A Wilderness So Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America / Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause: Land, Farmers, Slavery, and the Louisiana Purchase

By Bernstein, R. B. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, October 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

A Wilderness So Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America / Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause: Land, Farmers, Slavery, and the Louisiana Purchase


Bernstein, R. B., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


A Wilderness So Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America. By JON KUKLA. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. x, 430 pp. $30.00.

Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause: Land, Farmers, Slavery, and the Louisiana Purchase. By ROGER G. KENNEDY. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. xviii, 350 pp. $30.00.

IN 2003, the satirical weekly newspaper The Onion printed a headline, "Jefferson's Heirs Still Gloating over Louisiana Purchase." The barb was both funny and accurate. Because we are all "Jefferson's heirs," we rank the Louisiana Purchase high not only in any list of achievements of Thomas Jefferson's presidency but also in the roster of national achievements. Indeed, most accounts of the purchase brim over with patriotic self-congratulation. In marked contrast, the books under review offer disquieting accounts of a Union at risk and complex historical stories with ample shadings of political, diplomatic, constitutional, economic, and environmental gray. They should be read together, for each illuminates different aspects of the tangled history of what Thomas Jefferson called "this affair of Louisiana"-aspects of the history from which the purchase emerged and of the history that it shaped.

A Wilderness So Immense is the more ambitious and the more successful book, even though in some ways it is more conventional. Written by Jon Kukla, executive director of the Patrick Henry Foundation, it combines prodigious research, a fluid and clear style, and a superb command of the complex fabric of the history of Louisiana and the competing interests of France, Spain, and the United States. Kukla is particularly good at explaining the thorny history of first Spanish and then French Louisiana. He also examines with clarity and assurance the struggles of the Jefferson administration over the opportunity and the crisis presented by the chance to acquire both New Orleans and the entire Louisiana Territory. To a greater extent than other historians of the purchase, Kukla outlines the controversy's constitutional dimensions and the shifting responses of Jefferson and his advisers. In particular, Kukla recounts the abortive attempts to amend the Constitution to authorize the general government to enter into a treaty for the purchase of territory and sets forth in an appendix the various proposed amendments. If one has to choose a single volume as the place to begin exploring the history of Louisiana and its acquisition by the United States, A Wilderness So Immense is that book. It now supplants Alexander de Conde's lively This Affair of Louisiana (1976) as the best study of its subject.

Kukla concludes by presenting his conventional, optimistic vision of the relationship between the Louisiana Purchase and the future of America, emphasizing the purchase's beneficial consequences and the now-familiar but always-interesting story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition's exploration of the territory. In Kukla's view, the purchase helped to make possible the American people's realization of a key component of the American dream-the expansion of a nation of individual farmers, creating one of the most fertile and productive agricultural regions on the face of the earth. Further, the social and cultural diversity resulting from blending French, Spanish, and American communities in the former Louisiana Territory helped foster the cultural pluralism at the heart of modern America.

By contrast, Roger G. Kennedy's vision of the consequences of the Louisiana Purchase is far more bleak. His challenging and iconoclastic account presents the purchase, at bottom, as Jefferson's betrayal of his own idealistic vision. The "lost cause" of Kennedy's title is Jefferson's vision, which the Virginian memorably articulated in Notes on the State of Virginia, of an everexpanding agrarian republic of individual yeoman farmers, each tending his own vine and fig tree. Kennedy insists that President Jefferson abandoned that commitment to accommodate the interests of the expanding system of plantation slavery, devoted to such soil-damaging crops as tobacco and cotton. …

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