Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis, and the Reduction of the United States Army

by Donald Jackson, Retired Editor, The Papers of George Washington (Read April 20, 1979)

(This article first appeared in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 124.2 [1980]: 91–96.)

The American people have always disliked the idea of a large regular army in peacetime. In the early days of the Republic, however, America began to discover that some kind of standing army was essential; militia was not always enough.

Immediately after the Revolution, the Congress began to divest itself of the army that had defeated Cornwallis at Yorktown. Despite some dissenting voices, soldiers who had enlisted to serve for the duration of the war were discharged. By January, 1784, Major General Henry Knox, the new commander, could report that only about 620 men were still in service—and the bottom figure was still to come. In June of that year, Congress discharged all but twenty-five men who were to be posted to Fort Pitt and West Point to protect materiel. No officer about the rank of captain was retained in service. [1]

Almost at once, the thinking of Congress had to change. Indian hostilities in the old Northwest, and the refusal of Great Britain to vacate certain garrisons, necessitated new enlistments and the building of new forts on the frontier. When these threats were lessened somewhat by the signing of Jay's Treaty with England in 1794, and the Treaty of Greenville with the Indians in 1795, tensions were eased—and then another new threat appeared. Misunderstandings between the United States and France, eventually to result in the stand-off now called the Quasi-War, prompted Congress to authorize a provisional army of ten thousand men for a period not to exceed three years. [2] When the excitement cooled without any land confrontation with France, that temporary quantum jump in the number of armed forces was reversed. In the final months of the John Adams administration, in 1800, the United States forces consisted mainly of four regiments of infantry, two of artillerists and engineers, and two of light dragons. [3] This was the army that Jefferson took over as commander-in-chief, upon his assumption of office in 1801.

Jefferson had run for the presidency on a platform calling for even greater reductions; the discharge of the provisional army was not enough to satisfy the Republican demand for a minimum standing army. When he took office, Jefferson commanded an authorized force of 5,400 officers and men. By the end of his first year, he and the Congress were to eliminate the cavalry, cut back the number of artillerists and engineers, and thus pare the army enrollment to about one-half. [4]

The new president did not know the military as well as he might have. He knew the army, but that was a different thing. The army was that great force in the government about which he could talk knowledgeably with generals and cabinet officers, discussing balance of power, regimental strength, deployment, and logistics. The military were the officers and men of that army, and Jefferson had never been one of them; he had never worn a uniform.

Reducing the number of enlisted men would be no problem, for actually the maintaining of regiments up to authorized strength had always been difficult. But reducing the officer corps requited a different approach. These career professionals must be dealt with as individuals, some to stay and some to go.

By midsummer following his election, Jefferson had received from the War Department a roster or roll of all his commissioned officers, listed with their rank and the units they commanded or to which they were assigned. [5] Most certainly there were men on the roster who were longtime friends and associates of Jefferson: Brigadier General James Wilkinson, the commanding general; Major Thomas F. Cushing, the adjutant and inspector; and such familiar names as John F. Hamtramck, commanding the First Infantry, and old Major Zebulon Pike, of the Third Infantry, the father of the famous explorer.

But most of the officers on the roster were strangers to Jefferson, and he would need to rely upon someone else to tell him who the potential leaders were, as well as the incompetents, and to identify those officers as Republican or Federalist. That the Federalists would be in the majority he could have no doubt, for the party patronage had become an aspect of the military policy under the administration of John Adams.

The measure that Jefferson took to obtain a profile of the army is shown upon the roster, dated July 24, 1801. After each officer's name, one or more symbols appear. They are mysterious marks—circles, crosses, and combinations of dots—intended to be understood only by someone who possessed a key to the symbols. That key, written on a single sheet of paper, is present with the roster in the Jefferson papers at the Library of Congress. On it the symbols are given such meanings as these: officers who are superior; those who are respectable but not superior; those unfit to serve; officers who are Republicans, or Federalists, and—the ultimate downgrading—those "most violently opposed to the Administration and still active in its vilification."

