Thomas Jefferson's impact on the famous Lewis and Clark expedition comes from the impact of Jefferson's character on the objectives of the expedition itself, the influence of his character on the personality of Meriwether Lewis and the expedition-related tasks completed by both Lewis and William Clark. Jefferson's interest in Indian affairs, his love of scientific inquiry, and his loyalty to the fledgling American nation had a large impact on his design and deployment of the Lewis and Clark expedition. In addition, Jefferson's long relationship with the Lewis family likely had a strong impact on the development of the young Meriwether Lewis, especially in his love of nature. Jefferson chose both Lewis and Clark for the expedition likely because they exemplified many of the characteristics that Jefferson admired: they were both capable, self-taught men with an interest in the west and a love of nature. Many of the successful aspects of the expedition reflected Jefferson's influence, including Clark's detailed record-keeping, and the resiliency that Lewis showed in many occasions.
Thomas Jefferson is perhaps one of America's most admired early statesmen. He is often seen as a man of complex and exemplary character, who through his many efforts played a crucial role in the formation of the new American nation. Jefferson's character was indeed noteworthy, as he was both a known admirer of the natural world, a profound proponent of democracy, and a noted scholar with wide interests. As a child, Jefferson was schooled in a variety of subjects, including Latin and Greek, and he retained an appreciation for learning through his life. In speaking of his ability to read Greek and Latin authors in their original, he noted "I thank on my knees him who directed my early education for having put into my possession this rich source of delight" (Peterson, 7). He was both a diligent student, and developed a love of nature (Peterson).
Jefferson's character was instrumental in the very formation of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Jefferson had a long interest in Indian affairs, dating back to his childhood. In addition, as statesman, Jefferson saw the need to understand Indian life as much as possible to further American expansion and trade in the area. These twin details likely drove many of his orders to so carefully detail Indian life (Ronda).
In addition, Jefferson's long love of scientific inquiry and his rigorous academic background also likely played an important role in his desire to learn more about the diverse geography of the uncharted territories. Moulton notes, "Thomas Jefferson's curiosity about the West was lifelong, sustained by his broad scientific interests and his hopes and dreams for the future of the United States." Further, Jefferson's desire to learn about the west and his decision to create the expedition was likely driven by his belief that all knowledge, including the gathering of scientific knowledge on the expedition, was of some use (Moulton).
An important driving force for the Lewis and Clark expedition can be found in Jefferson's loyalty to the fledgling American nation. Jefferson had planned for a transcontinental expedition across the Missouri River for almost 20 years before Lewis and Clark's expedition began. However, he decided to launch the expedition after reading the details of Alexander Mackenzie's voyages to the coast of British Columbia and the Arctic Ocean, where Mackenzie urged Britain to develop a transcontinental route for the purposes of increasing trade. Jefferson feared that the British would first lay claim to the far west, and therefore his loyalty to the American cause spurred him to attempt to get a toehold for the American nation in the region (Moulton).
The ties between Jefferson, Lewis and Clark were long and complex. Notes Ambrose, "The Lewis and Meriwether families had long been close-knit and interrelated. Indeed, there were eleven marriages joining the Lewises and Meriwethers between 1725 and 1774" (Ambrose, 21). Jefferson had even asked William Clark's older brother, George Rogers Clark, to lead an expedition to the west in 1783, which was ultimately cancelled (Moulton).
Further, Jefferson was a friend and neighbor of Meriwether Lewis' father, and well acquainted with the Lewis family. Notes Ambrose, "Thomas Jefferson described Lewis's forebears as 'one of the most distinguished families' of Virginia, and among the earliest" (Ambrose, 20). When war broke out in 1775, Jefferson noted that Meriwether Lewis' father, William Lewis, gladly left his young family to serve, without pay, and bore his own expenses in the war.
