- Empires of the Imagination: Transatlantic Histories of the Louisiana Purchase
Louisiana Purchase, Napoleon, France, Slavery
The Louisiana Purchase came as a surprise on both sides of the Atlantic, the authors of Empires of the Imagination remind us. The last addition to a series of studies that commemorates the bicentennial of what the French call la vente de la Louisiane, this collection strives to revise the “Anglocentric vision of the North American West” (17). In synch with the theme of “imagination,” well-established scholars explore the mental constructs of people involved or affected by the Purchase—including the geopolitical imagination of Jefferson (Peter Onuf), the prerevolutionary categories of Napoleon (Laurent Dubois), or the conceptions of power of the Choctaw Indians (Cécile Vidal). The essays are organized in three parts, respectively entitled Empire, Identity, and Memory. To get a good grasp on the historiography, however, the very last essay of the collection, written by Jacques Portes and Marie-Jeanne Rossignol, should be read first. Besides giving a sense of the very different treatment of the Purchase in American and French historiographical traditions, the two historians acutely pose the problem of distance between academic knowledge and public celebration of historical events.
Empires of the Imagination grants a significant place to diplomatic and political history, yet several essays examine the Purchase from the bottom up, trying to understand how it changed life in Louisiana. Opening the first part of the book, Richard White argues that life did not change much for several decades in the pays d’en haut, a haven for outlaws. In an inspired essay, White insists on “the fictions of empire,” presenting diplomacy as “a form of pornography” and the Louisiana Purchase as a historical event that blended, “violence, desire, imaginary possession, and illicit sale” (38). Building on the work of White and other historians of Upper Louisiana, Cécile Vidal rejects the cultural interpretations that have long lauded the “colonial genius” of France when it came to dealing with the Indians. Laurent Dubois moves the narrative in the French Atlantic, uncovering the unpaid debts of the United States to the former slaves of Saint-Domingue. Dubois takes up the argument of Robert L. Paquette and writes that Napoleon was forced to abandon his western design (and thus to sell Louisiana), since he was [End Page 717] unwilling to accept the end of slavery in the Pearl of the Caribbean.1 While France was trying to deal with the insurgents, things were not easy in Washington. Spain’s retrocession of Louisiana to France created great insecurities in the early republic, notes James Lewis. While the Federalists wanted to solve the crisis by taking to arms, Jefferson chose to adopt a diplomatic and peaceful course, animated by fears for a still fragile union between the states.
The second part of the book is concerned with questions of identity, mostly in Lower Louisiana. With his usual demographic approach, Paul Lachance examines the censuses produced in the decades surrounding the Purchase to convey how successive authorities constructed and categorized the people of Louisiana. Jean-Pierre Le Glaunec also looks at numbers in an essay on slave migration, refuting the long-standing argument on the scarcity of sources. Importing slaves by the thousands in the early American period, planters transformed Louisiana from a society with slaves into a slave society. Since territorial authorities were slow to implement a structure of control, however, the slave community was able to create a cartography of resistance. The Catholic Church in New Orleans was one of these sites of resistance for its mainly black and female congregation, argues Emily Clark, although she shows that it also “served as a site for the rehearsal of white male republican authority” (181). Clark downplays the confessional divide between Catholics and Protestants to insist instead on the shared political culture of Creoles and Americans.
As with religion, language proved not to be such a great barrier in the inclusion of the ancienne population in the...