I am grateful to the American Philosophical Society for the privilege of appearing here tonight, and of discussing an event with which the Society was so closely concerned, important memorials of which are in its possession. I have worked here on the manuscripts that constitute the basis of what I shall be saying in a moment, with an exciting awareness of history's continuities that the materials of the historian's trade have not otherwise given me. It is a satisfaction to associate myself with one of those continuities tonight by discussing the expedition whose author was an illustrious member of the Society and the donor of the manuscripts mentioned.
I must begin with an embarrassing circumstance. A person who talks about the Lewis and Clark expedition at this moment is in a situation not unlike that of one who owns a house on the bank of a river which is in flood. Part of his foundation may be undermined and some of his structure may collapse.
Some time ago a number of previously unknown documents written by William Clark and bearing on the expedition were discovered. They came into the possession, though perhaps only the temporary possession, of the Minnesota Historical Society. Quite properly, they have been withheld from the scrutiny of students till the question of who own them is settled, and till a scholar designated by the Historical Society has completed an appraisal of their importance. One who talks about the expedition, therefore, must exercise the fullest measure of scholarly caution, not to say caginess.
Yet it is true, too, that at times a scholar must rise above ignorance. I do not mind guessing about the bearing of these new documents on our understanding of the Lewis and Clark expedition. One of them is a series of brief but consecutive notes by Clark covering the upriver journey from St. Louis in 1804. Quite surely, the documentation which we now have in manuscripts owned by this Society, and in other collections, is far more complete than any the new discovery can provide. Yet it is possible that the new notes may contain details of great interest and may provide information that will solve some existing problems.
Other manuscripts are more provocative to the student's imagination. The party spent the preceding winter, that of 1803–1804, in camp opposite St. Louis, on the American shore of the Mississippi. We have little knowledge of what happened during that time, in camp or on the visits of Lewis, Clark, and other members of the party to St. Louis and other places. For most of the period, in fact, we have had no knowledge at all. Apparently, the new discovery will help to fill this gap, though in how great detail one cannot tell. There is a kind of daily log, apparently similar to the daily notes from which the daily entries in the journals were written after the party started up the Missouri, but apparently also much abbreviated. There are other manuscripts of this winter as well but I cannot guess about them.
It is unlikely, indeed it seems impossible, that the new documents will produce any change in our understanding of the purposes of the Lewis and Clark expedition, or necessitate any change in our appraisal of its achievements. They are not of that order of importance. Their potential importance would appear to be for specialists only. I note sorrowfully that few historians have cared to become specialists in the expedition, and the fact that so few have cared to is responsible for most of the uncertainties that I shall presently take up.
Let us glance at some of the possibilities one attributes to the newly discovered manuscripts. They may contain, or may make it possible for students to work out, a dependable roster of the party. For in spite of the official journals and memoranda, in spite of Nicholas Biddle's History, and in spite of the researches of scholars, we are not certain how many members the expedition numbered from St. Louis to its winter encampment, Fort Mandan. Some students, though I am not one of them, profess to be uncertain how many it numbered on the journey from Fort Mandan to the mouth of the Columbia. There may also be clues, perhaps clues that would in the end prove conclusive, to the solution of an important mystery, our failure to solve which is most mortifying. Congress appropriated $2,500 to cover the expenses of the expedition. Quite clearly it must have cost more than the appropriation, but how much more has not been determined, nor how the additional costs were allocated, nor which department of the government paid them. Evidently too the lists and inventories so far known do not cover in full the equipment and supplies of the expedition, or the amount of goods it carried for presents to the Indians and barter with them. (For example, the known amount of gunpowder is inadequate to supply so large an expedition, absent so long from any source of supply, hunting so constantly and on so large a scale, and so lavish in gifts of ammunition to the Indians.) If the new documents contain memoranda of drafts issued by Lewis or purchases made at St. Louis, Cahokia, and perhaps elsewhere, they will be exceedingly welcome.
Other possibilities are probably of a lesser order. For instance, can the description of the keelboat and the pirogues be amplified? Did the captains meet James Mackay, the former North West Company partner, in person, and if so where and on what occasions? It is known that they had notes by Mackay but did they have a copy or a summary of his journal of his voyage up the Missouri? Is there further information about the furtrader, John Hay, or about his visit to the winter camp? Is any additional light cast on the desertion of the boatman who was apparently named La Liberté? Are there additional details about the illness and death of Sergeant Floyd? Questions of this kind may be answered by the new documents, and the specialist will be jubilant if they are. But to the student or practitioner of history in general such questions do not matter much.
