A Wilderness So Immense

A Wilderness So Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America is the story of what some have called the greatest real estate deal in history: the United States’ acquisition of the vast territories west of the Mississippi River. The French had wrested these lands from Spain only months before transferring them to the United States. The deal which seemed so precipitous was in fact long in the making, however, as historian Jon Kukla reveals in his detailed study of the twenty-year period leading up to the eventual sale.

As Kukla makes clear, the American most interested in obtaining New Orleans and the right-of-way on the Mississippi River was Thomas Jefferson, who first saw the value of annexation as early as 1786; his hand is seen behind many attempts over the next two decades to bring about this transfer. The stories of the Americans who had a hand in negotiating for right-of-way along the Mississippi River, and the eventual purchase of Louisiana—familiar names like John Jay, James Monroe, and Robert Livingston—are intertwined with those of a dozen European leaders, including Carlos III of Spain and his son, Carlos IV; the French minister Talleyrand; and the demagogue who finally agreed to the sale, Napoleon Bonaparte. Along the way, Kukla introduces readers to some of the more shady characters in America’s history, such as General James Wilkinson, who received secret payments from Spain while serving as an officer in the United States Army. Kukla also highlights some unsavory aspects of America’s past: the aborted attempts by Americans to take New Orleans by force, efforts of Northern politicians to lead a secessionist movement, and clandestine maneuverings by Northerners to exclude the multicultural inhabitants of Louisiana from becoming full-fledged Americans.

In Kukla’s adept hands, the story of the Louisiana Purchase reads like a Dickens novel. The multiple plots intersect at key points to bring about a resolution that might have been judged too improbable for fiction, but which, as Kukla points out in his conclusion, did more than any other event to shape the destiny of America. In acquiring New Orleans, the United States found itself having to deal with real cultural and racial diversity in terms other than black-and-white, and the struggles of the next two centuries have proven how difficult that task has been.