Review of “What’s the Deal? Jefferson, Napoleon, and the Louisiana Purchase”

December 21, 2018 |  Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Review of “What’s the Deal? Jefferson, Napoleon, and the Louisiana Purchase”

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The Louisiana Purchase is often sidelined in favor of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, itself the context for the latter, but Rhoda Blumberg’s What’s the Deal? Jefferson, Napoleon, and the Louisiana puts the infamous deal in the spotlight. Aimed at young adult readers, What’s the Deal? simplifies the historical context, main players, and political intrigue involved in sealing the final deal. Written in an engaging, factual style, Blumberg brings the history to life for readers living two years after the events took place, making learning about a seemingly-insignificant event fleshed out for contemporary young readers.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The book is organized chronologically, with separate ‘episodes’ within the history before and after the signing of the Louisiana Purchase taking up their own space (such as a chapter on the Haitian Revolution. The book begins with a “Cast of Characters,” introducing the reader to the main players in the France, Spain, England, the United States, and Haiti, divided by their importance, social rank, and position. One notable omission is that of Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1758-1806), the first Haitian head of state who defeated the Napoleonic forces bent on conquering Haiti– not Toussaint Louverture, as credited in the book. The book successfully links the various interests of the key players in the unfolding of the Louisiana Purchase, unwinding the circuitous backroom deals and intrigue that led to the acquisition of Louisiana by the French, the relationships between US citizens and French spies, the interests of the Spanish versus those of the US, the debates around westward expansion, and the role of the Haitian Revolution in thwarting the plans of the world’s mightiest imperial powers. The prose is simple, and lends to easy, direct understanding of the topic, but does not make the book any less intellectually stimulating. There are plenty of quotations from primary sources, which do not take away from the narrative, but strengthen the compelling nature of Blumberg’s storytelling. As well, the anecdotes further strengthen the narrative, and allow for amusing moments in the prose (Napoleon’s bath being interrupted by his dissenting brother (92) is particularly memorable). A perusal of the notes and bibliography reveal a book that was well-researched, with some flaws, but, nonetheless, Blumberg’s thorough use of primary and secondary sources allows for deft handling of the topic at hand.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 What’s the Deal?, like any book is by no means perfect. While it seeks to come across as impartial, it often passes moral judgments and takes a conciliatory tone towards colonialism. The most egregious failing is its Eurocentric viewpoint, minimizing the role of slavery in imperial Atlantic cultures and economies while lionizing the role of European statesmen and agents. Slavery is little mentioned, even when it made possible the maintenance of European empires and ensured their economic prosperity. As well, the Haitian Revolution is given a side role in Napoleon’s decision to abandon the American colonies, and even neglects to mention the brutality of the slave regime that led to the revolt. In a similar vein, there is no overview of the French Revolution, its demands, its effects on France’s overseas territories, and on the common people across French territory, which is key to the sympathy of the US to France, the rise of Napoleon, and the unfolding of the Haitian Revolution. This glaring omission may be reflective of an elitist worldview held by Blumberg that focuses on the ‘great men’ of history, while overlooking the regular people, and also making anachronistic judgments on the past. Blumberg uses the epithet “dictator” on Napoleon and Louverture, even though both of them were by no means dictators in the modern sense, even though their governing styles suffered little dissent. “Dictator” in the modern usage implies moral failings, extreme repression, and almost a maniacal desire for power and control, and are not applicable to the militaristic rule of the two leaders. As well, Blumberg accepts US westward expansion as an utter inevitability, something that must happen, no matter the cost, and without any discussion of the indigenous peoples living on the land, their coming displacement, or even contemporary views of the idea from people who were not statesmen. A further plaint regards the profusion of art and political cartoons throughout the book: while many are relevant to the subject matter upon the page, such as that of Thomas Jefferson vomiting up the money paid to the French for Louisiana (109), others, such as a portrait of Napoleon famously painted after his 1815 defeat at Waterloo (12 years after the Louisiana Purchase), are out of place and reveal a lack of research or care taken in choosing the art used in the book.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 While imperfect, What’s the Deal? is a strong introduction to Atlantic politics at the turn of the nineteenth century, as it revolved around the Louisiana Purchase. It connects the various political issues of its day in the main countries involved, as well as introducing readers to the little-covered Haitian Revolution. It is a potential springboard for further research, but is a helpful introduction to the convoluted history that led to the Louisiana Purchase itself. It presents a clear and compelling historical overview of the period and is as an entertaining read as it is edifying.

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7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 BIBLIOGRAPHY

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9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Blumberg, Rhoda. What’s the Deal? Jefferson, Napoleon, and the Louisiana Purchase. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1998.


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