We do not know as much about the Lewis and Clark expedition as, considering its importance, we ought to know. Worse still, what is known about it is sometimes not fully understood by our general historians. Surely this was the most important exploring expedition in our history. Unquestionably it had massive importance for various domestic policies of the United States and even more massive importance for our foreign policies. We might, therefore, expect it to bulk larger in general history than it usually does. We might also expect historians of the frontier, of the West, of expansion, and of diplomacy to examine it more carefully than a surprising number of them have done. I cite a single example, typical of many. A statement has stood uncorrected through successive editions of a work whose scholarship in general is sound and which is accepted as an authoritative history of the early Northwest, a statement that the boats of the expedition were pulled up the Missouri by horses, as if they were canal boats and there were towpaths on the banks.
Now this is an infinitesimal misconception, of no importance whatever in itself, but consider what it implies. No one who has read either the Journals or Biddle's History could make the statement, for almost every daily entry shows how the boats were in fact propelled, and that was never once by horses; indeed there were no horses for such a purpose. But the importance of the expedition cannot be understood, I tell you in fact that even the nature of its importance cannot be perceived, unless those volumes are studied minutely and with every instrument of appraisal the historian can use on them. A historian who reveals that he has not studied them is also revealing an implicit judgment on the relation of the expedition to American history, a judgment which is at a great remove from the realities. He reveals that he is approaching it by means of assumptions adopted from general history. Those assumptions, with their implicit judgments, have become traditional. The remarkable fact is that at no time during the last generation have they been critically scrutinized. The slow, and I grant small, accumulation of knowledge through half a century has not been brought to bear on them. When they are critically examined in the light of that knowledge. they not only fail to explain the expedition, in my judgment, but become profoundly deceptive.
My assertion here is twofold. On the one hand, remarkably little scholarly research has been devoted to the Lewis and Clark expedition, and as a result we know less about it than we urgently need to know. On the other hand, we have widely failed to understand important significances in what we do know about the expedition, because the traditional assumptions, made long ago, are superficial and of faulty orientation.
I proceed to discuss several forces which, if my analysis is sound, have been in part misunderstood, in part dismissed as less central than in fact they were, and in part disregarded. What I say is largely inferential and conjectural. Properly controlled, inference and conjecture are valuable tools of history; in fact, history cannot be practiced without them. They are customary tools in such fields as this one, whose edges are indistinct, and they are especially appropriate on such occasions as this evening, when the purpose is not to provide new knowledge but to discuss existing knowledge. And you will see that inference and conjecture play a smaller part in what I present to you than re-examination of facts whose solidity is not open to question.
The definitive plans for the expedition of Lewis and Clark were made during a world war. The United States was trying to keep out of the war but might be forced to enter it to defend its national interest, or might become involved in it through aggressive action by France or Great Britain, or less conceivably Spain. For the time being hostilities in Europe had ceased but the armistice, which was called a peace, was known by everyone to be only a pause for the realignment of alliances and the regrouping of forces. The American government knew that the peace was self-limited. The war had extended to the Western Hemisphere when Napoleon set out to reconquer Santo Domingo from its dictator, Toussaint l'Ouverture. Santo Domingo was a strategical key to military action in the Western Hemisphere, and therefore to the defence of the United States. Moreover, the attack on Santo Domingo was linked to international action even more menacing to the United States, the repossession, currently delayed but soon to be completed, by France of the vast, almost unknown area called Louisiana, which was separated from the United States only by the Mississippi River. Louisiana was ceasing to be the possession of a decadent, militarily impotent nation and becoming the possession of the most powerful and aggressive nation in the world, a nation ruled by a dictator who manifestly intended to restore and enlarge the French Empire in North America.
The cession, or as diplomacy called it the retrocession, of Louisiana had forced on our government a recognition that was distasteful to the President who accepted it so realistically. Jefferson's distrust of Great Britain was lifelong but he was, as well as President, the first American master of what today we call geopolitics. The cession forced him to recognize the geopolitical reality that was to be eventually formulated as the Monroe Doctrine—to recognize an inherent community of interest between the United States and Great Britain in the defence of the Western Hemisphere against European aggression and expansion. The cession had also made more urgent the necessity, which had always been recognized, of acquiring for the United States some kind of foothold at another geopolitical key point, the mouth of the Mississippi.
These were the urgencies that initiated the effort to buy the Isle d'Orleans which ended in the purchase of Louisiana. More must be said about the Purchase presently, but for the moment focus on the urgency. As a gauge, let us suppose that at this moment in history Canada had somehow become a Russian possession.
