Modern history


ON THE NATIONS twenty-seventh birthday, July 4, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson proclaimed, in the pages of the Washington, D.C., National Intelligencer, that the United States had just purchased from Napoleon “Louisiana.” It was not only New Orleans, but all the country drained from the west by the Mississippi River, most especially all the Missouri River drainage. That was 825,000 square miles, doubling the size of the country for a price of about fifteen million dollars—the best land bargain ever made.

That same July 4, the president gave to Meriwether Lewis a letter authorizing him to draw on any agency of the U.S. government anywhere in the world anything he wanted for an exploring expedition to the Pacific Ocean. He also authorized Lewis to call on “citizens of any nation to furnish you with those supplies which your necessities may call for” and signed “this letter of general credit for you with my own hand,” thus pledging the faith of the United States government. This must be the most unlimited letter of credit ever issued by an American president.

The next day, July 5, 1803, Lewis set off. His purpose was to look for an all-water route across the western two-thirds of the continent, and to discover and describe what Jefferson had bought from Napoleon.

The Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition stretched the boundaries of the United States from sea to shining sea. Thus July 4, 1803, was the beginning of today’s nation. The celebration in 1976 was designated as the Bicentennial, and that was appropriate for the original thirteen colonies, but it was with the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition that the United States west of the Mississippi River became a part of the nation. Therefore July 4, 2003, can be regarded as the real Bicentennial.

The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 added everything west of the Mississippi River and east of the Continental Divide to the United States, including today’s Louisiana, Arkansas, parts of northeastern Texas, Oklahoma, eastern Colorado, and Minnesota. In their exploration, Lewis and his partner, William Clark, described Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Montana, all a part of the Purchase. And the expedition made possible the American acquisition of the great Northwest Empire—Idaho, Washington, Oregon. Clark joined Lewis in October 1803, at Clarksville, Indiana Territory, across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky. Thus it was Lewis who became the first man ever to cross the North American continent in today’s United States. And it was Clark who, on November 7, 1805, wrote the immortal line, “Ocian in view! O! the joy.”

Meriwether Lewis was present on March 9, 1804, as the official American witness, at St. Louis, when the first American flag was raised west of the Mississippi River. Later, he and William Clark raised the Stars and Stripes at their campsites along the Missouri River, in the Rocky Mountains, and on the Columbia River, also the first ever, capped by the one at the westernmost camp, near Astoria, Oregon, on the Pacific Ocean.

Thomas Jefferson did so many things of such magnitude that it would be foolish to declare that this or that action—the Declaration of Independence, religious freedom, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, many others—was the greatest. In the Northwest Ordinance he made certain that when the population of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin was large enough these territories would come into the Union as fully equal states. They would have the same number of senators and representatives as the original thirteen states, they would elect their own governors, and so on. Jefferson was the first man who ever had such a thought. All previous empires had been run by the “mother country,” with the king appointing the governors, and the legislature in the mother country’s capital setting the laws. Jefferson said no: the territories would not be colonies, they would be states, and they would be equal to the original members of the Union. No one knows how things might have turned out if Washington, D.C., had tried to govern the territories west of the Appalachian Mountains.

Surely the best thing Jefferson ever did as president was the Louisiana Purchase. The Federalist Party opposed the Purchase, arguing that nowhere in the Constitution is power granted to the President to purchase additional lands and that in any case the United States should not pay money, of which it had too little, for land, of which it had too much. Jefferson rejoined that nowhere in the Constitution does it say that the president cannot purchase additional lands. And in making the argument that cheap lands in the West were the last things the United States should pay for, the Federalists dug their own grave.

Jefferson also applied the principles of the Northwest Ordinance to the Louisiana Purchase territories—and later, by extension, to the Northwest Empire. Thus Jefferson, more than any other man, created an empire of liberty that stretched from sea to shining sea.

The next-best thing Jefferson did as president was to organize, set the objectives, and write the orders for an exploring expedition across the country. He then picked Meriwether Lewis to command it, and, at Lewis’s insistence, William Clark became co-commander.

Since 1803 and the return of the expedition in 1806, every American everywhere has benefited from Jefferson’s purchase of Louisiana and his setting in motion the Lewis and Clark Expedition. And we all live in a democracy and enjoy complete religious liberty, thanks to Jefferson.

I am often asked, “What is the secret to being a successful author?” My reply, always, is: “Marry an English major.” Before suppertime, at cocktail hour, Moira listens to me reading whatever I’ve written in a day, then tells me how good it is (she has been married to a writer for a very long time and knows always what to say first), then says, “But,” and tells me to make more of this, less of that, change this word or that image, whatever. She is also there for the research. She has sat beside me, looking at documents, at libraries ranging from the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas, to the Nixon Collection at Yorba Linda, California, to the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, California. Field research has taken us on a Union Pacific train from Omaha to Sacramento; to Normandy, London, Paris, Belgium, Germany; a couple of times to Italy; lately to the South, Central, and North Pacific.

We were together for every inch of the Lewis and Clark route. Once, in 1976, we were backpacking on the Lolo Trail in the Bitterroot Mountains. She was behind me (where else?) and said, “Walking in Lewis’s footsteps makes my feet tingle.” That is the kind of line you can get from an English major.

The second secret is: “Get a good editor.” My editor for the past two decades and many books has been, and will always be, Alice Mayhew. She is famous, for good reason. When I first told her I wanted to write about Meriwether Lewis for my next book, she insisted that I put in as much Tom Jefferson as possible. Because, she said, people never get tired of reading about Jefferson. She was, as she almost always is, right.

It was Alice who came up with the title for this book. I wanted to call it Of Courage Undaunted, the opening phrase of Jefferson’s marvelous one-sentence description of Lewis, the finest praise any member of the president’s official family ever received from the man himself. Alice changed it to Undaunted Courage. That is not only an exact description of Lewis, but of Alice as well. She is the only editor in the whole world with the courage to edit Thomas Jefferson.

That was almost a decade ago. Much has happened since. Moira and I are getting close to the time when the realization of the dream we had then, described in the last paragraph of the Acknowledgments, will come true, for our grandchildren are now in high school.

The best thing that has happened is the number of people who canoe the Missouri and Columbia Rivers, who backpack over the Bitterroots, who visit Lewis and Clark sites all along the Trail. The Bicentennial years, 2003 to 2006, will see an upsurge in the visitation. We want every American to go see at least a part of the trail. It is your duty, your privilege, as an American. We urge you to take only photographs, leave only footprints, as you paddle in the wake of the Corps of Discovery or hike in their footsteps.

Bring along a copy of the Journals of Lewis and Clark. Either the Biddle edition, or the Moulton edition, or De Voto’s one-volume abridgment, or any of the other abridgments. And at your campfire, whether on the Missouri River in Missouri or Kansas or Nebraska or Iowa or the Dakotas or Montana, or on Lemhi Pass, or in the Bitterroot Mountains in Idaho, or on the Columbia River in Washington and Oregon, read aloud from the journals. Often, in some stretches nearly always, your campfire will be at the site where Lewis or Clark wrote his account of what happened to the Corps of Discovery that day, describing territory you have just covered, telling about the adventures the men went through on that spot. I guarantee that if you practice you can learn to read well the run-on sentences the captains indulged themselves in, and that when you do, you will have your children or friends or parents or whoever is sitting around that campfire leaning forward just a bit, listening intently, so as not to miss a word. Like you, like me, like every American, they want to know: what happened next?


August 2002

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