What do you know about the Louisiana Purchase? That it was an act of the Jefferson Administration, a great deal for America, and showed Jefferson wasn’t quite as strict about the limits of executive power as his rhetoric made him seem? Perhaps you also know that Lewis and Clark explored it. Before I read A Wilderness so Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America, I was in a similar position. I knew about the purchase and a few details of it, but I was mostly ignorant of just how important for America it was or what diplomatic machinations were needed to make it happen.
So, after reading Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose, a book about the Lewis and Clark exploration of the property bought by the Louisiana purchase, about a year ago, I decided to learn more. After doing a bit of research, I found out that A Wilderness so Immense is the best book about the finer details of the Louisiana Purchase that one can read. It’s interesting, covers a wide array topics as diverse as the decay of the Spanish Empire to the revolution in Haiti to the domestic American political debates between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans.
Hopefully, after reading the rest of my review of A Wilderness so Immense, you’ll agree with me that it’s a fascinating book that is certainly worth reading, especially if you want more details than are in This Affair of Louisiana. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Summary of A Wildnerness so Immense
When I started A Wilderness so Immense, I expected it to be somewhat similar to Undaunted Courage. That is, I expected it to be more about the content of the territory that President Jefferson bought, not the diplomacy and politicking that went into buying it.
However, as you can probably guess from my introduction, Kukla spends the overwhelming majority of the book discussing the politics and diplomacy behind the Louisiana Purchase.
Beginning with the settlers in Kentucky needing access to the Mississippi, Kukla discusses how American politics were shaped by the expansion to and settling of the West. Federalists in New England feared the consequences of independent farmers spreading like wildfire across the West and even considered seceding so they could get a better trade deal with Spain. Others in the Midatlantic and Northeast feared the consequences of the depopulation of the East because of migration to the West. And, of course, the Western settlers focused on access to the Mississippi and port of New Orleans so they could sell their produce.
All of those issues were the kernels of the Louisiana Purchase. Plots, intrigue, and diplomacy abounded as Spain, American settlers, and American merchants and New England jockeyed to be in the best and most profitable position. While Spain was strong under the reign of Carlos III, Americans had trouble with reaching an acceptable deal. When he died and his incompetent son Carlos IV rose to power, America’s position became much stronger.
Then, because of its weakness and losses to Napoleon, Spain ceded Louisiana to France. Napoleon hoped to use it and sugar plantations in the country now known as Haiti to establish a profitable French colonial system in the Americas. But, as the revolution in Haiti led to disastrous French losses and war with Britain reared its ugly head yet again, Napoleon finally decided to sell not just New Orleans and Florida, which America wanted, but all of the province of Louisiana to the Jefferson Administration and its ambassador in France, James Monroe.
Of course, the story is more complex than that simple tale, as you’ll find out from reading A Wilderness so Immense. Even when Napoleon wanted to sell, it was a touch and go affair because he waffled on the issue. Similarly, there was much intrigue in the West and many Federalists attacked Jefferson for spending a huge sum on the purchase of an untamed wilderness.
But Kukla does more justice to those finer details in A Wilderness so Immense than I ever could in this review of it. Just know that if you read it, you’ll instantly be fascinated with and drawn into early 19th politics and diplomacy.
Those early 19th Century politics help make A Wilderness so Immense interesting because they are, at the same time, both similar and difference to ours.
For example, according to Kulka in A Wilderness so Immense, personal relationships still mattered. The most effective agents of the American Republic, the French government, or the British government were the ones who were able to make friends wherever they went. Hence why men like Benjamin Franklin were so effective.
Similarly, party politics mattered. The Democratic-Republicans that came into existence after the revolution were headed by Jefferson and had more of an inclination to support France, which shared some of the same viewpoints. Similarly, the Federalists were more disposed to support England and were most effective when dealing with the British. Because of those party politics, the deal to buy the Louisiana Purchase almost did not go through; the Federalists, because they disliked France and Jefferson, did not support it.
On the other hand, those early 19th Century politics were very different from today. There was formality in terms of codes of conduct, but the actual diplomacy done was very informal. Diplomats and agents of a state stayed in hotels or houses, not embassies. Meetings with other diplomats were based on personal contacts, not any proper diplomatic channels. Times were different.
Reading A Wilderness so Immense and learning about those similarities and differences in terms of international diplomacy and party politics was very interesting. The focus of the book is still on buying Louisiana, of course, but diplomacy is what made that happen. A Wilderness so Immense is a great source on that diplomacy and how early 19th Century politics worked, especially when dealing with European monarchs and their agents.
Analysis of A Wilderness so Immense
I thought that A Wilderness so Immense was a terrific book. The details help flesh out the story of the Louisiana Purchase and are backed up by a plethora of sources, some of which I added to my reading list. Furthermore, Kulka is able to jump between writing about a dizzying array of characters and events. Spanish monarchs, French diplomats, Haitian revolutionaries, New England merchants, and American settlers are all fully fleshed out in A Wilderness so Immense, as are the usual suspects; Napoleon, Jefferson, and Hamilton.
Additionally, A Wilderness so Immense is an enjoyable and fun read, despite being somewhat dense with place names and details at times, because its a book about politics that is apolitical. In this era of everything and anything being a political statement, I enjoyed reading Kukla’s writing because he’s able to write about events or people with politicizing them.
When discussing Jefferson, he doesn’t go off on a rant about slavery. In the section on the uprising in Haiti and the brutality of that uprising, he doesn’t cast judgment; instead, he just describes what happened and how it affected the subject of the book. For case after case, chapter after chapter, that is true; never did I feel that Kukla was trying to herd me towards a specific viewpoint. Rather, A Wilderness so Immense is purely informational.
In that sense, it’s a respite from the constant politicization of history, which makes it all the more enjoyable.
Finally, you need to read A Wilderness so Immense because its a testament to America’s resilience and storied history. Despite being only a few years old, our diplomats were able to buy a territory that more than doubled the size of the US from the genius Emperor of a rich and powerful nation. Similarly, despite sectional differences, we were able to stick together and remain a functional nation. As we watch the protests and riots, that’s something that’s reassuring and worth keeping in mind.
Read A Wilderness so Immense by Jon Kukla. It’s fascinating, informational, and a distraction from the divisive politics of 2020. Plus, you’ll get to learn more about the history of our great nation and what our diplomats and agents of the state used to be able to accomplish! If only our current government officials were as effective as that generation.
By: Gen Z Conservative