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Historians of early Louisiana often quibble whether their region—with its non-British roots—should be treated as center or periphery in our national narrative. Eberhard Faber's Building the Land of Dreams: New Orleans and the Transformation of Early America makes a convincing case for the former but allows one nod to the mythos of [End Page 672] unique New Orleans: the city always has attracted big personalities.
Building the Land of Dreams follows the lives of such local and national adventurers, schemers, and compromisers at the helm of the city's political transfer from Spanish to French to U.S. governance between 1795 and 1820. It argues that Louisiana offered newly inaugurated Jeffersonian Republicans a living laboratory, wherein they might test their visions of an "empire of liberty" united by "consent rather than coercion" (p. 5). The narrative focuses on three groups of elite power-players in post-1803 New Orleans: Creole planters and merchants, who aimed to preserve their colonial leadership; an American "generation of 1804," locally invested in liberal capitalism; and the United States government, represented by William C. C. Claiborne and seeking the related goals of loyalty and union. At first favoring American dominance, federal officials quickly realized their insufficient ability to respond to territorial threats without white Creole aid, including the challenges posed by Aaron Burr's separatist movements of 1805 and 1806 and the German Coast rebellion of 1811. As a result, as the native elite adopted further, and often personally beneficial, elements of republican government, like general elections, they earned larger political concessions.
This mutual, yet Creole-favoring exchange is nowhere clearer for Faber than in New Orleans' post-Purchase racial policies. Taking aim at historians who argue Louisiana slavery became harsher under U.S. rule, he locates the Black Code of 1806—ending, for example, Spanish coartación—in the new, ancestrally French legislature. These Creole politicians, he forcefully argues, used the demands for their allegiance to the American nation to overturn the Northwest Ordinance's 1787 ban on slavery in federal territories, thus guaranteeing their investments and, tangentially, the institution's link with American expansionism until 1865.
The book thus joins a formidable scholarship on political re-imaginings following the Louisiana Purchase, including works by Peter Kastor, Peter Onuf, and Alan Taylor. Faber's attention to detail adds to these conversations. This is not in terms of new or more inclusive [End Page 673] source materials; his research relies on the mainstays of political history—e.g., official correspondence, legislative proceedings, and petitions. Building the Land of Dreams, rather, shows an intimate sensitivity to chronology, tracing the ways events communicated with each other on tight timelines. This is done with particular success in the chapters covering 1804 to 1807, which navigate the sometimes month-by-month ways the Creole elite learned from the mistakes of their 1804 memorial and their boycott of the first city council to re-attain civic control.
Ultimately, Building the Land of Dreams highlights the ways New Orleans and the early American republic entered the antebellum period in tandem, informing one another on issues of slavery, expansionism, and national identity. The study already has garnered significant attention, as winner of the 2015 Kemper and Leila Williams Prize in Louisiana History. As a Spanish-era scholar, I am not entirely convinced by its early claim that 1795 marked a stark shift in the city's ties to the United States, "analogous in many ways to the American revolution" (p. 3). Several individuals cited as American sympathizers, like Daniel Clark Jr., for example, previously had courted the Spanish government. (Clark unsuccessfully pursued a commercial monopoly in 1796, only two years before becoming a United States citizen.) This leads me to believe not that New Orleans was especially entrepreneurial after 1803 but that it historically appealed to settlers with flexible ideas of political loyalty. All the same, I appreciate that Faber pushes me and my fellow Louisiana scholars to seek out the...