Having provided detailed portraits of these players, Kukla sets them in motion, detailing the clashes that took place among them. And there were clashes aplenty, for the individual states were by no means united on the purchase, or in fact on the question of opening up the West or pressing Spain for the right to navigate the Mississippi.

In addition to his portraits of the movers and shakers of the times, Kukla finds ink to spare in presenting the views of ordinary settlers with regard to the purchase.

Kukla explains how Western settlers, especially those in Kentucky, wanted the right to send their goods down the Mississippi to New Orleans, for without this right, they would be forced to rely on the Atlantic states, with which relations were strained, for their commercial needs.

The author describes the 1785-86 talks that took place between Spain and the United States to negotiate the opening of the Mississippi and the machinations of the New England states in undermining them. The failure of the talks caused some Kentuckians to take matters into their own hands and attempt to cede from the United States and pledge their allegiance to Spain, all in exchange for navigation rights.

Although such plans came to naught, the issue of the right to navigate the Mississippi gave birth to a series of separatist conspiracies that came close to derailing the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and fueled the dispute over slavery in the Louisiana territory, eventually setting the stage for the Missouri Compromise and the Civil War.

The story progresses through 1795, when Spain, fearing an invasion from settlers upriver, finally opened the Mississippi to U.S. commerce. The author describes how in 1800, the enfeebled Spanish admitted they could not stave off the U.S. advance and handed over Louisiana to a France headed by Napoleon, who planned to use Louisiana as a staging ground for his military campaign to reconquer the rebellious slave colony of Haiti.

But yellow fever and Haitian guerrillas put paid to Napoleon's dreams of glory in the Caribbean. He then lost interest in Louisiana, perhaps further prompted by Jefferson's warning that any attempt to take possession of Louisiana would mean a war with the United States.

In April 1803, Napoleon gave in to the pressure and decided to sell Louisiana. The question of the constitutionality of the purchase was promptly raised, for nowhere in the Constitution did it say anything about the right to buy an empire. Despite having always argued for a strict interpretation of the document, and whatever his personal views, Jefferson eventually signed off on the land deal, and opened a new chapter in the history of the republic.

Wilderness is an informative and gratifying read of grace and authority.

The presentation of the characters and Kukla's informal style make Wilderness an accessible book for the informed layman interested in U.S. diplomacy and the history of the republic--especially the Old Southwest--as well as the fortunes of Spain and France.

Copyright 2003 The Yomiuri Shimbun, the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
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