These symbols, and the sheet explaining their meaning, have until recently been described as being "in an unknown hand." [6] They are, in fact, in the hand of a young man whose name is a familiar one today wherever American history is read. It is the hand of Meriwether Lewis, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

While we cannot assume with certainty that Lewis made the evaluations, merely because the symbols are in his handwriting, a re-examination of his relationship with Jefferson renders this assumption quite tenable.

Nothing in the Lewis and Clark story is more firmly believed than the tradition that Jefferson hired Meriwether Lewis in 1801, not as a secretary or aide, but as a trainee for a transcontinental expedition. Lewis was a hometown boy whom Jefferson had known since childhood. He had received some conventional grammar-school education with classical overtones, and had absorbed a greater than average interest in natural history. Much of his knowledge was self-acquired. He seemed born to rise, in the agricultural-mercantile circles of Virginia, and he chose one of the most routinely traveled routes: a career in the United States Army.

Joining the militia during the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, Lewis moved north and languished in various cantonments in western Maryland and Pennsylvania, deciding the following year to try life in the regular army. He was appointed ensign in the second sub-legion in 1795, transferring the next year to the First Infantry Regiment. This was to be his outfit for the duration of his military career. His active duty was spent partly in the recruiting service and partly as a paymaster. As a special messenger for General Anthony Wayne, and as paymaster to his regiment, he traveled much. During a furlough he went to Kentucky on family business, and his duties took him from post to post in the Ohio Valley: Fort Wayne, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati.

Soon after Jefferson learned the results of the election that made him president he wrote young Lewis and offered him a position as his secretary. Sending the request through channels, he told General Wilkinson that he thought it would be advantageous "to take one who possessing a knolege of Western country, of the army & it's situation, might sometimes aid us with information of interest, which we may not otherwise possess." He used similar language in his letter to Lewis himself, saying "Your knolege of the Western country, of the army and of all it's interests & relations has rendered it desirable for public as well as private purpose that you should be engaged in that office." [7]

At this point, historians go astray by stacking one conjecture upon another. They reason that Jefferson had long wished for an expedition to the Pacific; that he was at last in a position to carry out such an operation; and that he placed Lewis on his staff so that he could personally guide the study and preparation necessary for such an expedition. Dozens of books and articles on the expedition contain these assumptions.

To accept this easy train of events is to sidestep several matters about which we can never be entirely informed. It is true that Jefferson had since 1783 shown specific signs that he valued the idea of a transcontinental exploration. He had asked George Rogers Clark in that year how he would like to lead such an enterprise, and Clark had declined. He had helped the American Philosophical Society to raise the money and draw the plans for botanist André Michaux, who proposed to visit the Pacific Coast but whose plans were canceled. In both these instances, Jefferson apparently was acting as a private citizen. But during the seven years he served in the federal government, in the 1790s, he did nothing whatsoever to press for a government–sponsored expedition. His correspondence during the last half of the 1790s contains almost nothing about the American West.

Perhaps what brought Jefferson's thoughts back to hemispheric geography was the publication of a book in London. Late in 1801, Alexander Mackenzie's Voyages…Through the Continent of North American, to the Frozen and Pacific Ocean was published; copies were available in Philadelphia and New York within a short time. Jefferson already knew something of Mackenzie's travels, but his first knowledge of the book probably came in a letter from Dr. Caspar Wistar, of Philadelphia, who frequently sent the president bits of new information. In January, 1802, he wrote: "Have you seen McKenzie's account of his journeys across the Continent & to the Northern Ocean?" [8] He was referring, of course, to Mackenzie's expedition across Canada—during which he reached the Pacific. At the end of the Mackenzie's narrative, he had urged the British government to lose no time in establishing a trading post in the Pacific Northwest, to gain control of the very profitable trade with the Orient in sea-otter skins. Mackenzie's suggestion with filled with implications for the control not only of the fur trade but of an enormously important part of the continent.

