Meriwether Lewis and Thomas Jefferson

I’m currently reading “Undaunted Courage”, by Stephen Ambrose. I’m only about 80 pages in so far, but it’s an interesting look into a period of history that typically gets glossed over, if not misreported.

For example, the history books often report it that the Louisiana Purchase came first, then Jefferson decided to send Lewis and Clark to explore the new addition to the country. Not so. Jefferson and Lewis had already cooked up the expedition and obtained funding from Congress before they even sent anyone to France to negotiate. And the actual idea had been to try and buy New Orleans or some other land around that area. No one expected France would be willing to sell their entire stake in North America.

And I’m sure it probably came up, but I didn’t recall that Lewis was Jefferson’s personal secretary and constant confidant in the White House. The two of them shared many similar interests, including science and exploration, and were both inspired to launch the expedition after reading the same book (literally) by a Scottish explorer reporting his expedition to find the Northwest Passage. Once the idea of the expedition got into their heads Jefferson began personally tutoring Lewis in everything he knew about science, surveying and navigation, and anything else he thought would be useful. He even sent Lewis to study with prominent scientists of the time. It’s quite the concept: being personally tutored by the President of the United States and one of the original American “renaissance men.”

It’s also noteworthy that Lewis actually volunteered for a similar expedition planned years earlier when he was but 18 years old. Jefferson at the time turned him down, choosing instead a Frenchman–who he later had recalled after learning he was a French spy. It’s almost as if the expedition was always meant to have been Lewis’–every previous attempt failed for one reason or another, most of them before they could even get past the Mississippi.

Anyway, though I got off to a slow start with this book, I’m enjoying it. American history fascinates me, and early American history especially so. We take so much for granted about our country, seldom stopping to consider that it was never a given that things would turn out how they have. Like this little factoid: Washington and Adams personally delivered State of the Union speeches to Congress during their presidencies–just like we’re accustomed to today. Jefferson did not (and in fact sent Lewis to deliver it in his place), feeling the practice was too monarchical. He never delivered a SOTU speech in person, and in fact no president after him did, either, until Woodrow Wilson.

And did you know that Lewis’ room at the White House (it wasn’t called that at the time, though) had been used formerly by Abigail Adams as a place to hang up her laundry to dry? Obviously it wasn’t the Adams’ family that started the tradition of airing their laundry in public. (ba-dum-dum…KSSSSSSH!)

Anyway, anyone that knows me knows that I trip out on this sort of stuff. This may not be the last such post before I finish the book. Stay tuned!

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