Modern history


Thomas Jefferson’s America


When Thomas Jefferson took the Oath of Office as the third president of the United States on March 4, 1801, the nation contained 5,308,483 persons. Nearly one out of five was a Negro slave. Although the boundaries stretched from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River, from the Great Lakes nearly to the Gulf of Mexico (roughly a thousand miles by a thousand miles), only a relatively small area was occupied. Two-thirds of the people lived within fifty miles of tidewater. Only four roads crossed the Appalachian Mountains, one from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, another from the Potomac to the Monongahela River, a third through Virginia southwestward to Knoxville, Tennessee, and the fourth through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky.


Thomas Jefferson, copy of the original oil (1791) by Charles Willson Peale. (Courtesy Independence National Historical Park)

The potential of the United States was, if not limitless, certainly vast—and vastly greater if the nation could add the trans-Mississippi portion of the continent to its territory. In 1801, however, it was not clear the country could hold on to its existing territory between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, much less add more western land.

As the famed chronicler of the nineteenth century Henry Adams noted, “The entire population, both free and slave, west of the mountains, reached not yet half a million; but already they were partly disposed to think themselves, and the old thirteen States were not altogether unwilling to consider them, the germ of an independent empire, which was to find its outlet, not through the Alleghenies to the seaboard, but by the Mississippi River to the Gulf.”1 This threat of secession was quite real. The United States was only eighteen years old, had itself come into existence by an act of rebellion and secession, had changed its form of government just twelve years earlier, and thus was in a fluid political situation.

In addition, it seemed unlikely that one nation could govern an entire continent. The distances were just too great. A critical fact in the world of 1801 was that nothing moved faster than the speed of a horse. No human being, no manufactured item, no bushel of wheat, no side of beef (or any beef on the hoof, for that matter), no letter, no information, no idea, order, or instruction of any kind moved faster. Nothing ever had moved any faster, and, as far as Jefferson’s contemporaries were able to tell, nothing ever would.I

And except on a racetrack, no horse moved very fast. Road conditions in the United States ranged from bad to abominable, and there weren’t very many of them. The best highway in the country ran from Boston to New York; it took a light stagecoach, carrying only passengers, their baggage, and the mail, changing horses at every way station, three full days to make the 175-mile journey. The hundred miles from New York to Philadelphia took two days. South of the new capital city of Washington, D.C., there were no roads suitable for a stagecoach; everything moved on horseback. “Of eight rivers between here [Monticello] and Washington,” Jefferson wrote in 1801, “five have neither bridges nor boats.” It took Jefferson ten days to go the 225 miles from Monticello to Philadelphia.2

To the west, beyond the mountains, there were no roads at all, only trails. To move men or mail from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Seaboard took six weeks or more; anything heavier than a letter took two months at least. Bulky items, such as bushels of grain, bales of fur, barrels of whiskey, or kegs of gunpowder, could be moved only by horse-, ox-, or mule-drawn wagons, whose carrying capacity was severely limited, even where roads existed.

People took it for granted that things would always be this way. The idea of progress based on technological improvements or mechanics, the notion of a power source other than muscle, falling water, or wind, was utterly alien to virtually every American. Writing in the last decade of the nineteenth century about conditions in the year of Jefferson’s inaugural, Henry Adams observed that “great as were the material obstacles in the path of the United States, the greatest obstacle of all was in the human mind. Down to the close of the eighteenth century no change had occurred in the world which warranted practical men in assuming that great changes were to come.”3

Jefferson was an exception. He had a marvelous imagination; Monticello was stuffed with gadgets he had invented. He also had developed practical devices for the general good of mankind. Farmers in Europe and America up to the end of the eighteenth century had used wooden plows with straight mold-boards that showed no improvement over those of the ancient Romans. It was Jefferson who developed the curved-moldboard plow.4

In 1793, he saw a hot-air balloon ascent. Though it was presented as an entertainment, he at once saw a potential practical application. “The security of the thing appeared so great,” he wrote to his daughter Martha, “that I wish for one sincerely, to travel in, as instead of 10 days, I should be within 5 hours of home.”5