Jefferson ordered a copy of Mackenzie's book, probably receiving it in the summer of 1802. [9] During August he had as a house guest his old Philadelphia friend, and member of the American Philosophical Society, Benjamin Smith Barton. Barton's travel diary for the period is missing or was not kept, so we have no record of his stay at Monticello. The two men might well have discussed the Far West, as Barton had been a participant in the earlier plan to send Michaux to the Pacific. It is not likely, however, that Jefferson mentioned a specific new western enterprise; we may suspect this because, when he finally informed Barton that he was sending Lewis and Clark to the Pacific, some months later, he wrote in terms that suggest he was then advising his friend for the first time. [10]

Sometime within the weeks immediately following Barton's visit, Jefferson must have decided to act. By early December, 1802, he had approached the Spanish minister to United States, Carlos Martinez de Irujo, setting forth his plan to explore the course of the Missouri River, cross the Rocky Mountains, and descend the western watercourses to the Pacific. [11] It appears, then, that Jefferson's decision to set on foot what was to become the Lewis and Clark Expedition was made about a year and a half after he had hired Lewis as a member of his staff.

In reviewing the wording of the Jefferson's first letter, offering Lewis the post of secretary, perhaps we have been paying attention to the wrong phrase. The two key phrases in the message are: Your knolege of the Western country and the army and of all it's interests & relations. By "western country" Jefferson meant the Ohio Valley. Lewis had traveled there and knew what the westerners were thinking—a matter of deep concern to Jefferson, who must be alert to the separatist elements on the outer edge of his constituency. An intelligent young officer who had recently traveled as far as Kentucky could be useful especially if he were someone long known and trusted by Jefferson.

The phase mentioning "the army and all it's interests & relations" may be the more important one. Here was a young military man who could be expected to escalate for Jefferson, in complete candor, the officers of high and low rank whom he had come to know so well as he traveled his paymaster's route. If one can read into Lewis's knowledge of the "western country" the potential for a transcontinental expedition, it is equally logical to see in Jefferson's reference to "the army and all it's interests" an assignment to help him with the task of reshaping the military forces.

Below is the list of qualifications which Lewis set forth on his sheet of symbols, then transferred to the roster (see also fig. 1). For simplicity the symbols have been converted to letters of the alphabet, and the wording slightly altered. Lewis called the listing: "Explanation of the notes set opposite (in the column of remarks) to the names of the several officers composing the Army of the United States."

[a] Denotes such officers as are of the 1st Class, so esteemed from a superiority of genius & Military proficiency. [b] Officers of the second class, respectable as officers, but not altogether entitled to the 1st grade. [c] The same. Republican. [d] Officers whose political opinions are not positively ascertained. [e] Political apathy. [g] Opposed to the Administration more decisively. [h] Most violently opposed to the administration and still active in the vilification. [i] Professionally the soldier without any political creed. [j] Unworthy of the commissions they bear. [k] Unknown to us.

Table 1
Connecticut 14 Pennsylvania 46
Delaware 2 Rhode Island 3
Georgia 4 South Carolina 8
Kentucky 5 Tennessee 3
Maryland 32 Vermont 6
Massachusetts 34 Virginia 36
Mississippi 1 Canada 1
New Hampshire 4 France 5
New Jersey 12 England 3
New York 26 Ireland 7
North Carolina 9 Scotland 1
Northwest Terr. 1 Switzerland 1
Germany 4
*Names on the roster total 269, but one officer, Richard Skinner, is not listed by place of origin. States
or countries on the roster do not always correspond with those in Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register and
Dictionary of the United States Army
(Washington, 1903).
Table 2
Evaluation of Officers in Service*
In service Retained
July 24, 1801 June 1, 1802
Superior [a]
Republican [c] 9 4
Federalist [f,g,h] 23 18
Nonpolitical [e,i] 11 9
Undetermined [k] 24 18
Acceptable [b]
Republican [c] 4 4
Federalist [f,g,h] 18 7
Nonpolitical [e,i] 20 12
Undetermined [k] 25 14
Unfit [j] 44 6
Qualifications unknown [i] 91 39
269 131
*Letters in brackets correspond to Lewis's key. The total of 6 unfit officers retained does not include one
who died after the evaluation was made.