Nevertheless, the Lewis and Clark expedition was definitively planned before the beginning of preparations for the purchase of the Isle d'Orleans, and it had been intended since long before it was concretely planned. Exactly what was the expedition? It was an exploring expedition which was to cross Louisiana and go on to the mouth of the Columbia River. Let me phrase the same fact in different words : it was to cross foreign territory, and it was to reach an area to which the United States had a basic and valid if untested claim according to the usages of nations. The area it was to reach was a prime source of the principal exterior commerce, and therefore the principal external wealth, of the United States.
To weigh this fact accurately, we must lift it out of the matrix in which it was set. That is an arbitrary act, for of course it cannot be separated from all the other facts that went to produce the expedition of Lewis and Clark, but it is necessary. Say simply that the expedition was to cross Louisiana and go on to Oregon. (The area was not yet called Oregon but we may anticipate the christening.) I repeat that we have two elements here : it was to cross Louisiana, and it was to reach Oregon.
Both the route and the destination were fundamental, but I suggest to you that our traditional emphasis has been wrong. The expedition has been thought of as primarily dispatched to cross Louisiana. I believe we must emphasize that it was dispatched to reach Oregon. If one element must be given greater weight than the other, in my judgment it is Oregon.
Other observations must be made at once. We may delight in a historical continuity. The expedition was directed to discover an inland water route across the land mass of North America to the Pacific Ocean. It was directed to do so in the way that must be called classical. It was to ascend the still largely unknown Pekistanoui River of Jolliet and Marquette, the Missouri. And it was to go on from the sources of the Missouri to a river that was a little known at its mouth and so far as known misunderstood, the Columbia, which had inherited the aura of hypothesis, legend, and myth associated with the symbolic Great River of the West. Thus the expedition was another essay in an effort that had endured throughout the history of the expansion of Europe in the Western Hemisphere. It was another search for the Northwest Passage.
But also the expedition was a project of Thomas Jefferson, who was impelled toward it not only by his obligations as President but by the bent and burden of his thinking ever since boyhood.
We need not emphasize certain facts that bear on Jefferson's cardinal thesis as our first geopolitician, but we must mention them. He had grown up in what it is proper to call a society of the western frontier. He had been surrounded by actual explorers of the western wilderness, one of them his father, and by thinkers who believed that the Western wilderness would shape the destiny of the North American people. What we call "expansionism" had always been familiar to him as a principle and an energy. At the age of fourteen he had come under the tutelage of a philosopher of expansionism, James Maury. As early as the outbreak of the French and Indian War, Maury had declared a thesis: whichever nation held the water routes of the Great Lakes, the Ohio River, and the Missouri must become the dominant power in North America and would control the trade with the Orient. When Jefferson was elected President, he took to Washington as his private secretary another student of Maury's whose principal qualifications for the secretarial position were his experience in the western wilderness and his intense ambition to cross it to the Pacific. The secretary's name was Meriwether Lewis.
Jefferson had always understood that the progress of expansion required exploration and discovery. We need mention only two actions he had taken to promote them. In 1783 he proposed an exploration of Louisiana to George Rogers Clark, the famous frontier leader who was the older brother of William Clark. Ten years later, in 1793. as a member of a committee of the American Philosophical Society, he shared the sponsorship, financing, and preparation of an expedition headed by André Michaux that was to explore Louisiana—by ascending the Missouri—and to go on to the Pacific. Note that both actions followed augmentations of British interest in the western wilderness. Jefferson saw contention between the United States and Great Britain for this wilderness as geographically and economically implicit, as in fact it was. No doubt its importance to him was intensified by his distrust of England.
The expedition which actually made the exploration was that of Lewis and Clark. By the time Jefferson began to prepare it, events had occurred of decisive importance to the American-British contention for the West. Come back to the basic fact. The expedition was to cross Louisiana, which was foreign territory, the possession of a foreign and aggressive power, an area to which the United States had no claim of any kind. And it was to go on to Oregon, an area to which the United States had a valid but untested claim, an area in which American commerce of great value was carried on, and an area for the ultimate possession of which there was implicit contention between the United States and Great Britain.
We must now bring to bear on our problem the decisive events I have alluded to. All but one of them had occurred since the collapse of the Michaux expedition, and that that one had occurred was not known until after the Michaux expedition collapsed. Captain Robert Gray took his ship, the Columbia, into the river thereupon named for her in 1792. He thus gave the United States a claim based on discovery to an undetermined fraction of Oregon. The claim was so formidable that till the settlement of the Oregon question in 1846 Great Britain was forced to affirm that Gray had not actually entered the river but had only anchored in a bay below its mouth. It was a claim which, if sustained, would give the United States title not merely to the mouth of the Columbia River but to its entire drainage basin. (Note parenthetically that this is more than in the end became American.) Though the geography was known only along the seacoast, there were conflicting claims to much of this region, perhaps to all of it. Who knew how much legal claim Great Britain had acquired by the Nootka Convention? Who knew how much Spain had forfeited? Who knew whether Russia had a valid claim to any part of the area. or if it had, how valid and to how large a part?
