Ambrose Book Makes Sure Jefferson Gets His Dues

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Thomas Jefferson - Third President of US

If George Washington was the father of his country, Thomas Jefferson was its godfather. He envisioned a federation of democratic states, while many saw physical barriers.

That is the conclusion a reader can draw from a book on the actions of the principal players in the westward expansion of the United States, in the early 19th century.

Stephen E. Ambrose, the eminent historian of presidents, soldiers and assorted swashbucklers of American history, published “Undaunted Courage” – the chronicles of the Lewis-Clark expedition, which took place from 1803 to 1806 – after making the trek in their footsteps himself.

Jefferson, Lewis and Clark and the US Movement West

From the beginning of the book, he makes clear that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, in addition to then President Thomas Jefferson, formed a dedicated triumvirate that created a blueprint for stretching America’s girth and her ideals from sea to shining sea. When Meriwether Lewis watched as the American flag was raised in St. Louis, Mo. on March 9, 1804, he saw the stars and stripes fly for the first time west of the Mississippi River.

Ambrose praises Jefferson’s foresight and imagination in envisioning the potential expansion of America to encompass the topography that the continental United States has become today, as well as his insistence that no “colonies” controlled by a “mother” country should be established in the process.

Ambrose Argues 1976 Bicentennial Was for the Original Thirteen States

Rather, he argued vociferously that upon reaching a certain population, each “empire of freedom,” as he called the newly-settled regions to be, would be inducted into the union as political equals with the original thirteen states. He incorporated that revolutionary notion in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which he drafted as a congressman in the Continental Congress.

The publication of Ambrose’s book occurred 20 years after he and his wife Moira actually hiked along the explorers’ trails. Their reenactment took place in the year 1976, the year of the nation’s bicentennial celebration.

However, the historian had a problem with the 200-year designation, since the present contiguous United States became 200 years old in 2006, a full 200 years after the Lewis and Clark expedition ended by successfully planting American flags all the way to the Pacific Ocean. In the book, he argues the nation’s 1996 fete was really the bicentennial of the 13 original states.

Lewis and Clark Gathered Information on Native Americans

As Lewis and Clark advanced, they added land to America’s domain with each step; but, that was not counting Indians, who were there long, long before. They also gathered valuable information on those Native Americans, traders and foreign explorers as well as the nature and conditions of the new world they had entered.

Jefferson had given their journey a sense of urgency, knowing foreign opportunists were in the hunt for territory on both sides of the Mississippi River, after the American Revolution. That anxiety made him bargain fast to buy the “Louisiana territory,” and to begin the formation of a future United States of America.

Louisiana Purchase Was Land Deal That Enabled Westward Expansion

The Meriwether Lewis and William Clark story began on July 5, 1803, the day after President Jefferson announced the purchase of that territory from Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France.

Probably the biggest real estate deal in history, it included all the land drained from the west by the Mississippi River, including the Missouri River drainage. That included all the land between the Mississippi River and the Continental Divide running along the peaks of the Rockies. The purchase amounted to 825,000 square miles, and sold for a price of $15 million, or approximately 40 cents per acre.

The day after President Thomas Jefferson announced the purchase of Louisiana, Captain Meriwether Lewis began preparations in Harper’s Ferry, Va. to depart on a quest to chart what the visionary Jefferson had convinced Congress to buy.

Lewis and Clark Discovered Over 100 New Species

Although the explorers did not find the elusive woolly mammoth, which Jefferson hoped for – in spite of arguments by European paleontologists that the creature was extinct – they did uncover mammoth fossils. And they did not find the President’s dream of a direct water route to the Pacific Ocean. But they did return with over 100 new species of cataloged flora and fauna.

Ambrose Answered Critics of His Omissions in Sources

Stephen Ambrose was a literary historian. He said as much in his own words, which appeared in a “New York Times” article by David D. Kirkpatrick on January 11, 2002.

“I tell stories,” he said. “I don’t discuss my documents. I discuss the story. It almost gets to the point where, how much is the reader going to take? I am not writing a PhD dissertation.”

However, Ambrose did write a dissertation, in earning his PhD in history.

As a story teller, he could become passionate about his subjects. He lionizes Thomas Jefferson in the Introduction of his book, to be sure, but can anyone who has studied Jefferson’s remarkably diversified intellect and soaring humanitarian spirit be less inclined?

Here is what Ambrose writes in “Undaunted Courage”: “Thomas Jefferson did so many things of great 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 Spreading Ideals of New Republic West, Jefferson was a Godfather

Dictionary.com online defines godfather in part as “a person who is regarded as the originator or principal shaper of a movement, school of thought, art form, industry, or the like . . .“

For Thomas Jefferson’s tenacity and guidance in striving to create a new political dynamic in America, and his dynamic pen that perhaps in 1839 gave English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton the inspiration for the phrase, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” the word godfather in describing him certainly seems appropriate.