The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 was the greatest threat to national unity between the winning of independence and the outbreak of the Civil War. The North-South split over slavery had nothing to do with it; the struggle pitted West against East.
The precipitate cause was simple enough: a new tax. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton wanted to increase the power and extend the reach of the federal government. In addition, the government needed money. Hamilton therefore laid an excise tax on whiskey, the principal product of the trans-Appalachian region.
Those at the frontier felt neglected, misunderstood, mistreated. There was little or no hard cash around, yet Hamilton demanded a tax paid in currency. A tax on whiskey was a tax on what the frontier made and sold, not on what it purchased—exactly the objection the Founding Fathers had raised against “internal” taxes imposed by England before the revolution. More generally, the frontiersmen complained that the government attempting to collect the tax neglected to provide western settlers with protection from the Indians, failed to build western roads or canals, and favored the rich absentee land speculators, the biggest and most important of whom was President Washington himself, over the simple, hardworking frontiersman who was trying to acquire land and build a home.
The frontier farmers revolted. They refused to pay the tax; they shot at revenue officers; they tarred and feathered revenue officers; they burned down the houses of revenue officers. President Washington, alarmed at these “symptoms of riot and violence,” called out thirteen thousand militiamen from Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland in August 1794 to quell the rebellion.
Washington needed volunteers because the regular army, with an authorized strength of 5,424 officers and men, was in the Ohio country, on an Indian campaign led by Major General Anthony Wayne, launched in response to two successive, humiliating, and costly defeats suffered by the army in Ohio—in 1790 under General Josiah Harmar, and in 1791 under General Arthur St. Clair. Those Indian victories had inspired widespread Indian attacks on frontier settlements, which in turn were among the causes of the Whiskey Rebellion. On the East Coast, men might fear a standing army; in the West, they clamored for one that could protect them.
On August 20, 1794, at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, at the rapids of the Maumee River in northwestern Ohio, Wayne won a decisive victory, thus meeting one of the chief complaints of the western rebels, which was that the army would not or could not provide protection. Word of that victory had not reached Pennsylvania, however, when Washington called out the militia. Nor did westerners know that Chief Justice John Jay was negotiating for a British withdrawal from the posts in the Northwest—another source of unhappiness, for the frontiersmen believed the British encouraged Indian massacres of American pioneers. Jay’s Treaty would be signed in London in November 1794, but news did not reach the United States until March 1795.
There was a certain irony in the Whiskey Rebellion. Washington, Hamilton, and the other heroes of the American Revolution who were determined to put down this rebellion were espousing a policy that they had once risked their lives to oppose—taxation without representation. For there was no question about the truth of the complaints from the frontier, that this excise tax on whiskey was specific to the westerners and that they were not properly represented in the general government that imposed the tax.
Implicit in the rebellion was the idea of secession, a Second American Revolution. The rhetoric of the Whiskey Rebels was all but identical to the rhetoric of Sam and John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry. The logic of the rebellion was the logic of the revolution—just as the ocean that separated England from America dictated that they should be two nations, so did the mountains separate the East from the West and dictate two nations.
But what the West saw as simple political logic, the East saw as riot and rebellion. President Washington had not suffered the rigors of Valley Forge, or come out of retirement to serve as the first president, in order to preside over the dissolution of the nation or lose ownership of the tens of thousands of acres he owned in the West. Rumors of negotiations between rebels and representatives of England and Spain inspired Washington and eastern nationalists with military fervor. So determined was the president to put down the rebels that he took the field to review the troops who answered his call.1
Among those troops was Meriwether Lewis. He was one of the first to enlist, as a private in the Virginia volunteer corps. Surely a part of his motivation was his lust for adventure and his penchant for roving, but he told himself—and his mother—that he signed on for the campaign in order “to support the glorious cause of Liberty, and my country.” He considered the rebels to be traitors and was delighted that “our leading men are determined entirely to consume every attuum of that turbulent and refractory sperit that exists among the Incergents.”2
He was hardly alone. Thousands of young men from the Middle States volunteered. They had been children during the Revolutionary War. Throughout their teen-age years they had heard war stories from their fathers and uncles. They envied the older generation its adventures and leaped at this chance to experience the camaraderie of the campfire, and the possibility of becoming a hero. They were also well aware that the government had rewarded the Revolutionary War veterans with land warrants in the West.