Following the Columbia's two voyages, the second of which was the one that took her to her discovery, the great age of American maritime commerce opened. Specifically, there developed the China Trade and that portion of it which was based on the sea-otter trade of the northwest coast. Only the latter concerns us now. By the time Jefferson was inaugurated, the northwest trade had pretty thoroughly come into the hands of American traders and they were proceeding to monopolize it.
Throughout the 1790's the Canadian fur trade had been pushing overland farther west and north, vigorously led by the trust-like North West Company. In the year after Gray's entrance of the Columbia River, 1793, a principal figure in that trade had fulfilled one of its most important ambitions. Alexander Mackenzie, a partner of the North West Company, had performed his memorable feat of crossing Canada to the Pacific, thus making the first transcontinental passage north of Mexico. His crossing did not achieve its primary objective, which was also a primary objective of the Lewis and Clark expedition. He did not, that is, discover a commercially usable water route across the far Western wilderness. Nevertheless, his crossing had absolute importance.
Mackenzie understood the geopolitical necessities of North America precisely as Jefferson understood them. He was in actual fact, though the phrasing is of a later time, an agent of British trade imperialism. After making his great crossing, he proceeded to work out a platform of trade and politics which, I repeat, had a decisive effect on Jefferson's intentions.
Mackenzie held that the Canadian fur trade must secure a base on the northwest coast, so that it could obtain the economies of deep-water bulk transport. He held that it must have a canoe route from the coastal base to the great inland fields of its operation in the West and North. After Gray's discovery he believed that the Columbia River would provide that route. So he held that the Columbia and its basin must be, as he declared they in fact were, British possessions and that they must be defended by military establishments at Nootka and the mouth of the Columbia. He held that, if assisted by measures which Parliament must provide, possession of the Columbia would not only preserve the Canadian trust's monopoly of the fur trade of the western wilderness, but would recapture from the Americans the former British monopoly of the sea-otter trade of the northwest coast. Finally, he held that Great Britain was entitled to, and must move to secure, exclusive possession of the canoe route west from Grand Portage, and to a canoe route connecting Lake Superior with the Mississippi. This last thesis looked to British possession of a portion of American territory. It has additional interest for us in that, as Mackenzie said, it was associated with ambiguities relating to our northern boundary.
Mackenzie expressed these theses in his book, Voyages from Montreal , which was published in 1801, and in other writing. They were, of course, familiar before the publication of the book to Jefferson as an expansionist, a geopolitician, an Anglophobe, Minister to France, Secretary of State, and President. But the book became a focus of his thinking and Lewis and Clark took a copy of it west with them. Before and after it was published, Mackenzie did his utmost to procure action on his program by private enterprise, by Parliament, or by joint effort of both. It seems likely that the program would have been carried out wholly or in part before the Lewis and Clark expedition, except for the absorption of the government and of private finance in the Napoleonic wars.
Quite apart from that likelihood, however, there are facts. In 1800, the year of Jefferson's inauguration, the North West Company partners voted to establish west of the Rocky Mountains a post which would serve as a base from which such moves as Mackenzie proposed could be made. In the same year they sent pioneers over the mountains to locate a site for such a base. Some students believe, though in my judgment without convincing evidence, that two North West partners crossed the mountains to the selected site in the following year, 1801. At any rate preliminary moves to enter the area of contention had been made nearly three years before Jefferson's message to Congress proposing the Lewis and Clark expedition. In 1804, the year in which Lewis and Clark ascended the Missouri to Fort Mandan, a reorganization brought the North West Company under the direction of partners who supported Mackenzie's program. Almost at once, during the winter at Fort Mandan, a field-leader of that Company asked to accompany Lewis and Clark to the Pacific. The following year, 1805, the Company sent this same factor on a pioneering trip to open the fur trade in the American Rockies—that is in the American, not the Canadian, West—that is, again, on the way to Oregon. He was heading toward the upper Yellowstone River area while Lewis and Clark were reaching the Great Falls of the Missouri.
