I’ll admit it- the Louisiana Purchase and the exploration and settlement of that territory is something that fascinates me more than it probably should. From the Lewis and Clark expedition that explored it to the railroads that settled it, from the diplomacy that secured it to the political battles that led to it, I find every aspect of it quite interesting. Perhaps that’s because it was so central to American history and dominance, or maybe it’s because the purchase and settlement of the territory span so many different topics and time periods. In any case, I love reading about it, and reading This Affair of Louisiana by Alexander De Conde was no exception to that.
This Affair of Louisiana is different than the other two books I have read that discuss the Louisiana Purchase in detail- The History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and A Wilderness so Immense, the former of which is about the many different actions of the Jefferson Administration and the latter of which presents a more detailed view of the diplomacy that went into the Louisiana Purchase.
In this review of This Affair of Louisiana, I will give a summary of This Affair of Louisiana and discuss what sets it apart from A Wilderness so Immense, and then will give my analysis of it and discuss what I liked and did not like about it.
Summary of This Affair of Louisiana: What Makes It Different
This Affair of Louisiana is interesting in that the author, Alexander De Conde, presents that purchase not as an act of chance brought about by Napoleon’s whims and inability to secure Haiti after the revolution, but rather as the endpoint of a historical narrative that Americans would rule their continent from sea to sea and would accept no impediments to their expansion.
His sources are varied and vast and help him present a believable narrative, which is as follows:
De Conde discusses the various European settlements of North America and how the English settlers of the Eastern seaboard had a unique identity and then moves to the fights over empire and fights with Indians that led Americans to push farther and farther west in their hunt for new territory.
He then discusses the economic incentives that led Americans to push west to the Mississippi. As settlers moved over the mountains and established farms in the Ohio River Valley, Kentucky, and other western territories after the American Revolution, they found virgin and fruitful land, which led to more and more homesteaders moving westward. But, once they got there, they needed a way to sell their produce. The Mississippi was the answer; by floating their goods down it and then sailing them from New Orleans to the Eastern seaboard, they could get them to the East much easier than if they tried to cart them overland.
That economic incentive led settlers to desire Spanish territory; New Orleans was a chokepoint on the Mississippi that was only sometimes open, based on the whims of the Spanish government, which owned it.
Coinciding with that economic incentive for Spanish territory that the western settlers had was an enduring dream of American dominion over the West, a dream that began before America became a nation and endured until the West was finally settled.
De Conde then elaborates in This Affair of Louisiana on how the Mississippi Crisis sparked a shift; when the Spanish closed the Mississippi by preventing Americans from storing goods in New Orleans, they sparked a huge firestorm of fury in America. Western settlers, seeing their potential ruin in that decision, agitated for war with Spain to reopen the Mississippi.
Jefferson was then presented with a dilemma. Should he go to war with a European power and potentially spark a larger conflict with France that would bind the US to Great Britain? Or should he try to negotiate and find a peaceful yet acceptable solution?
Luckily for him, around that time France had acquired Louisiana from Spain in exchange for territory in Italy. Jefferson and France had a relatively good relationship (albeit one that was weaker after the French Revolution and accession of Napoleon to Emperor of the French Empire), so he sent Americans to negotiate for the purchase of New Orleans. At the same time, to appease the aggrieved Western settlers, he began a military build-up that would allow Americans to realize their dream of western expansion by force.
Napoleon did not want to sell, at first. His plan was to use Louisiana to feed the Haitian sugar colony. However, the revolt on that island was killing thousands of French troops and it looked like war with England over Malta would happen at any time. So, to free himself of Western worries and free up troops and money for war with England, he sold Louisiana. Not just New Orleans, which is what America ostensibly wanted, but all of it.
Jefferson then convinced Congress to appropriate money for the purchase. While he recognized the Constitution did not expressly permit him to purchase it and wanted to create an amendment that would allow him to do so, Congress had no such worries and, after a sharp but brief legal battle, assented to the purchase and took on debt to fund it.
From there, the rest is history. Americans moved steadily West, taking even more territory from Spain by force, and eventually settled all of the West. De Conde refers to that as establishing the American Empire because of how Americans acted, their general vision, and the vast amount of territory that that expansion gave us.
De Conde’s narrative of American dreams of expansion to the West in This Affair of Louisiana is well-sourced and makes sense. It is also what sets This Affair of Louisiana apart from other books about the Louisiana Purchase, such as A Wilderness so Immense.
Rather than getting bogged down in the details about what American diplomats said while meeting with each European monarch or minister, or who every major figure in the West was, or how individual events and battles affected the outcome, De Conde instead treats the purchase as part of a narrative of American expansion.
Analysis of This Affair of Louisiana by Alexander De Conde
I thought This Affair of Louisiana was excellent. Generally, I enjoy more detailed books about historical events, which is why I thought that A Wilderness so Immense was a terrific book and why I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about the Louisiana Purchase. The details of why things happened the way they did are important because they teach us how to make things happen again and how to make events transpire in our favor, if possible.
But, sometime, it is more fun to read about history as a narrative. The narrative of American expansion is a particularly enticing one, as it plays into the idea of Manifest Destiny, which is deeply ingrained into the American conscience. For that reason, I think that This Affair of Louisiana is also a book that every American interested in this topic should read. It shows how Americans from Washington to Jefferson to individual western settlers thought about expansion and American destiny and how that strain of thought and the right to expand informed the decision making of our leaders.
Additionally, by saying that De Conde crafts a narrative rather than writing about details, I in no way mean that he left out important details when writing This Affair of Louisiana. Instead, I mean that he focuses more on the story and inevitability aspect of the purchase rather than jumping from event to event and using them as an aggregate to explain what happened and why.
In this case, I think that narrative approach works. I was convinced by how De Conde told the story of the Louisiana Purchase and agreed with him that it was part of a long and inevitable process of American expansion, not just a random event that happened because of other random events.
Even if you are adamantly against a narrative approach to history, I think you should read This Affair of Louisiana. Frankly, I think everyone should, as it explains a great deal about the American psyche and why we felt entitled to expand farther and farther to the West and disregarded any European claims to the contrary.
Even more than that, it is fun to read. It is not a dry and dense work of history, as many I have recently read are. It is instead an enticing and engaging story that will teach you something about your history.
By: Gen Z Conservative