From Publishers Weekly
Until a better one comes along, which is unlikely, this is now the book to read of the growing crop of works on the Louisiana Purchase in this bicentennial year. It differs from Charles Cerami's bracing Jefferson's Great Gamble by its deeper foundation of scholarly knowledge, from Roger Kennedy's overstriving Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause by being less idiosyncratic. Kukla (coauthor of Patrick Henry) offers up a splendid, beautifully written narrative focused tightly on the complex historic origins of the Purchase and on the diplomacy that pulled it off. Necessarily, his tale takes in the whole world, including the aspirations of Napoleon's failed forays into the Western Hemisphere and his resulting need for cash. But Kukla stays firmly on this side of the Atlantic. Jefferson takes center stage, but his Federalist opponents, whose sometimes disunionist machinations kept matters complex, are in the wings. Kukla's portraits of the principal diplomats-Robert Livingston and James Monroe on the American side; Talleyrand, Francois de Barbe-Marbois and Napoleon on the French-deftly illuminate the crucial mix of personality, circumstance and skill that made the United States a continental nation so early in its existence. Unlike many other historians, Kukla favors none of the story's characters but evenhandedly gives all their due. The book lacks only a grand theme to match its grand subject-what most contemporaries and all historians since have judged to be one of the most significant events in the nation's history. Nevertheless, this judicious, aptly illustrated work will gratify all its readers. Rarely does a work of history combine grace of writing with such broad authority.
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The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the U.S and set in motion visions of Manifest Destiny; it dramatically reshaped European influence in North America and helped preserve a tentative Union while establishing it as a territorially rich land. It was also brought about by men who had never seen the Mississippi Valley, in response to political rumblings thousands of miles away. Always controversial, its introduction would eventually force the issue of slavery in the territories. Kukla's narrative wanders slowly, tributary-like, through a formative time for young America. He tells the stories of characters famous and obscure, European and American, before arriving at the story's climax, Jefferson's deal to purchase the "immense wilderness." Readers looking for an analytical edge or historical revisionism won't find it here, and Kukla's casual language may annoy academics, but history buffs will enjoy the level of detail, and the uninitiated will enjoy the thorough explanations of background events like the French Revolution. Overall, this selection is an engaging look at a key historical event, in time for its bicentennial. Brendan Driscoll
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