Tables 1 and 2 present some data compiled from the roster of officers and the evaluations added by Lewis. Table 1, showing distribution to officers by state, would have come as no surprise to Jefferson; a large proportion of his officers came from the more heavily populated Federalist states in the Northeast. In Table 2, the data have been adapted and simplified; for example, Lewis's three categories of Federalist, ranging from mild to unregenerate, have been combined under a single heading.

It is clear that in the winnowing process, military qualifications were given greater consideration that party preference. There are however, two ways to state this conclusion. We can say that Jefferson and his advisers followed the practice of ignoring party preference, selecting the officers to be retained on the basis of military proficiency. It may be more realistic to phrase the conclusion in a different way: no matter how much Jefferson might have wished for an army heavily weighted with Republicans, there was no way that he could have it in the early years of his administration.

In converting to a non-Federalist army, Jefferson had to pay attention first to his small general staff, all but one of whom had multiple crosses after their names to denote their category as "most violently opposed to the administration." Of the seven officers on the general staff, three were discharged within a year after their evaluation. Two old officers who had served honorably in the Revolution were retained, despite their Federalist leanings: Thomas H. Cushing, the adjutant and inspector, and Caleb Swan, the paymaster general. Edward D. Turner, brigade inspector, was retained as a captain but resigned three years later. In assigning political ranking to the men of the general staff, young Captain Lewis had a problem about the commanding general himself, James Wilkinson. Lewis placed no symbols at all after Wilkinson's name, perhaps because he felt it presumptuous to evaluate him, or because he felt that Jefferson knew Wilkinson's strengths and weaknesses all too well. Wilkinson son was retained as commanding general, and in later years, when he was implicated in the Aaron Burr conspiracy and other intrigues, Jefferson defended him—though not without some equivocation.

Jefferson wanted Republicans in his top civilian posts, military and naval, as well as in the commissioned ranks. His appointment of Henry Dearborn, of Maine, to be secretary of war was a gesture to the strongly Federalist Northeast, as was his appointment of Attorney General Levi Lincoln, of Massachusetts. He offered the post of secretary of the navy to four Republicans before filling it with Benjamin Stoddert, who soon resigned to be replaced by Robert Smith. [12]

The conversion of the army was no secret. In June, 1802, the attorney general warned Jefferson that much unrest was evident in the Northeast although he believed that federalism was losing ground. He wrote, "General Dearborn & myself endeavored to prepare a list of names this morning, for commissions for Massachusetts, to submit to your consideration. As soon as we have done the best we can do, we will wait on you with it." [13] When the secretary of the navy recommended that Robert Gamble, of Pennsylvania, be appointed a midshipman, he was careful to remind the president that the young man was highly recommended by John P. G. Muhlenberg, and active Republican. And when Alexander Dallas came up for his midshipman's commission, his only character reference was his father, Alexander J. Dallas, another influential Republican who was secretary of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. [14]

Jefferson's patronage policy was personally a moderate one, but he was subject to conflicting pressures. Secretary of Treasury Albert Gallatin favored a completely nonpartisan appointment policy in some areas of government. On the other hand, Henry Dearborn was unrelenting in his insistence on removing Federalists. He told House speaker Joseph B. Varnum: "We have been much more liberal towards them, that they would be towards us, and in future I think we ought to give them measure for measure." [15]

In remaking the regular army, Jefferson was more successful in controlling its size than its political complexion. After Congress passed the act fixing the military peace establishment in 1802, there was no increase in the regular army for six years—until a conflict with England began to seem likely. [16]

To summarize, it seems probably that Jefferson hired Captain Meriwether Lewis for quite another purpose that to train him for a transcontinental expedition, and that he decided on that expedition much later than has been previously believed. And so when Lewis set out from Washington and Philadelphia, in the spring of 1803, to begin the nation's most enduring tale of exploration and adventure, he had the satisfaction of knowing that he already had served his president and his party in a rather unusual way.