It is now clear why I have said that our primary emphasis should be on Oregon and not, as it has been traditionally, on Louisiana. Jefferson told Congress that the expedition was to establish an overland connection with the trade of the northwest coast. He also intimated to Congress what he said explicitly and at length to Lewis, that it was to provide for that trade an inland water route, the advantages of which were obvious. Very likely, in fact almost certainly, such a route would make transport more rapid and, therefore, cheaper than it was by the route round Cape Horn. Quite certainly in a war-torn world it would be safer, for it would not be vulnerable to the navies and privateers of foreign powers. In a peace-time world, too, it would be beyond supervision by the British Navy. Jefferson did not say to Congress that an exploration of Oregon would strengthen the claim that discovery had given us, but in fact it did strengthen it and I do not see how we can suppose that this purpose was not in his mind. Moreover, the expedition acted to buttress the claim by means more aggressive and potentially more conclusive than exploration. I do not see how we can suppose that the representatives of the President of the United States, having crossed foreign territory and now present in disputed territory, would have taken action so purposive except on order.
This point must be made explicitly. I remind you that Jefferson's message to Congress dealt at length with challenging the Canadian fur trade in the West, and with providing a cheaper and more expeditious route for the transport of its furs than the Canadian canoe route, with its almost innumerable lakes and portages and its ice-bound rivers. I remind you too that Jefferson was on notification from Mackenzie and manifestly from the last ten years of North West Company action that Oregon and the northwest coast were in contention—that the Canadian trust intended to bind them to British sovereignty.
Oregon was west of the Continental Divide. At the time when preparations for the expedition were being made, the Divide was the western boundary of Louisiana, a French possession. By the time the expedition started, the Divide was the western boundary of the United States. When the expedition crossed the Divide, it entered the disputed territory of Oregon, to which the United States had the claim of discovery and was now establishing the claim of exploration. As soon as it did so, it came into contact with two transmontane Indian tribes, the Shoshones or Snakes and the Nez Percés. To both tribes Lewis made detailed proposals which looked forward to securing their trade for the United States. He told them that the Americans would establish trading posts east of the Divide but on their customary trade and hunting routes. In addition, the American government would protect both tribes, when they came to trade at these posts, from the marauding Blackfeet Indians, whose menace, vaguely rumored when he left St. Louis, had been clarified by what he learned during the winter at Fort Mandan. So far this is merely a step in taking the trade of these transmontane tribes away from the North West Company, in accord with Jefferson's declared purpose in his message to Congress. But Lewis went on. As soon as possible, he promised the tribes, the United States would establish trading posts much more convenient for them, in their own country, west of the Divide. That is, in Oregon. That is, in the country to which the United States and Great Britain had conflicting claims, the country that was an object of contention between them.
It is unlikely, in fact it would seem impossible, that the representative of the President would make promises of such importance, and of such momentous implications, unless he had been directed to make them. The President's instructions to his representative begin with these sentences: "Your situation as Secretary to the President of the United States has made you acquainted with the objects of my confidential message of Jan. 18, 1803, to the legislature. You have seen the act they passed, which, tho' expressed in general terms. was meant to sanction those objects, and you are appointed to carry them into execution." I conclude that we have here additional evidence that Jefferson intended to secure Oregon to American sovereignty by promoting trade in it. Discovery, exploration, trade-occupation—that should do the job. I add that Lewis's report to the President from St. Louis on his return sketches out methodical plans for establishing trade west of the Divide, and it was written not only in the light of what the expedition had learned but in the light of the President's purposes. I find a curious urgency in these plans—an urgency so great that Lewis disregards the principal geographical lesson the expedition had learned. It had learned that a long and difficult land traverse must be made between Missouri and Columbia waters. This established forever that there was no inland water route from St. Louis to the Pacific. The great hope was proved unjustified and the very plans Lewis was sketching out were unrealistic, but he nevertheless made them.
I believe that we have here one of the two reciprocal reasons why Jefferson's message to Congress was a secret one and why the Act of Congress authorizing the expedition was, as Jefferson reminded Lewis, "expressed in general terms." There could be no thought of keeping the expedition itself secret. In fact, it was immediately accredited to the governments of Great Britain, Spain, and France. But in his message Jefferson stated at considerable length the possibility of breaking the North West Company's monopoly of furs, and in turn of monopolizing its transport. The message was secret, I judge, because the implications would be as obvious to the North West Company and the British government as they were to the American Congress. Surely one of the obvious implications was the establishment of American trade in Oregon, which is what Lewis promised the tribes.
Here I must mention a paradox, the first part of which seems to weaken the point I have just insisted on. In his instructions, Jefferson directed Lewis to find out as much as he could about rivers flowing southward from the height of land that must separate the Missouri watershed from the unknown drainages that must reach Spanish New Mexico. He went on to say, "The Northern waters of the Missouri are less to be enquired after, because they have been ascertained to a considerable degree, and are still in course of ascertainment by English traders & travellers." Thus the instructions show no particular urgency about the very streams by which the idea Jefferson had expressed to Congress must be implemented.
