THE LOUISIANA PURCHASE
Most high school students ought to remember learning a little something about the Louisiana Purchase, but this pivotal event in American history has rarely received sustained attention until this year, the event's bicentennial. Noted historian Fleming's brief study, an entry in Wiley's Turning Points series, presents an overstuffed look at the machinations that prompted Napoleon, famous for his conquests and colonial aspirations, to sell this vast piece of land for $15 million. Fleming's account highlights the importance of two leaders, Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon, along with their closest advisers, but the most memorable figures are the handful of diplomatic negotiators working behind the scenes, like Robert Livingston, the ambassador to France who originated the idea of buying the Louisiana territory, thereby easing the threat of war between the U.S. and France. The narrative weaves in several key events on both sides of the Atlantic, including the rampant yellow fever in Santo Domingo that substantially delayed and weakened Napoleon's troops, volatile conversations between Jefferson and his cabinet about whether the purchase required an amendment to the Constitution and Napoleon's near retraction of the sale. The story carries a surprising amount of drama, though Fleming (Liberty! The American Revolution) does little to play this up. His narrative is straightforward but cluttered with detail, showing more breadth than depth, and is intently focused on the "mix of destiny and individual energy and creativity" that supported one of the world's great diplomatic triumphs. (July 11)
Forecast:This could do well in a bicentennial display with John Kukla's A Wilderness So Immense and Charles Cerami's Jefferson's Great Gamble, which offer fuller accounts of the purchase.