The volunteers, thirteen thousand of them, marched into Pennsylvania in two columns. The New Jersey and Pennsylvania troops gathered at Carlisle; the Virginians and Marylanders bivouacked at Cumberland. Washington, magnificently mounted and in his full-dress uniform, reviewed the troops in each camp, and marched with them as far as Bedford.
The roll of the drums, the cadence of the march, the glittering new uniforms, the eager young patriots, the thrilling sight of General/President Washington at the head of the column, was the way artists of the campaign saw it. The reality was different. As Washington bade farewell and Godspeed, the invasion of western Pennsylvania began. Crossing the mountains through rain and mud proved far more difficult than anyone had imagined. Disease, lack of discipline, insufficient rations, and squabbles about rank and command threatened to dissolve the force. Negotiations over rank, command, uniforms—color, design, and accoutrements—occupied far too much of the young officers’ time and energy. Where egos and sartorial tastes went unsatisfied, anger welled up. In historian Thomas Slaughter’s words, “Honor and ambition often supplanted patriotism as the highest priorities of both the resplendent dragoons riding west and those who petulantly stayed behind.”3
Discipline and desertion were major problems, brought on by the vast gap between officers and privates, of which the most important was that officers could resign their commissions and take a walk, whereas the men were in for the duration. The officers got more and better rations, and usually managed to billet themselves in log homes; the men spent the nights in tents or on the open ground. Drunkenness was widespread in the whiskey country, as well as rampant gambling—both punished among the men, ignored among the officers. Each morning, senior officers sent out patrols to round up deserters, then had those who were caught brutally punished with a hundred lashes well laid on.
The men were inadequately clothed and fed. One month into the campaign, many were barefoot. On October 7, Hamilton lamented that “the troops are everywhere ahead of their supplies. Not a shoe, blanket, or ounce of ammunition is yet arrived.” Food shortages led to plundering, which harmed relations with civilians along the army’s path and was met with severe punishment. One of Lewis’s fellow Virginia volunteers was caught taking a beehive. It cost him a hundred lashes. Nevertheless, the desperate men tore down fences for firewood, stole chickens and, when they could find them, cattle and sheep. Slaughter records, “The journals of officers often read like tourist guides to taverns and scenery along the route, while enlisted men’s diaries recounted weeks of hunger and cold.”4
Meriwether Lewis was an exception. Although only a private, he was a planter, a member of the gentry, welcomed into the company of the junior officers of the Virginia militia, who knew that his rank reflected his age, not his station in life. His letters to his mother read like those tourist guides Slaughter described.
On October 4, 1794, from the initial camp in Winchester, Virginia, Lewis wrote his mother. He had only recently arrived, whereas two regiments had been for ten days “at this school if I may term it so where they have been well equiped, tutured and now cut a moste martial figure.” Lewis’s company, he reported, “shall this day draw all our accutrements and receive our first lesson.”
His first experience in camp was all he had hoped for, and more. “We have mountains of beef and oceans of Whiskey,” he told his mother, “and I feel myself able to share it [with the] heartiest fellow in camp. I had last night the pleasure of suping with all my acquaintances in Capt. Randolphs company, they are all well except himself.”
His spirits were soaring. He signed off, “Remember me to all the girls and tell them that they must give me joy today, as I am to be married to the heavest musquit in the Magazun tomorrow.”5
A week later, on the march to Cumberland, he wrote: “I have retired from the hury and confusion of a camp with my constant companion Ensign Walker to write I know not what. . . . I am still blessed with a sufficiency of bodily strength and activity to support the glorious cause of Liberty, and my Country. . . . The lads from our neighbourhood are all harty. . . . Remind Rubin [sic] of the charge entrusted to him. . . . Ever believe me with sincerity your dutiful son.”6
As the columns crossed the mountains and began to converge on Pittsburgh, the leaders of the rebellion fled down the Ohio River, headed for Spanish Louisiana. Two rebels were captured, marched east for trial, and found guilty of treason, but they were subsequently pardoned by President Washington. The show of force had worked; although the whiskey tax never was collected, land taxes, poll taxes, and tariffs on imported products were collected. Thanks to these, the victory at Fallen Timbers, and Jay’s Treaty, the threat of a western secession receded; it did not, however, disappear.
