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A rising nation, spread over a wide and fruitful land, traversing all the seas with the rich productions of their industry, engaged in commerce with nations who feel power and forget right, advancing rapidly to destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye, when I contemplate these transcendent objects, and see the honor, the happiness, and the hopes of this beloved country committed to the issue, and the auspices of this day, I shrink from the contemplation, and humble myself before the magnitude of the undertaking. —First Inaugural Address, 1801
In almost every way, at home and abroad, Thomas Jefferson represents the best that America has to offer. This is not to suggest that the Virginian did not have his faults or his quirks. What man in history has had none? And, yet, that mind. That very powerful and intimidating mind never fails to attract. How we can read the man or look at him staring down on us in his memorial and not feel inspired?
When the Lewis and Clark expedition returned to St. Louis after two years not just of absence, but of complete absence, the people of America were ecstatic. The two men and their fifty-some companions were treated as royalty. Yet, even in such a climate of festive joy, no one forgot why Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their Corps of Discovery had gone west. They had done so through the tenacity, the ingenuity, and the inspiration of the third president of the United States. The night the fair citizens of St. Louis held a dinner and a ball in honor of the returning expedition, eighteen official toasts were given. While each reveals something about the nature of American republicanism and could serve as a book in and of itself, it is the first toast, of course, that matters most.
To “the President of the United States—The friend of science, the Polar star of discovery, the philosopher, and the patriot.”
Whatever one’s politics—especially whether one believes that governments should be financing expeditions or not—it would be difficult not to admire what Jefferson did with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. To my mind, there are really only two rivals to the endeavor of Jefferson as the “polar-star of discovery.” The first would be the amazing Chinese Admiral, Cheng Ho (ca. 1371-1435), who explored much of the Indian Ocean, south-east Asia, western Asia, eastern Asia, and Africa. Armed with ships that were nearly four times the size of those Columbus sailed to the New World and with hundreds of men per ship, Cheng Ho advanced the already considerable knowledge and reach of the Chinese emperor, not only uncovering much of the Old World, but also introducing Chinese advancements and technologies as he went. The second person—and far more controversial, I am sure, to The Imaginative Conservative reading audience—is John F. Kennedy. Whatever his faults—and they were many—he did inspire a nation through his presidency and his death to pool their resources and take us to the Moon.
There are probably a number of lessons to be learned from these three expeditions. After Cheng Ho worked so diligently to expand the Chinese understanding of the world, the Chinese entered an isolationist mode that continued into the twentieth century, allowing the West to surpass its many grand achievements in almost every area of life. After the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Jefferson’s second administration was a disaster. Additionally, the pressure on Lewis to publish the journals proved so great that he tragically took his own life. The Lewis and Clark journals, so full of scientific wonders, did not see print until 1904, a full century after the Corps of Discovery departed on their two-year venture into the West. The West would be opened, to be sure, but it would be done so by private individuals through families and associations, often relearning what the Lewis and Clark Expedition had discovered between 1804 and 1806. After the Moon shot, NASA developed the shuttle program, keeping our own adventures beyond the atmosphere quite near to home. Meanwhile, dreamers and some countries have started rather seriously talking about sending men to Mars. We, Americans, however, seem to have given up the dream of going into the final frontier.
Perhaps each great push is so exhausting that those who push need to breathe and step back from it all—sometimes, it seems, for a century and even centuries. These, however, are lessons that others will need to consider.
Thomas Jefferson, though, had dreamt of the West since he was a small child. Not a particularly outdoorsy type, most of Jefferson’s understanding of the region came from his own reading. Regardless, he fully understood that how Americans viewed and shaped the West would determine the entire course of the United States. No matter how many things the original Americans might get right in the thirteen colonies, they would need to get it especially right in the West to prevent the republic from maintaining anything other than an “empire of liberty.” He gave considerable thought to the land, to agriculture, to botany, to meteorology, and, of course, to anthropology.
Prior to the Lewis and Clark expedition, Jefferson had attempted to get George Rogers Clark to go West in 1781; John Ledyard to do so around 1788; and Andre Michaux in 1792. Each of these efforts had failed, but Jefferson continued to hope and to plan. When the Scot Alexander MacKenzie crossed the entirety of North America in 1794, Jefferson worried. When he read MacKenzie’s just-published account at the beginning of his own presidency, he panicked. With government as well as private support, Jefferson handpicked his family friend, Meriwether Lewis, to organize the expedition. Jefferson also demanded that Lewis and William Clark learn as much as possible diplomatically and scientifically. In addition to organizing their company, the two men studied as deeply and as widely as possible with the best minds in Philadelphia in preparation of their trip.
It must be emphasized—and can never be emphasized strongly enough—that the expedition was one of science, not conquest. Nothing made this clearer than Jefferson’s detailed instructions. While the whole letter is worth reading, here are just two parts that pertinent to this essay.
The first part includes Jefferson’s directions regarding the native population:
The commerce which may be carried on with the people inhabiting the line you will pursue, renders a knolege [sic] of these people important. You will therefore endeavor to make yourself acquainted, as far as a diligent pursuit of your journey shall admit,
with the names of the nations & their numbers;
the extent & limits of their possessions;
their relations with other tribes or nations;
their language, traditions, monuments;
their ordinary occupations in agriculture, fishing, hunting, war,
arts, & the implements for these;
their food, clothing, & domestic accommodations;
the diseases prevalent among them, & the remedies they use;
moral and physical circumstance which distinguish them
from the tribes they know;
peculiarities in their laws, customs & dispositions;
and articles of commerce they may need or furnish, & to what extent.
And considering the interest which every nation has in extending & strengthening the authority of reason & justice among the people around them, it will be useful to acquire what knolege you can of the state of morality, religion & information among them, as it may better enable those who endeavor to civilize & instruct them, to adapt their measures to the existing notions & practises of those on whom they are to operate.
And, what else to watch for and examine:
Other objects worthy of notice will be
the soil & face of the country, it’s growth & vegetable
productions, especially those not of the U.S.
the animals of the country generally, & especially those
not known in the U.S. the remains & accounts of any which
may be deemed rare or extinct;
the mineral productions of every kind; but more particularly
metals, limestone, pit coal & saltpetre;
salines & mineral waters, noting the temperature of the last
& such circumstances as may indicate their character;
climate as characterized by the thermometer, by the
proportion of rainy, cloudy & clear days, by lightening, hail,
snow, ice, by the access & recess of frost, by the winds,
prevailing at different seasons, the dates at which particular
plants put forth or lose their flowers, or leaf, times of
appearance of particular birds, reptiles or insects.
Should we doubt Jefferson’s brilliance here? Can we name a recent president who could rival Jefferson in this way? Sadly, no. Our third president was truly the polar star of discovery.
This essay first appeared here in May 2016.
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The featured image is Thomas Jefferson Medallion Portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1805, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.