1. Journals of the Continental Congress (34 vols., Washington, 1904–1907), 25: p. 703, 27: pp. 513–524. Two sound works on the post-Revolutionary army are Francis Paul Prucha, The Sword of the Republic: The United States Army on the Frontier, 1783–1846 (Bloomington, Ind., 1969), and Richard H. Kohn, Eagle and Sword: The Beginnings of the Military Establishment in America (New York, 1975). (back)
2. Prucha, Sword of the Republic, pp. 39–40. The Federalists, determined to base their appointments on political considerations delayed the completion of the new army by at least three months (Kohn, Eagle and Sword, p. 244). (back)
3. Under an act reducing the Additional Army, the discharges were effective June 5, 1800 (2 U. S. Statutes, pp. 85–86). (back)
4. "An act fixing the military peace establishment of the United States," March 16, 1802, 2 U. S. Statutes, pp. 85–86). (back)
5. This roster of officers, dated July 24, 1801, is among the papers of Thomas Jefferson, Library of Congress. For the microfilm copy, see reel 24, folios 1969–1975. (back)
6. For example, in Noble E. Cunningham, Jr., The Jeffersonian Republicans in Power (Chapel Hill, N. C., 1963), p. 66. He has later recognized Lewis's hand in The Process of Government Under Jefferson (Princeton, N. J., 1978), p. 127. (back)
7. See Jefferson to Wilkinson, Feb. 23, 1801, and to Lewis, Feb. 23, 1801, both in the Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. (back)
8. Wistar to Jefferson, Jan. 8, 1802, Library of Congress. (back)
9. Bookseller James Cheetham's bill for the book, Feb. 22, 1803, shows June 21, 1802, as the date of the order (Library of Congress). Cheetham was also a journalist, publishing the bi-weekly New York newspaper, The Republican Watch-Tower. (back)
10. "You know we have been many years wishing to have the Missouri explored & whatever river, heading with that, runs into the Western ocean. Congress, in some secret proceedings, have yielded to a proposition I made them for permitting me to have it done; it is to be undertaken immediately, with a party of about ten, & I have appointed Capt. Lewis, my secretary, to conduct it." Jefferson to Barton, Feb. 27, 1803, Library of Congress. See also W. E. McAtee, ed., "Journal of Benjamin Smith Barton on a Visit to Virginia, 1802," Castanea: Journal of the Southern Appalachian Botany Club 3 (1938): pp. 85–117. Manuscript fragment from Barton's trip to Virginia are in the American Philosophical Society Library. (back)
11. Carlos Martinez de Irujo to Pedro Cevallos, Dec. 2, 1802, Archivo Históico Nacional (Madrid), Papeles de Estado, legajo 5630, apartado 2. (back)
12. Jacob E. Cooke, Tench Coxe and the Early Republic (Chapel Hill, N. C., 1978), pp. 394, 395n. After Stoddert resigned April 1, 1801, Dearborn occupied the post along with his own until July 15, when Smith accepted the appointment. (back)
13. Levi Lincoln to Jefferson, June 28, 1802, Library of Congress. These proposed commissions probably included civilian posts as well as military appointments. (back)
14. Robert Smith to Jefferson, May 9, 1803, Library of Congress. (back)
15. Cunningham, Jeffersonian Republicans, pp. 68–69. Cunningham deals briefly with Jefferson's coded roster and its implications. (back)
16. Cooke, Tench Coxe, p. 427. On April 12, 1808, Congress approved an addition of eight regiments to the regular army. (back)

This article has been reproduced with the permission of the American Philosophical Society.