In the actual outcome, however, not much was learned about those southern waters, which are the one geographical feature on Clark's maps that is conspicuously misconceived. The journals and memoranda of the expedition say very little about them. If the captains inquired exhaustively about them, the record does not show it, whereas the "northern waters of the Missouri," which the instructions say need be less inquired after, were in fact the object of the most constant inquiry and speculation. This was true while the expedition was wintering at Fort Mandan and while it was traveling from Fort Mandan to the Great Falls.
During the winter of 1804–1805 the captains amassed a remarkable amount of accurate information about the country they were to traverse during the spring and summer. They got most of it from the Hidatsa Indians or Minnetarees. But they tirelessly questioned the Mandans too and all British traders who were resident with both tribes or who visited them from the posts on the Assiniboine River. Then when they resumed their journey, they investigated and speculated about every stream that entered the Missouri from the north, including the most trivial ones.
There is no doubt what they were looking for—they repeatedly say what it was. They hoped to find some stream capable of being navigated by canoes that could connect the Missouri with the routes of the Canadian fur trade. They wanted a stream that would enable American traders to intercept the North West Company's transport somewhere west of Lake Winnipeg. Repeatedly they specify: they are looking for a navigable stream that will provide connection with the Assiniboine River, the Saskatchewan River, or even, and this is most surprising, the Athabaska River. That is, they hoped to find a direct canoe route from American territory to the heart of the Canadian fur country.
While they analyzed what they heard and speculated about the possibilities, every tributary that entered the Missouri from the north might be the solution to their problem. During the winter they thought they had heard about the most feasible one, a stream which, doubtless translating a Minnetaree designation, they called the White Earth River. It was not the stream which bears that name today, and which is trivial enough. It was an even smaller creek which during most of the year will not float even a toy boat. When they had gone beyond the locality where, if anywhere, it must be, they continued deeply concerned to find some other stream that would serve the same purpose.
Here we must note another consideration. Not only must this sought-after stream provide access to the Canadian canoe route, it must also originate north of the forty-ninth parallel. While the captains were investigating the lower reach of every tributary from the north, and climbing bluffs to see how much of its upper course they could make out, they invariably insisted on the desirability of its extending north of 49°. It was a fixed requirement for their purpose. It was the reason why on the return journey Lewis split his party and made a reconnaissance of the Marias River, as during the preceding winter they had determined one or the other must. By that time the Marias was the only remaining hope, the only possible answer to the exigent question. He made the reconnaissance to determine whether it did in fact come down from north of 49°. His disappointment when he determined that it did not leaps at you from the page.
The reason for this urgent concern is not only implicit, it is also explicit. If a river whose source was north of 49° did in fact empty into the Missouri, then the Missouri watershed extended north of that parallel. Jefferson held that the entire Missouri watershed, since it was part of the Mississippi watershed, was included in Louisiana. The northern boundary of the United States would have to bend northward to include whatever waters might flow into the Missouri.
All this was part of the opportunity which Jefferson pointed out to Congress. It was the purpose of the expedition to discover not only an inland water route to the northwest coast but also one that would connect with the transport of the North West Company in the interior. Down such a route, he told Congress, it would be possible to divert the Canadian fur trade to American waters, to the Missouri, to the Mississippi or the Great Lakes, to the Ohio or some other American river, and so to American terminal ports. It was expected to be incomparably faster and cheaper than the Canadian route, for it would obviate the scores of portages, and Jefferson believed that it might be free of ice during the winter, or that at worst it would be icebound for only a short season.
When the expedition got to where it could investigate this opportunity, the forty-ninth parallel, or rather as Jefferson believed the northward bend that was to be substituted for it. had become the northern boundary of the United States. But it was not the northern boundary of the United States when Jefferson addressed Congress and during the long period of analysis and preparation that had preceded his proposal. It was the boundary of Louisiana. a Spanish possession that was becoming a French possession. It was a foreign boundary, the boundary of a foreign empire.
My opening statement about a change in the emphasis of our thinking about the Lewis and Clark expedition had two parts. The expedition was dispatched to reach Oregon, territory to which the United States possessed a claim and in which was localized the sea-otter trade that was a principal source of our external wealth. It was directed to discover a route which would permit that commerce to travel overland to the Atlantic seaboard, probably in shorter time and at less expense, and certainly protected from oceanic storms, shipwreck, piracy. privateering, and naval attack. This was an important objective. But to the extent that it was important. it suggests something else, and this is my second point. The more important it was, the more insistently it implies another conclusion.
