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  • The Nation's Crucible: The Louisiana Purchase and the Creation of America
  • Mark Jaede (bio)
The Nation's Crucible: The Louisiana Purchase and the Creation of America. By Peter J. Kastor. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004. Pp. xii, 311. Cloth, $35.00.)

Teachers of writing could use this book as an example of robust argument. There is no missing the analytical stance of a book that announces that previous scholars have "produced a fundamentally misleading vision of the early American republic" (8), "done more to obfuscate than to clarify" (155), and "ignored the complexities" (40) of the Louisiana Purchase and its aftermath. Lest anyone miss the import of his own interpretation, Peter J. Kastor closes with this thunderous sentence: "The incorporation of Louisiana had defined an American nation" (228). This book takes on virtually all of the existing scholarship since George Dangerfield. It takes an impressive piece of work to sustain this sort of rhetorical intensity. Kastor delivers substantially, if not completely.

Kastor's argument is that existing scholarship has focused too much on nationalism as political theory or sentiment and too little on nation as a practical solution to practical problems. He rejects the view of the Louisiana Purchase as part of a long story of territorial acquisition under the flag of Manifest Destiny. He claims instead that the incorporation of Louisiana's people posed unanticipated and unintended challenges that had to be resolved on the fly without benefit of any pre-existing ideology of national expansion. To understand both the incorporation of Louisiana and the emergence of a sense of membership in a nation, we must look at the practical business of governing the Orleans Territory and bringing it to statehood. [End Page 500]

Kastor develops his argument through nine engaging chapters covering background, acquisition, organizing territorial government, lawmaking, statehood, the War of 1812, and the ultimate full incorporation of white Louisianans into the American Union. Kastor argues throughout that "attachment" to the United States is a more useful concept than national "identity." He calls attachment something "inherently pragmatic" (5). Louisianans had to choose to attach themselves to the United States and the rest of the country had to choose to accept them. These, says Kastor, were decisions made for practical reasons of self-interest, not out of some vague sense of identity.

Kastor traces how the problem of attachment played out through the business of organizing governments, writing laws, dealing with Spanish and Indian neighbors, determining Catholic episcopal authority, responding to the Burr conspiracy, appealing for statehood, and resisting British invasion. He acknowledges the importance of theoretical questions raised by this first incorporation of non-Anglo-Saxons into the Union. He especially focuses on the uncertainty over whether "French" Louisianans were—or could become—Americans. Yet his attention is not on the questions themselves but on the practical steps the various players took to create answers. Kastor's interest is not in whether Louisianans felt American, but in what they did to claim their position as American citizens.

Kastor's treatment of the role of race in the struggle for attachment is particularly insightful. Not only does he recount how white Louisianans made whiteness both a condition and a guarantee of U.S. citizenship, he also shows how people of color actively struggled to define their positions in the new order. Kastor shows us Indians practicing multinational diplomacy, black slaves in revolt, and free people of color presenting petitions. He shows how people of color were agents of change, though not always to their own ultimate advantage. For example, he argues that slave revolts and demands by free blacks were catalysts for Louisiana's repressive Black Code of 1806.

Kastor has made a powerful case for the value of his approach. Combining thorough research with a powerful writing style, he relates example after example of Louisianans making conscious choices to construct a workable Americanness. He shows how in reworking their street festivals, drafting their state constitution, and mobilizing to repel invaders, Louisianans made choices that simultaneously advanced their interests [End Page 501] and persuaded other Americans that they were genuinely attached to the Union.

Despite all these strengths, however, the book falls short...


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