On March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson became the first President to be inaugurated in the new capital of Washington, D. C. At the time it consisted of only a few shops, boardinghouses, and government buildings sprawled along the banks of the Potomac. The unfinished capital and city symbolized a young nation which was determined to mature into a stronghold of freedom.
No sooner had President Jefferson taken office than the United States pulled off the greatest diplomatic coup in the history of the world. Two-hundred and sixteen years later, the Louisiana Purchase still remains as perhaps the most stunning feat of inspired statesmanship for America.
When Jefferson became President, the western boundary of the United States was the Mississippi River. Two-thirds of the citizens lived within fifty miles of the Atlantic Ocean. Before becoming President he tried three times to organize expeditions across the continent. After he became President he decided once more to send a contingent of explorers to the Pacific Ocean and back. Spain had earlier signed a secret treaty with France, surrendering the territory of Louisiana, west of the Mississippi River.
In 1801, Jefferson asked Meriwether Lewis to become his personal secretary. Lewis lived in the East Room of the White House. In addition to carrying out other duties for the President, Lewis helped Jefferson plan for the exploration of the west.
In 1803, only four roads crossed the Appalachian Mountains. Jefferson and Lewis knew that the United States had the potential to become a powerful nation if it could just add the area west of the Mississippi to its territory. However, at the time there were those who were skeptical that one nation could govern an entire continent.
The barriers to westward expansion were the distance between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, the limited transportation options, and the unanswered questions about the western land. Horses were the fastest mode of transportation, and the few roads and trails that existed were in poor condition. It was impossible to get anything from the Mississippi to the Atlantic seaboard in less than six weeks. This caused many east of the Appalachians to question the idea of spreading national interests further west.
At the time there were a half-million Americans (one out of every 10) who already lived west of the Appalachian Mountains. They felt that they had found their own “national” interests. With the water routes being viewed as a source of commerce, many folks living along the Mississippi viewed themselves as an independent nation that would tap into the world marketplace. They would not go east to the Atlantic coast. They would follow the Ohio and Mississippi rivers down to the Gulf of Mexico.
Jefferson knew that there was the possibility of secession from the United States by those living west of the Appalachians. The nation was only eighteen years old and was born from rebellion. He was determined, in any way possible, to obtain the vital trading port of New Orleans for the United States and prevent the West from breaking away.
On January 18, 1803, Jefferson, in a secret communication to Congress asked for authorization to spend $2,500 (final actual costs would be $38,722) to explore the west.
Congress approved the request. Congress’ approval of the expedition was a big step forward; however, it would be eclipsed by an agreement that not only transformed the purpose of the expedition but the very destiny of the United States.
This was the first official exploration of unknown spaces undertaken by the United States government. Later that spring Lewis, now picked as commander, was sent to Philadelphia for instruction in botany, zoology, celestial navigation, and medicine from the nation’s leading scientists. He also began to purchase supplies to outfit the expedition. It was at this time that he writes to former army comrade William Clark to join him and share command of the expedition. Clark willingly accepted the challenge.
Jefferson’s offer to the French was to buy the vital trading port of New Orleans. Negotiations at first did not go well. At the time Napoleon Bonaparte was preparing for another war with England. Later, he made it public that the United States could have New Orleans if it would also take the entire 820,000-square mile Louisiana Territory for $15 million (about three cents an acre).
Stunned by the offer, Jefferson accepted the offer and rushed the treaty through Congress. Opponents attacked the purchase not only as a blatant use of executive power, but as a waste of money. Nonetheless, the treaty was signed on April 30, 1803. It was announced to the public on July 3. The nation had more than doubled in size!
On July 5, Lewis and Clark began hiring men for the expedition. For them the purchase of the entire Louisiana Territory changed the mission. No longer would it be a semi-covert mission through foreign territory but a bold survey of American-owned land.
Jefferson gave them several pages of specific instructions about what information to collect during the journey: What were the Indians like? What were their languages, their customs, and their medical habits? Jefferson craved details of the plant and animal life, the minerals, and the mountains. Also, was there a water-route to the Pacific?
Jefferson was asking Lewis and Clark to not only chart the new territory of the United States, but the nation’s destiny!
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on August 21, 2019