In late October or early November, Lewis received a commission as an ensign in the Virginia militia. When that militia marched home, he volunteered to stay on with the small occupying force charged with patrolling and policing western Pennsylvania under the command of General Daniel Morgan. The enlistment was for six months. “I am situated on the Mongahale [Monongahela],” he told his mother, “about 15 miles above Pittsburg where we shall be forted in this winter. . . . I am in perfect health. I am quite delighted with a soldier’s life.” He was also feeling the responsibility of being older brother and head of the family: “I would wish Rubin to amuse himself with ucefull books. If he will pay attention he may be adiquate to the task [of running Locust Hill] the ensuing year.”
There was more to his decision to stay in the army than his delight at the soldier’s life. He informed his mother that, come spring and the end of his enlistment, he would “direct my cource down to Kentucky,” where he intended to speculate in lands. He also planned to pay the taxes on “warrant land” his mother had inherited from Captain Marks, part of Marks’s bonus for his service in the Revolutionary War, so as to prevent its forfeiture to the state as vacant or abandoned land.7
Two weeks later, he wrote to ask his mother to send money to pay the taxes on the warrant land, and papers proving ownership. He concluded, “I am in perfect health and constantly employed in building huts to secure us from the clemency of the approaching season. Remember me to all the girls of the neighbourhood . . . your affectionate son.”
On Christmas Eve, 1794, he made his first complaint as an army officer. “I am a more confined overseer here than when at Locust Hill,” he wrote, “having been ever since my last [letter] constantly confined to the huting department. There is no probability of a cessation of axes untill the middle of next month.” He was learning one of the chief responsibilities of being an officer, concern for his men: “The situation of the soldairy is truly deplorable exposed to the inclemency of the winter which is about this time compleatly set in without any shelter more than what eight men can derive from a small tent. Many are sick but fortunately few have died as yet.”
For himself, the best he could do for his Christmas feast was “a little stewed beef,” but “to my great comfort I have this Day been so fortunate as for the price of one dollar to procure a quart of Rum for a chrismas dram.”8
Sometime that winter, Reuben wrote Meriwether to inform him that their mother was uneasy about his long absence. On April 6, 1795, Meriwether wrote his mother to “press you by all the ties of parental affection not to give yurself any uneasiness [about me] as I can assure you I shall not undertake any enterprise more dangerous than being at Locust Hill.” He admitted that “I have had a pretty severe touch of the disorder which has been so prevelent among the Troops,” almost certainly diarrhea, “but have fortunately been restored to my usual state of health.”
He was due to be discharged in mid-May, at which time he would go to Kentucky “to see to your land” and to take advantage of a “great opening for acquiring lands.” Again he had advice and orders for Reuben: “Incourage Rubin to be industrious and be attentive to business. . . . Remember me to Aunt and uncle Thomson and all the girls, and tell them that I shall bring an Insergiant girl to see them next fall bearing the title of Mrs. Lewis.” That last cryptic line had no follow-up to it, but it may have caused Mrs. Marks considerable concern, or perhaps raised her hopes that her boy would soon settle down.9
If so, she was about to be disappointed. Instead of taking his discharge in mid-May and going to Kentucky, then home, on May 1, 1795, Lewis joined the regular army, with the rank of ensign. That same month, he was vaccinated for smallpox. He received a letter from Reuben, who again told him their mother wished his return to Locust Hill. He replied on May 22, in some wonderfully convoluted sentences: “So violently opposed is my governing passion for rambling to the wishes of all my friends that I am led intentionally to err and then have vanity enough to hope for forgiveness. I do not know how to account for this Quixottic disposition of mine in any other manner or its being affliected by any other cause than that of having inherited it [from] the Meriwether Family and it therfore more immediately calls on your charity to forgive those errors into which it may at any time lead me Tho all I shall ask at present is that you will not finally condemn me untill next fall at which time it will be my task personally to plead an excuse for my conduct.”
In other words, it was all her fault. He signed off, “Your ever sincere tho wandering Son.”10
Seldom would he spend more than a winter at one place for the rest of his life.
With the end of the Whiskey Rebellion, the ratification of Jay’s Treaty and resulting better relations with the British, and the victory at Fallen Timbers, the army of 5,424 officers and men of 1794 was cut back to 3,359. Thus Lewis received his commission in the regular army at a time when that army was undergoing a sharp reduction, strong evidence that he had made a good impression on his seniors. Of course, they would have known his stepfather, and probably his father, and his lineage generally, which didn’t hurt. The army he entered had many officers who were tied by blood or marriage to distinguished families. More than a third were sons of officers in the Continental Army or in the militia during the revolution.
