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In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase transformed the boundaries of the United States. In the process, it forced Americans to rethink how they conceived of expansion, landscape, and nation. This article examines the cultural production that followed, focusing primarily on the ways that Americans represented the West in pamphlets, travel narratives, and maps. This article also seeks to challenge some familiar assumptions about westward expansion while seeking to provide models for interdisciplinary inquiry that connect policymaking to print and visual culture.
This article argues that rather than the unrestrained expansionism so often associated with the early American republic, the print and visual culture that accompanied the Louisiana Purchase expressed profound ambivalences toward the West and toward expansion. Equally important, this outlook was never entirely the result of fears about expansion itself. Instead, a combination of factors—political philosophy, publishing technology, and policymaking necessity—combined to shape the ways Americans went about describing the West. Meanwhile, the narrative personae of western explorers who aimed for public careers in the civil and military branches of the federal government further informed the notion that the West presented profound dangers to the union. All of these factors combined to question the tangible benefits of expansion into the Far West beyond the Mississippi, even as those forms of express drew on the celebration of expansion into the Near West during the decades before 1803. This article begins by examining the conventions of western landscape description that preceded the Louisiana Purchase. It then examines the political pamphlets that came in the immediate aftermath of the Purchase, and then the travel narratives and books produced by the first federal expeditions into the Purchase territories. This article concludes by explaining how Americans later reconfigured the images of the Louisiana Purchase to fuel a pro-expansionist outlook in the antebellum era. This change was partly the result of shifts in public sentiment and political culture, but it was also the result of shifts in the American cartographic industry and the rising power of new generic forms, specifically the novel and landscape painting.
This article seeks to engage a broad range of writing for scholarly and general audiences alike. For generations, it has been standard practice to situate the Louisiana Purchase as a touchstone in the broader story of Anglo-American expansionism. This article argues instead that American settlers may have eagerly sought additional lands in the West, but American policymakers, pamphleteers, explorers, and cartographers were more circumspect. While hardly opposed to American dominance, they described challenges of a more practical nature in the West that might exceed the capacities of the federal government.
This article situates the discussion of the Purchase and its aftermath within a broader context of expansionism, print, and visual culture in the early republic. Indeed, a crucial claim of this article is that historians of federal policymaking and scholars on cultural production—fields that often function in isolation—stand to reap enormous benefits from a close conversation that considers the way cultural production shaped the way policymaking decision appeared to the general public as well as the policymaking priorities that shaped how Americans represented their nation and themselves.