Jon Kukla “A Wilderness So Immense”

There’s a lot to admire about this narrative history of the Louisiana Purchase. Kukla takes a geopolitical and diplomatic story of enormous scope and complexity and fashions it into an account that is coherent, readable, even entertaining. He rightly stresses that the factors that led to American possession of Louisiana were global in area and long in duration.

For the most part this is a tale of personalities: Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, James Monroe, Carlos IV, Napoleon, Talleyrand, and numerous others maneuver, intrigue, plan, and scheme to decide the fate of the vast interior of the North American continent. Kukla’s preferences are worn on his sleeve: he admires Jefferson, more for his pragmatic politician side than his democratic theorist side, he mocks the impotent Spanish royals, and he has nothing but contempt for Timothy Pickering, whom he characterizes somewhat hamfistedly as having had a “thirty-year obsession” with dismembering the union. The peculiarities and foibles of these dramatic figures are emphasized considerably more than I would like: at times Kukla descends into a sort of historical version of Us magazine celebrity journalism. My rather condescending graduate student notion is that general audiences who buy books in Barnes and Noble undoubtedly eat this sort of thing up, but that it doesn’t help us much with the bigger questions we all want to address.

Kukla interestingly suggests that the purchase and acquisition of Louisiana constituted a democratic revolution in its own right; this is an idea I would support, though I would focus it more on the longue durée process of attachment (c. 1800-1820) than on just the moment of the Purchase in 1803. But A Wilderness So Immense is so busy crafting an engaging narrative that it only makes these kind of analytic points offhandedly and in passing. Also worth mentioning in this regard is the generous attention Kukla gives to the New England separatists of 1801-04 and 1814-15 (ie Pickering and the “Essex Junto”); he seems to be making an argument about the fragile nature of the national union long prior to the more famous disunions of 1832 and 1860, but what exactly this has to do with Louisiana I wasn’t quite able to derive, and it wasn’t made explicit. Finally, Kukla clearly realizes that the diplomatic settlement reached in Paris in the spring of 1803 owed everything to the Ross Resolutions in the U. S. Congress, which in turn owed a great deal to the people of the trans-appalachian west and the political pressure they exerted in support of American control of Louisiana (whether by force or purchase). But he doesn’t develop this insight to tell a revolutionary, bottom-up, democratic telling of the Purchase story — at the end of the day, in this telling, it’s diplomats in Paris, not “Kaintucks” on the Mississippi, who are the agents of history.

This is really a problem not with Kukla, who has given us a book that admirably accomplishes what its sets forth to do. On the diplomacy and the geopolitics of this major episode in U. S. history, there is probably no better book out there. But both Kukla and the field of early national scholarship as a whole seem to me to miss the opportunity to describe the local, social processes of American expansion — to describe the ways in which demographic pressures, economic ambitions, and republicanist ideologies all met on the ground, in the lower Mississippi region, and combined to transform a continent — bringing both the liberatory potential and the destructive capacity of democratic capitalism.

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