The army’s role was primarily to serve as a frontier constabulary, which caused it to be dispersed into small, isolated garrisons, most with fewer than a hundred officers and men. Historian William Skelton, in his authoritative An American Profession of Arms: The Army Officer Corps, 1784–1861, calls these tiny garrisons west of the Appalachian Mountains “an archipelago of tiny islets strung along thousands of miles of remote frontier.”11
Discipline was imposed with shocking severity on the enlisted men. Flogging was commonplace; branding somewhat less so but still used as a disciplinary measure. A court-martial at Fort Defiance, in northwestern Ohio, found two soldiers guilty of laying their muskets aside and sitting down while on guard duty. They were sentenced to one hundred lashes well laid on. Theft of a blanket brought fifty lashes; striking a noncommissioned officer was a hundred-lash offense.
Desertion was a major problem, both because so many men gave in to the temptation to run off and lose themselves on the frontier, where they could establish squatters’ rights and escape the harsh punishments common to eighteenth-century soldiers, and because the loss of just two or three men in the small garrisons would badly reduce fighting efficiency in the event of an Indian attack. So desertion was severely punished. When a private ran off from Fort Defiance in the fall of 1795, the officers offered two Shawnee Indians a reward of ten dollars for bringing him back alive and twenty dollars for his scalp. One of the warriors returned the following day with the soldier’s scalp and collected the reward, along with “many compliments from the officers.”12
On paper, the officer corps was also tightly disciplined. It was governed by Baron von Steuben’s Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, usually called the Baron and the Rules and Articles of War. Among other things, officers were forbidden to use profanity, express disrespect for their commanding officer or federal or state officials, be drunk on duty or absent without leave, or in any way participate in duels. They were subject to dismissal if convicted of “behaving in a scandalous and infamous manner, such as is unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.” They were further forbidden to keep mistresses, a habit “repugnant to the rules of society—burthensome to the service—ever pregnant with discord—always disgraceful and frequently destructive to men of merit.”13
Most officers cultivated a flamboyant style of life, featuring heavy drinking and wenching. They were allowed at least one soldier from the line as a personal servant, or a slave maintained at the expense of the army. Second lieutenants were paid $402 in annual salary, with additional compensation for special assignments, but they had to purchase their uniforms, which were terrifically expensive on the frontier. Skelton comments: “Lower-ranking officers had only a precarious grip on middle-class respectability.”14 Many officers supplemented their pay by speculating in land, taking advantage of their location in the West; they speculated primarily in the bounty-land warrants issued to revolutionary veterans.
Skelton found that “one of the dominant characteristics of the officer corps was internal dissension; indeed, seldom has an army been led by a more refractory and contentious group of men. That officer was a rarity whose career was not punctuated by acts of indiscipline and acrimonious controversies with his comrades-in-arms, many of which led to courts-martial or duels.”15 One cause was the isolation and boredom of frontier posts. This was exacerbated because the officer corps was one of the few places in the early republic in which Americans from a variety of regional, religious, ethnic, educational, and social backgrounds mingled in close quarters. Probably more important was the overblown sense of honor of the officers, especially those from the South.
Any officer who issued or accepted a challenge to a duel or served as a second or even upbraided a fellow officer for refusing a challenge was subject to immediate dismissal. In practice, neither the War Department nor senior officers made the slightest effort to enforce these regulations. General Anthony Wayne, in fact, urged his officers to duel, telling them to find “some other mode of settling their private disputes” than by troubling the army with courts-martial. There was a logic at work: duels avoided the expense and inconvenience of frequent courts-martial, and, in contrast to duels, courts-martial tended to perpetuate rather than resolve the frequent personal disputes.16
In the army of 1795, one officer declared, to be publicly insulted—denounced as not a gentleman in the presence of other officers—and not to seek redress in a duel would subject the insulted party “to the scoff and ridicule, and what is worse the contempt of his brothers in arms.”17
Ensign Meriwether Lewis’s first posting as an officer of the regular army was to the Second Sub-Legion, under General Wayne. Thus Lewis was present at Wayne’s headquarters on August 3, 1795, when the humbled chiefs of the tribes of the Ohio region gave their assent to the Treaty of Greenville. In November, a fever swept through the camp; at one point some 300 of the 375 men at Greenville were sick. Lewis was one of the fortunate; he assured his mother, “I enjoy perfect health.”18
Although there were as yet no formal political parties in the United States, most officers in the Second Sub-Legion, like the officer corps as a whole, were Federalists. One of the most contentious political issues of the day was attitudes toward the French Revolution. Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, despised it. Jeffersonians—soon to be known as Republicans—embraced it. Embraced it so thoroughly, in fact, that many of them copied the French and used the simple title “citizen” in addressing one another. Lewis was one of these; he addressed his May 22, 1795, letter to his mother: “Cittizen Lucy Markes, Albemarle, Virginia.”