With regard to travel by air, Jefferson was a full century ahead of the curve. With regard to travel by land, he imagined the possibility of locomotion by something other than horse power. He was attracted by the idea of using steam power to move carriages. In 1802 he predicted, “The introduction of so powerful an agent as steam [to a carriage on wheels] will make a great change in the situation of man.” Jefferson was a hundred years ahead of the automobile, however powered. He never saw a train.6

With regard to travel by water, Jefferson in 1801 could not imagine any way to overcome the difficulties or to improve the advantages of this most essential means of transportation for commerce. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, all heavy items or items in any quantity moved over water, either in canoes powered by human muscle, or on rafts floating down rivers, or on barges on canals drawn by mules, or on sailing ships propelled by the wind.

Because the movement of commerce was by water, Americans of 1801 were constantly thinking about water. Their heads were full of schemes to build canals, using locks to advance upriver or to go around rapids. Jefferson wrote of “a people occupied as we are in opening rivers, digging navigable canals, making roads.”7

Since the birth of civilization, there had been almost no changes in commerce or transportation. Americans lived in a free and democratic society, the first in the world since ancient Greece, a society that read Shakespeare and had produced George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but a society whose technology was barely advanced over that of the Greeks. The Americans of 1801 had more gadgets, better weapons, a superior knowledge of geography, and other advantages over the ancients, but they could not move goods or themselves or information by land or water any faster than had the Greeks and Romans.

In Henry Adams’s words, “Rip Van Winkle, who woke from his long slumber about the year 1800, saw little that was new to him, except the head of President Washington where that of King George had once hung.” Describing the mind-set of the time, Adams wrote, “Experience forced on men’s minds the conviction that what had ever been must ever be.”8

But only sixty years later, when Abraham Lincoln took the Oath of Office as the sixteenth president of the United States, Americans could move bulky items in great quantity farther in an hour than Americans of 1801 could do in a day, whether by land (twenty-five miles per hour on railroads) or water (ten miles an hour upstream on a steamboat). This great leap forward in transportation—a factor of twenty or more—in so short a space of time must be reckoned as the greatest and most unexpected revolution of all—except for another technological revolution, the transmitting of information. In Jefferson’s day, it took six weeks to move information from the Mississippi River to Washington, D.C. In Lincoln’s, information moved over the same route by telegraph all but instantaneously.

Time and distance, mountains and rivers meant something entirely different to Thomas Jefferson from what they meant to Abraham Lincoln.

Rivers dominated Jefferson’s thinking about North America. For the immediate future, he was determined to get control of New Orleans for the United States, so as to prevent the West from breaking away from the United States. Beyond that, he sought an all-water route through the unexplored western two-thirds of the continent.

When Robert Gray sailed Columbia into the estuary of the river he named for his ship and fixed its latitude and longitude, mankind knew for the first time how far the continent extended. Knowing the exact location of the mouth of the Columbia represented a great triumph of eighteenth-century science and exploration. Most closely associated with England’s Captain James Cook, the Second Great Age of Discovery had used the sextant and other navigational devices to delineate the continents and the seacoasts of the world, the great harbors and the mouths of the great rivers, with precision on the map, and with descriptions of the landforms and native people.

What remained to be discovered on earth was the interior of Africa, Australia, the Arctic and Antarctic, and the western two-thirds of North America. The latter was most important to Europeans and Americans.

It was known to be vast, some two thousand miles from the Mississippi River to the mouth of the Columbia. It was known to contain a wealth of furs. It was presumed to contain immense quantities of coal, salt, iron, gold, and silver. It was assumed that the soil and rainfall conditions were similar to those in Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee—which is to say, ideal for agriculture.

