Historian touts importance of Louisiana Purchase

Thursday, December 11, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:32 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

When the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase passed earlier this year on April 30, few people took notice, said historian Peter Kastor. But next year’s bicentennial celebration of the Lewis and Clark expedition has already created a major buzz in the Midwest, he said.

Kastor wants to know why people are more interested in the expedition, which he said had much less of an effect on U.S. history.

“We often misunderstand the connection,” he said. “The purchase gave the expedition purpose and shaped the careers and personal destinies of Lewis and Clark.”

He emphasized that it was the purchase, not the expedition, which dominated concerns in the nation’s capital 200 years ago.

Kastor, an assistant professor of history and American cultural studies at Washington University in St. Louis, thinks looking at the purchase is essential for understanding the expedition and the country’s expansion. The first speaker in a series of Lewis and Clark presentations sponsored by the MU Center for Arts and Humanities, Kastor has already spoken at commemorative events in South Dakota and New Orleans about the relationship between the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Shirley Park attended the MU event with several residents from the Lenoir Retirement Community. Park said she’s “intensely interested” in the subject and has read books and attended related events about Lewis and Clark.

“This one was different than just the story of Lewis and Clark,” Park said. “He told the political part.”

After careful study of historical records, Kastor has concluded that by 1803, policymakers like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wanted to consolidate east, not expand west. But the Louisiana Purchase changed many people’s views.

Kastor said Americans did not know what they had bought with the Louisiana Purchase: They did not know where the geographic boundaries lay or what resources the land contained. These unknowns were part of the driving force behind the Lewis and Clark voyage.

“In its simplest terms, after the purchase, the expedition mattered,” Kastor said.

A generation later, America had transformed to embrace the expansion in the west, Kastor said.

The purchase formed crises of nationality, policymaking and diplomacy, according to Kastor. The purchase raised several profound questions, including “What do you do when you acquire all this land and thousands of people, without sufficient government to run it?”

He said Lewis and Clark, as territorial governors, were given the task to resolve these issues.

But Kastor doesn’t just study the history of these issues, he also draws connections between the purchase and current U.S. affairs. Kastor said the United States is again facing a similar situation in Iraq.

“How do you govern a foreign people?” Kastor said. “That’s a challenge we still face, and the ways we try to solve it are rooted in what we did 200 years ago.”

Jeff Pasley, an MU history professor, said he wasn’t fully convinced by Kastor’s argument, especially the analogy to Iraq.

“It’s an original take,” Pasley said, “but it may not entirely fit with all the evidence I’ve seen.”

For its next event in this series, the Center for Arts and Humanities will be co-sponsoring an interdisciplinary conference with the Department of Religious Studies from Feb. 19 to Feb. 21 at the MU campus. The conference, “Moving Boundaries: American Religion(s) through the Louisiana Purchase,” will examine the religious history of this region.

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