A Wilderness So Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of Americ

by Jon Kukla, Alfred A Knopf, 2003, 430 pages with illustrations, maps and treaty texts, $30.

Our Louisiana Purchase in 1803 added 529 million acres and drastically changed America’s geography, politics, and life forever.  Yet it was decided by men “who never set foot in the Mississippi Valley, who never walked New Orleans’s Vieux Carré , nor ever laid eyes on the rivers that drain an expanse of field and forests slightly larger than Western Europe.”  Jon Kukla’s detailed account of what happened reveals how little we did to acquire it.  Rather, it was the machinations between the European powers that handed the territory to us.

Spain acquired the wilderness from France’s Louis XV in the 1760s principally as a borderland to keep foreigners away from their lucrative Mexican silver mines that were contributing half of the annual export trade of the Spanish colonies. As American settlers crossed the Appalachians into the Northwest Territory, they demanded to use New Orleans to ship their produce to Europe and the East coast. Flatboats down the Mississippi were more economic than carts across the eastern mountains. While lengthy and desultory official negotiations dragged on for years, Spain did reach a practical working agreement with the westerners to ship and store goods in New Orleans.

Carlos IV, following his father as King of Spain, was described by his biographer as having “just enough intelligence to realize his mediocrity.”  In time he greedily swapped the empty wilderness of Louisiana with Napoleon for a kingship for his Spanish relative.  Napoleon had his own grand scheme close New Orleans to the Americans, use it himself as the shipping center for a great Caribbean trading empire including the French sugar colonies. But this necessitated reconquering the large former slave colony (Haiti).

In 1802 he sent 34,000 troops to attack them. Within a year, 24,000 of these were dead, 8,000 in hospital. The Haitian operation was such a debacle that it totally soured Napoleon.  By early April 1803 he stunned his ministers by suddenly ordering them to get rid of Louisiana.  President Jefferson’s last instructions to his ministers, Robert Livingston and James Monroe, had been solely to negotiate to get New Orleans port open again.  But after dinner on April 13th in Paris, the two American ministers were stunned by Napoleon’s Minister of Finance Francois Barbé-Marbois’s offer to sell them the whole territory right away.  By April 3Oth they had negotiated the terms, agreed on payment, and signed a treaty-all without President Jefferson or Congress knowing.  The slowness of transportation then meant that word didn’t reach Jefferson until July 5th, leaving him only time to get it approved in Congress to meet Napoleon’s deadline of October 3Oth.  It would not be until 1819 that actual boundaries would be agreed upon with Spain.

Mr. Kukla’s nearly novelistic recounting of decades of political twists and turns through several empires makes one appreciate that this is a story that few historians have had the patience to tell. It is quite a tale.

Peter Oppenheim
From Society’s June 2003 Newsletter