But what was not known, or what was assumed but was badly wrong, was more important than what was known. Donald Jackson, the great Lewis and Clark scholar, points out that, although Jefferson had the most extensive library in the world on the geography, cartography, natural history, and ethnology of that awesome terra incognita west of the Mississippi, when he took the Oath of Office in 1801 he believed these things: “That the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia might be the highest on the continent; that the mammoth, the giant ground sloth, and other prehistoric creatures would be found along the upper Missouri; that a mountain of pure salt a mile long lay somewhere on the Great Plains; that volcanoes might still be erupting in the Badlands of the upper Missouri; that all the great rivers of the West—the Missouri, Columbia, Colorado, and Rio Grande—rose from a single ‘height of land’ and flowed off in their several directions to the seas of the hemisphere. Most important, he believed there might be a water connection, linked by a low portage across the mountains, that would lead to the Pacific.”9

Louisiana in 1801—that part of North America lying between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains—was up for grabs. The contestants were the British coming out of Canada, the Spanish coming up from Texas and California, the French coming up the Mississippi-Missouri from New Orleans, the Russians coming down from the northwest, and the Americans coming from the east. And, of course, there were already inhabitants who possessed the land and were determined to hold on to it.

There were scores of Indian tribes living across Louisiana, but, given their lack of effective political organization, their inability to combine forces into an alliance, their utter dependence on whites for rifles, and the experience of Americans east of the Appalachians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and in Kentucky and Ohio in the 1790s, it could be taken for granted that the conquest of the Indian tribes would be bloody, costly, time-consuming, but certain.

Jefferson’s attitude toward Indians was the exact opposite of his attitude toward Negroes. He thought of Indians as noble savages who could be civilized and brought into the body politic as full citizens. In 1785, he wrote, “I believe the Indian then to be in body and mind equal to the whiteman.” He thought the only difference between Indians and white men was religion and the savage behavior of the Indians, which was caused by the environment in which the Indian lived. Never did he say that the perceived shortcomings of the Negro—such as laziness or thievery—were caused by their condition as slaves. Keenly interested in Indian ethnology, an avid collector of Indian vocabularies, he had not the slightest interest in African ethnology or African vocabularies.10

When Jefferson or young Virginians like Lewis and Clark looked at an Indian, they saw a noble savage ready to be transformed into a civilized citizen. When they looked at a Negro, they saw something less than a human, something more than an animal. Never in their lives did they imagine the possibility of a black man’s becoming a full citizen. William Clark tried to adopt a part-Indian boy as his own son. He would not have dreamed of adopting a black boy as his own son.

Spain claimed to own Louisiana, which was roughly defined as that part of the interior of the continent drained by the Missouri River and the southwestern tributaries of the Mississippi River. But, except for a handful of weak garrisons scattered along the Mississippi and anchored by New Orleans in the south and St. Louis in the north, Spain had no effective force in the empire.

The British had fur-trading interests in upper Louisiana, and a claim of sorts to the Oregon country west of the Rockies. The Russians had interests in the area around and north of the mouth of the Columbia. The Spanish had some vague claims to the entire Pacific Coast. The French, who had once owned Louisiana and whose people (French Canadians) were the only white men to have much experience in Louisiana, were considering reasserting their position.

But European ambitions for the inland empire were more theoretical than real, partly because the chief concerns of the contestants were their wars with one another within Europe, even more because of time and distance, mountains and rivers. In 1801, the European nations were no more capable of exploring, conquering, settling, and exploiting the western two-thirds of North America than they had been in the preceding three centuries.

Nor was the United States—not immediately, anyway—but Mr. Jefferson’s America had two great advantages over its European rivals. First, citizens of the United States were crossing the Appalachians and settling in the Ohio country, right up to the eastern bank of the Mississippi. Indeed, a handful of Americans had already crossed the Mississippi to settle, most of them illegally, in upper Louisiana. Americans, in short, were beginning to take physical possession of lands to which the Europeans had only claims or hopes. The second great advantage was that the United States had Thomas Jefferson for its leader.

But on the day of Jefferson’s inaugural, frontiersmen west of the mountains could move their bulky agricultural products to market only by river, which meant via the Ohio-Mississippi route. That economic fact dictated politics—the Americans of the West would join Spain, France, or Britain, or whoever controlled New Orleans, or create their own nation and take New Orleans for themselves. Vice-President Aaron Burr was full of plots and schemes and conspiracies to break the west loose from the United States and form a new nation.