The route which the expedition was to discover was to connect Oregon and the northwest trade with the United States, which then ended at the Mississippi. It was to connect them by crossing Louisiana. which was then foreign territory. But surely so vital a route. so earnestly desired and intended to serve so important a national purpose, surely there was no assumption that the territory it was to cross would long remain foreign. If it were to remain foreign, then it would he even more directly exposed to the hazards of piracy, blockade. attack, and capture than the oceanic route. And this was all the more true in that its foreign proprietor was the France of Napoleon, whose trade policy would deny all commerce that was not French access to French possessions.
There remains one minute but significant item, and it is pleasant to record that it occurs in a manuscript owned by this Society and given to it by the author, who was Jefferson. When Congress adjourned in the fall of 1803 and Jefferson returned to his library at Monticello, he took occasion to examine and review everything that bore on the extent of Louisiana, its boundaries, and the history of the various claims to it and of the treaties relating to them. As he wrote to the Society, he had collected in his library everything bearing on the subject that could be collected. At the end of his study he wrote a long memorandum which he called "An Examination into the Boundaries of Louisiana," copies of which he sent to the American ministers to France and Spain. The original he gave in 1817 to the American Philosophical Society. The "Examination" is dated September 7. 1803, but a "Postscript" is added to it tinder the date January 15, 1804. The Postscript is called "The Northern Boundary of Louisiana Coterminous with the Possessions of England."
At the end of this postscript Jefferson rejects the claim advanced by Mackenzie, the claim that Great Britain is entitled to a connection between Lake Superior and the Mississippi River. That problem, he says, was settled by the Treaty of Utrecht, and the boundary of the United States, that is of Louisiana. is the forty-ninth parallel westward to the point where it meets "the limits of the Spanish province next adjacent." (Remember that, though Jefferson had dispatched the Lewis and Clark expedition, its results were not yet in. If there is any Spanish province "next adjacent" to Louisiana at 49°, it is the area soon to be called Oregon, to which the United States has a claim, to part of which Spain may or may not have a claim, to which Great Britain is asserting a claim.) And Jefferson makes a provisional exception, to allow for the possibility I have described, the possibility that Lewis and Clark so persistently investigated. "It would be desirable," he says, "to agree further that, if the parallel shall, in any part, intersect any waters of the Missouri, then the dividing line shall pass round all those waters to the North until it shall again fall into the same parallel, or meet the limits of the Spanish province next adjacent."
The sentence I have quoted is the last but one in the postscript. And now mark the last sentence. It reads, "Or unapprised that Spain has any right as far North as that, & Westward of Louisiana, it may be as well to leave the extent of the boundary of 49° indefinite, as was done on the former occasion."
The sentence falls into place as precisely as a tenon fits its mortise. Jefferson is saying that there is a possibility that the United States may be able to assert still another claim to the vast, vague region which his expedition will reach before the end of the year. That possibility may have been created by our purchase of Louisiana; it may be part of what we have bought. Note that he presents it not as a claim but as the possibility of a claim that may be asserted because we do not know the extent of a Spanish claim. Where does the northern boundary reach the western boundary? Where is the western boundary of the United States? Where in the west does Louisiana end? This is uncertain and it may be wise to preserve the uncertainty for the present. In short, we may have a claim to more of Oregon than we would get by extending the forty-ninth parallel across it as a northern boundary. But more than that, quite a bit more. Perhaps there is no next adjacent Spanish province so far north. If there is not, perhaps we can maintain that the United States already extends beyond the Continental Divide. Perhaps we can maintain that it extends all the way to the Pacific.
It is the American geopolitician who writes, "it may be well to leave the [westward] extent of the boundary of 49° indefinite." One relishes the irony, for the master of diplomacy, Talleyrand, had come to the same conclusion when the de-tails of the Louisiana Purchase were being worked out. He believed in the wisdom of having something to negotiate about. Barbé-Marbois, who was conducting the negotiations with Monroe and Livingston, was disturbed by the uncertainty regarding the extent of the area first transferred by France to Spain and then by Spain to France, and now about to be transferred to the United States. When he said so, Talleyrand replied "that if the obscurity did not already exist, it would perhaps be good policy to put it there." So Jefferson: let us leave the westward extent of the northern boundary indefinite.
The inference mentioned in my title is now complete. The proposition I present to you is this: that in the long years of this thinking about an expedition to explore Louisiana, Jefferson had come to regard it as a means of hastening two processes. That he thought of it as a means of hastening the expansion of the United States to the Pacific, and as a means of hastening American acquisition of Louisiana. That he thought of it as a means of accelerating a process whose eventual outcome he regarded as assured. That, whatever else the expedition was besides, it was a deliberate act of expansionism. That, whatever else it was besides, it was a move in foreign policy.