Lewis’s views—and his drinking—soon got him into trouble. On November 6, 1795, he was brought before a General Courts Martial at Wayne’s headquarters. Charges were brought against him by a Lieutenant Eliott. The first charge: “A direct, open & contemptuous Violation of the first & second Articles of the seventh section of the Rules and Articles of War.” (Article one read, “No officer or soldier shall use any reproachful or provoking speeches or gestures to another.” Article two forbade challenging to a duel.)
The specification in the proceeding charged Lewis with “abruptly, and in an Ungentleman like mannner, when intoxicated, entering his (Lieutenant Eliott’s) House on the 24th of September last, and without provocation insulting him, and disturbing the peace and harmony of a Company of Officers whom he had invited there.” They had argued politics; Lewis had apparently been thrown out; he then “presumed on the same day to send Lieutenant Eliott a Challenge to fight a duell.”
When the charges were read to Lewis, he entered a plea of “Not Guilty.” Testimony was taken, over a period of nearly a week. The officers of the court then rendered their judgment: “We are of opinion that Ensign Meriwether Lewis is not guilty of the charges exhibited against him, and sentence that he may be acquitted with honor.” General Wayne, the court-martial report concluded,
confirms the foregoing sentence and fondly hopes, as this is the first, that it also may be the last instance in [this command] of convening a Court for a trial of this nature—
Ensign Meriwether Lewis is liberated from his Arrest.19
Quite obviously, Ensign Lewis could not continue to serve in the same outfit as Lieutenant Eliott. General Wayne transfered the twenty-one-year-old Lewis to the Chosen Rifle Company of elite riflemen-sharpshooters. The captain of that company had Albemarle ties—his family came from Charlottesville, although he had been born in Caroline County, Virginia, four years earlier than Lewis. His name was William Clark. His older brother was General George Rogers Clark, the conqueror of the Old Northwest during the revolution and a close friend of Jefferson. In the fall of 1795, William Clark had been in the army four years and taken part in the Battle of Fallen Timbers. In six months, he would resign his commission because of ill-health and the press of family business, but during that half-year he and Lewis became great friends, and admirers one of the other.
William Clark, oil (1810) by Charles Willson Peale. (Courtesy Independence National Historical Park)
So the partnership of Lewis and Clark, destined to become the most famous in American history, began because General Wayne preferred to have his officers fight out their differences in a duel rather than in a court-martial and therefore found for the man who had issued the challenge rather than the one who had followed the law and brought charges.
Two weeks after his release from arrest, Lewis wrote his mother. He said his promised trip home for a visit had proved “impracticable.” He issued instructions for his stepbrother: “I desire that Jack may be sent to Mr. Maury as soon as he shall have learnt to read tollerably well, being determaned that he shall receive a liberal education if at my own expense,” certainly a generous gesture and another indication of how much he valued education.
As to his difficulties with the code of conduct of an officer, Lewis took them in his stride. “The general idea is that the army is the school of debauchery,” he wrote, “but believe me it has ever proven the school of experience and prudence to your affectionate son.” He was apparently learning to be less provocative in his politics, however: he addressed the letter to “Mrs. Lucy Marks,” not “Cittizen Lucy Markes” (he never could decide how to spell “Marks”).20
His army life over the next four years gave him enough travel to satisfy even his rambling nature. He covered vast chunks of the West, north and south of the Ohio River, beginning with a reconnaissance through Ohio in the spring of 1796. In October, he marched from Detroit to Pittsburgh with a small escort, delivering dispatches. He got lost, twice, and ran out of rations; he found some abandoned and rotting bear meat in an old Indian camp and pronounced it “very exceptable.”