Jefferson would have none of it. He believed in what he called an “Empire of Liberty.” “Our confederacy must be viewed as the nest from which all America, North or South, is to be peopled,” he wrote even before the Constitution was adopted, and as president he said that he awaited with impatience the day when the continent would be settled by a people “speaking the same language, governed in similar forms, and by similar laws.”11

In an age of imperialism, he was the greatest empire builder of all. His mind encompassed the continent. From the beginning of the revolution, he thought of the United States as a nation stretching from sea to sea. More than any other man, he made that happen.

His motives were many. He sought greatness for himself and for his nation. He rejected the thought of North America’s being divided up into nation-states on the European model. He wanted the principles of the American Revolution spread over the continent, shared equally by all. He was one of the principal authors of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, as revolutionary a document as his Declaration of Independence. The Ordinance provided for the admission into the Union of from three to five states from the territory east of the Mississippi and north of the Ohio, when the territories had a large enough population. These states would be fully equal to the original thirteen. Thanks to Thomas Jefferson, the United States would be an empire without colonies, an empire of equals. The Ordinance helped bind the trans-Appalachian region to the United States; what mountains and rivers threatened to drive asunder, Jefferson helped to overcome through a political act.

But it was not just the largeness of his mind that made Jefferson an imperialist. One of his basic motives was land hunger. Jefferson and his fellow Virginia planters made their living through tobacco and slavery, and tobacco and slavery demanded the unending acquisition of new land.

Jefferson’s actions as wartime governor of Virginia showed more clearly than anything else the centrality of western lands to his politics. He was elected governor in 1779. The next year, the British invaded the Carolinas. Virginia was in no position to aid its beleaguered neighbor states to the south, because Jefferson had invested Virginia’s military resources in George Rogers Clark’s campaign to conquer British outposts in the region north of the Ohio River. Jefferson’s passion to take full possession of western lands almost cost the United States their independence.

As a politician, Jefferson was keenly sensitive to the needs and dreams of his constituents. In Virginia his supporters were small farmers, men who after the revolution were apprehensive about the obvious trend to ever-larger plantations tilled by slave labor. They looked to the west for new and cheaper lands, especially in the rich virgin soil beyond the mountains. There they could raise bumper crops that could be sent quickly to the world market via the fabulous river system of the Ohio-Mississippi.

While the Northwest territories were being settled, in Jefferson’s view the trans-Mississippi western empire could serve as a vast reservation for Indians displaced from east of the river. There they could learn to farm and become civilized, so that they could be incorporated into the body politic. Eventually, Louisiana would be available for farmers emigrating from the east or immigrating from Europe. There was land enough for all in a United States stretching from sea to sea, land enough to sustain the American dream for centuries to come. Henry Adams wrote: “Jefferson aspired beyond the ambition of a nationality, and embraced in his view the whole future of man. . . . He wished to bring a new era. . . . [In 1801] he set himself to the task of governing, with a golden age in view.”12

The Spanish might have title to Louisiana, the French might have interests in Louisiana, the British might have designs on Louisiana; the Spanish and French and Russians and British might be contemplating exercising vague titles to or otherwise meddling in Oregon; but in Jefferson’s mind it would all be part of the United States, in due course.

Most of his countrymen agreed with him. Like him, they thought big. Henry Adams described the American of 1801 in these words: “Stripped for the hardest work, every muscle firm and elastic, every ounce of brain ready for use, and not a trace of superfluous flesh on his nervous and supple body, the American stood in the world a new order of man.”13

Adams was generalizing, but he could have been describing Meriwether Lewis.

I. The generalization stretches, obviously—light, sound, a lightning bolt, a few animals for very short distances, and even some man-made objects such as rifle bullets, cannonballs, or arrows (for extremely short distances) moved faster than the fastest horse—but it doesn’t stretch by much.

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