This is not to suggest that dispatching the expedition had any bearing on the actual purchase of Louisiana, which occurred so dramatically after it had been authorized, while preparations were being concluded and before it started west. The antecedents of the expedition go back too far. But we must also say that, surprised and even stunned as Jefferson was by Napoleon's unforeseen proposal and its unauthorized acceptance by Monroe and Livingston, it can have seemed to him only the acquisition, prematurely and in one step, of territory which he had fully expected to come gradually into American possession. He said exactly that, and he must be accepted as speaking truthfully. We must remember that, from the peace treaty which followed the Revolution on, every foreign nation, and especially Great Britain, Spain, and France, had regarded American expansion into Louisiana as inevitable unless it should be prevented by force. If into Louisiana, then across Louisiana. And, as the diplomatic corps said repeatedly, if across Louisiana, then to New Mexico and to the Pacific.
We must remember too that Rufus King, our minister in London, and Livingston in Paris had made various suggestions and proposals to purchase large parts of Louisiana, or alternatively all of it. That Gallatin, the Secretary of the Treasury, favored buying all of Louisiana. That Jefferson regarded immediate seizure of Louisiana by the United States as a necessity if the world war should involve the United States. That many Americans shared these convictions.
But most of all we must remember the basic fact repeatedly reported to their government by Spanish officials in New Orleans and St. Louis during the preceding few years, and reported by French officials as soon as they got to New Orleans. I refer to the fact that the westward-moving occupation of the wild lands by the American people had arrived in force at the western boundary of the United States, a boundary which could be crossed by dugout, and had moved on into Louisiana, thinly but in numbers visibly increasing. The bearing of this fact was clear to every diplomat in Washington, to every foreign office, and to all European students of world trends. Surely it was understood by the most brilliant American geographer, a lifelong expansionist, a master of geopolitics, a former Secretary of State, who was President during a period of world war.
This proposition is not documented. Rather, to speak precisely only parts of it are documented. But there is abundant supporting documentation in the Lewis and Clark expedition, and this seems to me the key. It cannot be left out of account, but I submit that it has been pretty largely left out of account. We need more search for documentation than we have so far had.
If the change in emphasis which my proposition indicates is so important as I assert, can I account for the neglect of historians in general to adopt it? I believe I can, at least in part.
To begin with, there is the Louisiana Purchase itself. Massive and momentous, it realigned world forces and generated historical energies that have been in operation ever since. Because it was so momentous, there has been a tendency to focus inquiry on what happened as consequences and to neglect what had already happened that might be related to Lewis and Clark. To this is added the magisterial authority and prestige of Henry Adams. I submit that his analysis of the Purchase does not stand up under examination, but has largely gone unexamined. Briefly, Adams is under compulsion to represent Jefferson's brilliant appraisal of world forces and his brilliant conduct of foreign and domestic policies bearing on Louisiana—to represent Jefferson's ideas and actions as ignorant, misconceived or deluded, floundering, improvised, and successful only by the providential workings of chance. So he leaves out of account the highly important, and for Lewis and Clark decisive, elements of the total situation which I have mentioned and which Jefferson did take into account.
Again, there has been a tendency to study the Lewis and Clark expedition in the context of Spanish-American relations, or of British-American relations, or of French-American relations—that is to study it compartmentally, as a reciprocal action—and not in the actual four-part context, that is as a resultant. There has also been a semantic reluctance so great that it might be called a taboo. Jefferson, we have been told, was an "expansionist" but he was not an "imperialist." The words are arbitrary and elastic but the implication may be stated thus: Jefferson was willing for Louisiana and Oregon to come eventually under American sovereignty by evolution of the historical process, but he would not act to bring them under American sovereignty. Therefore, indications that he did act must have other explanations.
Finally, I believe, our idea of the historical process itself has worked against the proposition I have submitted to you. We think of the immensely complex historical process as having such enormous inertia that it is not subject to redirection by individual acts. However purposive an act, it cannot influence the process very much. and so it must be thought of as either at random or a consequence, not as a cause. One by one holes will be punched in the cards, but always as consequences—as consequences of events and the process itself, not of acts by persons. So in due time the current will flow through the holes as punched and form circuits and there will be an expedition to the mouth of the Columbia. The process of history dispatched the expedition of Lewis and Clark; Jefferson was only a hole in the card through which the current flowed to form the circuit.
I do not care to reject one theory of history and support another one in a final paragraph. I do say that it was Jefferson who punched the holes in the card. There are a lot of them. They form a design and they produce a design. I hope I have made clear that it was a larger and more complex design than we have tended to believe. I cannot account for it as chance but only as purpose.
Reprinted with the permission of the American Philosophical Society.