In November 1796, he transferred to the First U.S. Infantry Regiment. That month he made another march from Detroit to Pittsburgh, again carrying dispatches for General Wayne. This time he did not get lost, perhaps because he was accompanied by a Wyandot Indian who probably served as a guide; the Indian’s name was Enos Coon, and Lewis paid his bill at a Pittsburgh inn.21
Following that journey, he took a furlough and rode home to Locust Hill, his first time there since he left in August 1794 promising his mother to return in six months. No anecdotes survive from the visit, but apparently he made the rounds of his old friends, after satisfying his mother’s desire to know about his adventures and arranging his business affairs at the plantation. Invited to join the Virtue Lodge Number 44 of the Masonic Order, in Albemarle, he did so on January 28, 1797. He advanced through Masonic degrees with dizzying speed; by April 3 he was the recipient of the degree of Past Master Mason.
(Because his military duties kept him out of Albemarle most of the time over the following years, he attended few lodge meetings, although he was present in June and July 1798, while on furlough. He was an officer in the lodge and that summer made a motion to earmark a portion of lodge funds for charity. By October 1799, he was a Royal Arch Mason. He apparently took the ritual and idealism of the Masons quite seriously; he later gave names taken from Masonic ritual to western rivers—Philosophy, Wisdom, and Philanthropy. William Clark joined the Masons in St. Louis in 1809.)22
Lewis’s furlough extended through the summer of 1797, during which time he settled “my domestick concerns.” He made arrangements to bring some of his mother’s slaves still in Georgia back to Virginia, made a trip to Kentucky to do some additional speculating in land—he bought twenty-six hundred acres for himself at twenty cents per acre, telling his mother, “I am much more pleased with this country than I supposed I should”—sold some of his Virginia land to his brother, Reuben, bought some of Captain Marks’s land from his mother, and generally acted as Virginia planters did in those years, making himself land-rich and cash-poor.23
In an age of powdered wigs, lace, and ruffles, he was something of a fop. In a January 15, 1798, letter to a friend, Lieutenant Ferdinand Claiborne, he complained about his tailor. “Of all the damned pieces of work,” he wrote, “my coat exceeds. It would take up three sheets of paper, written in shorthand, to point out its deficiences, or, I may even say, deformities. . . . The lace is deficient. . . . Could I have done without it I should have returned it.”
In a postscript, he made a complaint about a military matter, a complaint that virtually every officer in every army in every age has made: “No doubt you have had forwarded to you the late regulation of our generous Congress relative to the delivery and distribution of fuel and straw to the garrisons. . . . The allowance falling so far short of what is really necessary, I am at a loss to determine what steps to pursue. Do let me know what plan you adapt as I am confident the proportion of fuel is so small that the soldiers cannot subsist on it.”24
In 1798, John Adams was president. Thanks to Jay’s Treaty, relations with England were good, which meant that relations with France were bad. There was an undeclared war on the high seas. French Foreign Minister Talleyrand demanded a bribe from an American mission. Public opinion was outraged. Political parties were formed around these events, which ushered in one of the most bitterly partisan periods in American history. At the center of the disputes was the size of the army.
The High Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, hoped to use the crisis of a threatened war with France to build a classic European-style standing army, meaning one designed more to suppress internal dissent than to repel foreign invasion. Hamilton, and to a lesser extent Washington and Adams, who were not High Federalists, regarded the Republican opposition to government policy, led by Jefferson, as illegitimate, even treasonous—an attitude that led to the Alien and Sedition Acts.
In July 1798, the Federalist-controlled Congress voted for a huge increase in the army, authorizing as many as ten thousand regulars and thirty thousand militia.25 To President Adams and other Federalist leaders, the appointment of men of “sound” politics to the officer corps of the new army was crucial, if that army was to provide a reliable check on internal disorder. As active politicians, Adams and his friends were also aware of the vast patronage possibilities in the expansion of the army. But the Federalist Party was divided internally between Hamilton’s High Federalist faction and Adams’s supporters, so a struggle for power lay ahead.
Adams appointed Washington to command the new army, with the rank of lieutenant general. Washington, reluctant to end his retirement, did so only partially, for he insisted on remaining at Mount Vernon until war actually began. That decision meant that the second-in-command would have effective control of the new army. A series of Cabinet intrigues followed that soon embroiled Adams and Washington in a controversy over Hamilton. Eventually Washington forced Adams to make a humiliating concession, threatening to resign unless Adams agreed to make Hamilton the second in command.
The humiliation caused Adams to have second thoughts about the expansion of the army. As a consequence, it did not grow to anything remotely approaching the authorized strength. In practice, there was a rapid increase in the officer corps, but almost none in the enlisted ranks.
