- Jefferson’s America: The President, the Purchase, and the Explorers who Transformed a Nation by Julie M. Fenster
By Julie M. Fenster. New York: Crown Publishing 2016. 415 pp. Illustrations, map, notes, selected bibliography, index. $30.00 cloth.
President Thomas Jefferson doubled the size of the United States with the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, expanding the US boundary across the Great Plains to the Pacific Ocean. Because France had left the boundaries intentionally vague, Jefferson sent explorers to investigate the scientific, commercial, and strategic value of these lands and to assess the possibilities for American possession. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the Corps of Discovery along the Missouri River, through the Rocky Mountains and to the Pacific, returning with detailed information and specimens. William Dunbar and George Hunter explored the Ouachita River of present-day Arkansas in 1804–5. Meanwhile, in 1806, Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis began charting the Red River before their continued exploration was blocked by a large Spanish armed force. Finally, in 1805–6, Zebulon Pike reconnoitered the upper Mississippi River, and in 1806–7 explored northern Texas and New Mexico before the Spanish captured and escorted him back to Louisiana.
Julie Fenster describes how Jefferson orchestrated an empire stretching across the Great Plains that is synonymous with his name. As president, he secured Louisiana through purchase, then sent explorers into the West to gain information while simultaneously challenging Spanish control over the Southern Plains. Spanish troops blocked the 1806 Freeman-Custis expedition as well as captured Zebulon Pike’s exploratory party. Though all these expeditions had primary instructions to map the frontier and convey information regarding their findings, their real goal was to assert American control over the region.
The author’s use of biography and fluid writing style gives this book a personal approach that readers will enjoy. Yet those wanting more about the period and area will find little new and become overwhelmed with the details that do not further her thesis. The project lacks several important sources, including Arsène Lacarrière Latour’s writings. In 1816 Latour served as a Spanish secret agent, writing a lengthy report to Cuba and Mexico that described how Americans would sweep into Arkansas and Texas, even calling Jefferson the first author of expansion. In fact, Spanish-American relations along the cusp of empire cannot be [End Page 247] fully illustrated without Latour’s book Historical Memoir of the War in West Florida and Louisiana, 1814–15: With an Atlas (1999), as well as Frank L. Owlsey Jr. and Gene A. Smith’s Filibusters and Expansionists: Jeffersonian Manifest Destiny, 1800–1821 (1997). Both highlight Jefferson’s policy of expansion without using war long before Fenster broached this thesis.
Texas Christian University