Interestingly, Jefferson commented of the Lewis and Meriwether families that they were "subject to hypochondriac afflictions. It was a constitutional disposition in all the nearer branches of the family" (Ambrose, 21). William Lewis's tendency to hypochondria (also termed melancholy by Jefferson, and later known as depression) was largely overlooked by Jefferson, who otherwise saw the elder Lewis as a man with "good sense, integrity, bravery, enterprise & remarkable bodily powers" (21).
Jefferson's contact with the Meriwether included exposure to Meriwether Lewis as a young child. Of Lewis as a child Jefferson wrote, "was remarkable even in infancy for enterprise, boldness & discretion. When only 8 years of age, he habitually went out in the dead of night alone with is dogs, into the forest to hunt the raccoon & opossum.... In this exercise no season or circumstance could obstruct his purpose, plunging thro' the winter's snows and frozen streams in pursuit of his object" (Ambrose, 24). One can imagine that Jefferson was an enthusiastic and able mentor, who encouraged the young Lewis' interest in nature.
In addition, Lewis' interest in the American west was likely encouraged, if not initiated, by Jefferson himself. Jefferson's fascination with the west was embedded deep in his psyche. Notes Peterson, "He (Jefferson) was neither pioneer nor explorer, but the West was in his thoughts from an early age. The West was nature writ large... nature in the large had an enduring fascination for him" (6).
The impact of Jefferson's character on Meriwether Lewis' person can hardly be underestimated. Jefferson had been a presence throughout Lewis' life, and this influence extended into Lewis' formative years. Lewis acted as a secretary to Jefferson, and lived in the white house for two years. During this time, he received a first hand education as an apprentice to the great man (Ambrose).
Jefferson's faith in Lewis was so great that he ultimately chose Lewis as the leader of the first government-sanctioned expedition into the west in 1803. Lewis had many of the characteristics that Jefferson clearly admired and saw as useful in the expedition. Lewis' formal education was not extensive by Moulton notes, "he was well read and had the scientific interests that characterized so many of Jefferson's friends." Jefferson himself had noted that he wanted someone to lead the expedition who was "a person who to courage, prudence, habits & health adapted to the woods, & some familiarity with the Indian character, joins a perfect knowledge of botany, natural history, mineralogy & astronomy" (Moulton). Here, we see that Jefferson's character, and subsequent ideas of what characteristics would be found in the person who could successfully lead an expedition, played an important role in choosing Lewis as the leader's expedition.
Jefferson's primary aim was to find a water route to the Pacific, but he was also interested in learning as much about the Indian presence as possible. In choosing Lewis for this task, Jefferson clearly saw Lewis as a capable man of action. The leadership of a group going into the then unknown territory to the west was an enormous, and potentially costly undertaking (Ambrose; Ronda).
Jefferson's resilience and self-sufficiency of character is seen reflected in Lewis' actions while on the expedition. The expedition journals reveal that Lewis takes over the as the surveyor and builder of one of the expedition boats after the boat's builder repeatedly struggles with alcohol and fails to build the boat according to schedule. It is likely that many of these character traits were refined and encouraged under Jefferson's tutelage (Ambrose).
Lewis himself chose William Clark to help lead the expedition, with the approval of Jefferson himself. Jefferson, and Lewis had long been friends, and Clark had been introduced to Jefferson when visiting Lewis in Washington (Moulton). Clark was charged with keeping the expedition's records, and creating maps of the uncharted area. His written work was instrumental in opening the West to a great segment of the American people (Ambrose). In choosing Clark for the expedition, Jefferson's emphasis on detail, character, pragmatism, and even self-education are evident. Clark clearly embodied those qualities, and even though much of Clark's writing contains variable grammar and spelling "neither his vocabulary nor his ideas were those of a backwoodsman" (Moulton).
It is in Clark's detailed record-keeping that the influence of Jefferson's character can best be seen. Jefferson had charged the party with keeping detailed records on a wide variety of topics throughout the expedition, including a series of questions on seventeen areas of Indian life. In addition, "Jefferson wanted his explorers to take their scientific duties seriously…