That meant that Adams still had many commissions to hand out, and they were eagerly sought. Federalists naturally got the lion’s share. Washington established the criteria. He proposed giving first priority to active revolutionary veterans and the second to “young Gentlemen of good families, liberal education, and high sense of honour.” In no case, Washington told Adams, should he appoint “any who are known enemies to their own government; for they will certainly attempt to create disturbances in the Militry.”
Adams went so far in excluding applicants suspected of Republicanism that even Hamilton thought he had gone too far. Hamilton said that some at least of the junior officers should come from the opposition ranks. “It does not seem adviseable to exclude all hope & give to appointments too absolute a party feature. Military situations, on young minds particularly, are of all others best calculated to inspire a zeal for the service and the cause in which the Incumbants are employed.”26 In other words, young Republicans of promise and talent could be won over if given a commission.
Adams tended to ignore Hamilton; the vast majority of appointments went to Federalists. Even though they were officers without an army, their political orientation struck fear in the hearts of the Republicans, who talked, somewhat wildly, about the coming Federalist terror.
The involvement of the army in politics and the use of the officer corps as a major patronage source was destined to have a decisive impact on Meriwether Lewis. It began with a promotion. On March 3, 1799, he became a lieutenant and was posted to recruiting duty in Charlottesville, which must have pleased his mother.
After Adams made his decision to ignore the authorization to increase the enlisted ranks of the army by several thousand, Lewis’s recruiting duties ran out. In 1800 he was posted to Detroit, where he joined a company commanded by his friend Captain Claiborne. It was a presidential-election year, with Jefferson challenging Adams. Lewis indulged in vigorous political argument, on at least one occasion exchanging hot words with a Federalist officer and overwhelming—at least to his own satisfaction—the “Fed” with his own Jeffersonian Republican arguments.27
He shortly became regimental paymaster. This was a new post, provided for by Congress in March 1799 as part of the expansion. He got the appointment, Jefferson later wrote, because he always attracted “the first attention where punctuality & fidelity were requisite.”28
It was an ideal posting for Lewis, for two reasons. The first was personal—his duties gave him a veritable carte blanche for rambling. The second was political—the rambling gave him an opportunity to get to know the officers scattered throughout the West, and to assess their political views, thereby acquiring knowledge that soon became a great asset.
He roamed the West, up and down the Ohio River—Cincinnati, Fort Wayne, Limestone, Maysville, Chillicothe, Wheeling—on a twenty-one-foot bateau, or keelboat, and a pirogue. He learned the craft of a waterman on western rivers. He traveled by horseback to forts south of the Ohio, riding through the wilderness carrying large sums in banknotes—not hard currency, which was too bulky. He kept extensive records—transfers, AWOLs, deserters, recruits. He established a reputation for thoroughness, accuracy, and honesty.
On December 5, 1800, Lewis was promoted to captain. That month the states selected their delegates to the Electoral College. In February 1801, those delegates created a political crisis when the count came out seventy-three votes each for Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr of New York, with sixty-five votes for Adams. The tie threw the election into the House of Representatives, where another deadlock followed, as the Federalist caucus decided to back Burr. In other words, the Federalists would not accept the outcome of the election, in which the people’s choice of Jefferson was clear.
So intense was the partisanship of the day, so much did the Federalists hate and fear Jefferson, that they were ready to turn the country over to Aaron Burr. Had they succeeded and made Burr the president, there would almost certainly be no republic today. Fortunately for all, Hamilton was smart enough and honest enough to realize that Jefferson was the lesser evil. He used his influence to break the deadlock. On the thirty-sixth ballot, February 17, 1801, Jefferson was chosen president and Burr was elected vice-president.
It was an age marked by a certain extravagance of language. What the alarmists among the Federalists feared, they said, was “the general ascendancy of the worthless, the dishonest, the rapacious, the vile, the merciless and the ungodly.”29 Such sentiments emboldened Adams to radical measures. On March 3, hours before Jefferon’s inaugural, Adams made his famous “midnight appointments,” stuffing the federal courts with Federalist judges. Not so well known but equally outrageous—at least to the Republicans—was his commissioning of eighty-seven men to fill vacancies in the six regiments of the permanent military establishment. Virtually all were Federalists, thus guaranteeing that the army—like the courts—would remain predominantly Federalist for years to come.30
Or so, at least, Adams hoped. President Jefferson had other ideas. To implement them, he turned to his neighbor Captain Meriwether Lewis of the First Infantry.