Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 111 / Number 4 - Review
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 ever-expanding 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. That
betrayal helped to bring about an expansionist America that repeatedly damaged the land its
land-hungry planters sought to acquire and exploit and that carried within itself the seeds of
sectional conflict that threatened its destruction for decades and, in 1861, ultimately plunged
the nation into civil war.
Kennedy, a veteran public historian and former director of the Smithsonian Institution's National
Museum of American History and the National Park Service, has written several studies of Jeffersonian
America, and Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause fits well among the ranks of his previous works. His prose is
vigorous and eloquent, and his interests are wide-ranging—approaching the capacious curiosity of
Jefferson himself. Nonetheless, Kennedy presents a cold-eyed, even hostile interpretation of Jefferson.
In his view, Jefferson's betrayal of his agrarian "lost cause" was integral in bringing about the violent
disruption of the Union nearly thirty-five years after Jefferson's death—an interpretative reach that,
though it has some cogency, ultimately fails to persuade. Other minds and hands beside Jefferson's
helped to bring about the Civil War, and fixing blame on Jefferson for an event that happened
decades after he died seems to fly in the face of the complexity and contingency of the past. One
need not idealize or idolize Jefferson to conclude that Kennedy's indictment does not persuade.
There are many good things in Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause. To an extent rare in histories of American
expansion, Kennedy pays close and loving attention to the effects of human settlement on the natural world.
He persuasively integrates into his story such matters as the history of agriculture and the effects of soil
erosion on Jefferson's Virginia, and he argues with conviction, and convincingly, that these factors spurred
land-hunger among Jefferson and his fellow planters. This insight, presented with skill and bolstered with
formidable documentation, is illuminating and valuable. So, too, is Kennedy's focus on the terrible
consequences of American expansionism in the Old Southwest for the region's Native American
nations. Yet this book's troubling tendencies to drift, to lose focus, and to engage in speculation
sap its persuasiveness. It is best read as an adjunct to Kukla's study.
On one set of key issues, the fragility of the Union and the sources of threats to its existence, Kukla and
Kennedy reach opposed conclusions—and that opposition confirms the value of reading both studies in tandem.
Most previous histories read back into the world of the period 1776–1819 the disunionist crises of the 1830s
and the 1860s and the polarity that arose in the later conflicts. In effect, they choose sides in the earlier period
based on the factional lines defined in the later periods. Thus, Kennedy presents the familiar split between
disunionist southerners and Unionist northerners. His sympathies and hostilities, though implicit in his text,
emerge with familiar clarity. By contrast, Kukla emphasizes the commitment to Union by Americans of
the southern states, and the willingness of New Englanders and New Yorkers to contemplate disunion
and the formation of an eastern confederation. The interesting thing about these clashing views is that
each scholar has an extensive evidentiary basis for his reading of events.
Taken together, these books point to an arresting conclusion. We need not choose between Kukla's
and Kennedy's interpretations of disunionism and sectional crises of the Confederation and early national
periods. It is far more useful and enlightening to blend their understandings of the nature of the Union and
the crises afflicting it. Each side—North and South—had its own vision of the Union, of its optimal future,
and of the threats to that best of all possible worlds. Each side was willing to challenge the other's vision,
and if things got bad enough, each side was willing to contemplate rending the Union by secession and
forming a smaller, regional confederacy. The prospect of expanding the Union, whether by creating
new states in the territories acquired from Great Britain under the Treaty of Paris of 1783 or by the
Louisiana Purchase of 1803, posed the question: what kind of Union will it be? Further, the questions
of constitutional power raised by the purchase—and, also, by President Jefferson's decision to organize
and deploy an expedition of territorial exploration—in turn posed questions about the nature of the
Union claiming such expansive constitutional powers. Positions for or against federal constitutional
power were inextricably bound up with the substantive merits of the power being asserted or resisted.
All these matters were hotly disputed at the time, to an extent cloaked from our view by the unreflective
self-congratulation prompted by memories of Mr. Jefferson's prodigious bargain. These valuable books
help to dispel that haze of reflexive gloating and to recover the contingency and contested nature of this
chapter of the American past.
R. B. Bernstein
New York Law School