In This Review

The Louisiana Purchase
The Louisiana Purchase
By John Wiley
John Wiley, 2003, 192 pp

The 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase comes at a time when Franco-American relations are even more rancorous than usual. But things are not quite as bad, Fleming makes clear, as they were in 1803. Then, the Louisiana Purchase was the unexpected outcome of a crisis in Franco-American relations that could easily have led to war. The conclusion of the Peace of Amiens with the United Kingdom gave Napoleon, already consul for life and soon to become emperor, an opportunity to look beyond Europe to expand French power. With the connivance of Talleyrand, Napoleon sought to rebuild France's lost empire in North America by forcing the feeble Spanish government to return the Louisiana territory it gained from France in 1763. Unexpected difficulties led Napoleon to abandon this dream and astonish American diplomats by suddenly agreeing to sell not just the city of New Orleans, for which they had been bargaining, but also the whole territory of over 830,000 square miles, despite the bitter opposition of his brothers and Talleyrand -- and in violation of a pledge to Spain that France would never cede Louisiana to a third country. In this short but elegant and comprehensive account, Fleming succeeds in putting the transaction in the context of both American and international politics. Talleyrand is the only major character to whom Fleming renders less than full justice; the opposition to the purchase that makes Talleyrand the villain of the piece proceeded more from the bishop of Autun's sincere hopes for European peace than from a bigoted hatred of America.