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Jefferson and the West

ISSUE:  Spring 1982
Thomas Jefferson and the Stony Mountains: Exploring the West from Monticello By Donald Jackson. Illinois. $19.95.

It is a small but significant irony that Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the most cosmopolitan of the founders, never in his long life set a foot west of Warm Springs, Virginia. The more so in that his vision of America was continental, not to say hemispheric. He understood the strategic importance of the central Mississippi Valley and control of its tributary river systems for the independence and prosperity of the new republic, and he had no doubt that the influence of the American revolutionary achievement would one day reach the Pacific and even transform the southern American continent. In addition, he perceived in America a rich field for scientific investigation, where nature’s laws might be confirmed and its long-held secrets revealed. And yet he saw very little of the continent himself. He remained on his “portico facing the wilderness” and directed by proxy a grand effort of exploration and scientific investigation.

The story is told by Donald Jackson in his most recent study, Thomas Jefferson and the Stony Mountains. Jackson feels impelled to defend his choice of so limited an aspect of a great man’s life. He need not have taken the trouble. The book brings together a wide array of material on exploration and relates it to Jefferson in a way that none of the biographies can quite equal. Nor, for that matter, do any of the volumes on the opening of the West so fully elucidate the central role of Jefferson in that process. Jackson’s previous editorial works on the explorations of Lewis and Clark, Pike, and Frémont have long been models of care and comprehensiveness and the starting places for historians in the field. His volume on Jefferson and the West should take its place as the major account of a critical aspect of Jefferson’s life.

The question of Jefferson’s relationship to the West touches on the major issues faced by American society in its formative period. As more than one historian has argued (William A. Williams and Richard Drinnon most recently), the American drive for empire rested, in some sense at least, on the Madisonian commitment to an “extended” republic. Moreover, the very universality of the American revolutionary impulse laid the groundwork for the active proselytization of American ways throughout the world but particularly on the new continents. Surely the Americans had not designed their revolution for a cramped and provincial republic clinging to the coastal littoral of a great land mass. What kind of a country the new nation would be was intimately related to the disposition of the Western regions. How it should see itself in the future, whether as the savior of primitive men or the scourge of the pitiable savage, demanded a solution to the uneasy relationship between white and Indian, an issue irrevocably bound up in the American attitude toward the West.

The West attracted Jefferson in a variety of ways. He clearly saw it as a field in which to indulge his scientific bent. And yet he also perceived the commercial advantages to be derived from a post on the Pacific coast and a credible claim to the interior of the continent. As Jackson points out, the contradiction is more apparent than real. Jefferson did not distinguish science from utility. To understand the world in which one lived was to possess the power to manipulate it to one’s advantage. In the deepest sense the plasticity and becomingness of reality was a cardinal principle of Jeffersonian science. It was not surprising, therefore, that Jefferson should have mixed science and commerce in his instructions to Lewis and Clark for their expedition up the Missouri River and across the Stony Mountains. It may indeed be true that references to science assured the European powers with competing interests in the West and that an emphasis on commerce made for smoother progress in Congress, but for Jefferson the distinction presented no serious intellectual problems.

Nor was Jefferson afflicted with profound misgivings concerning the imperial destiny of the new republic. Although he grasped the strategic necessity of American hegemony in the valleys of the Mississippi and Missouri, his plans for the continent rested on a more deeply implanted conviction. He belonged, after all, to the generation that had formed the age of the democratic revolution. The future belonged to a people singularly attached to the values broadcast throughout Europe and America by that great movement. In time he expected the whole hemisphere to be a repository for American principles of society and government. Yet precisely for the universality of his imperial expectations, he avoided narrow nationalism. He was, if anything, an ideological imperialist. The continent and then the hemisphere should someday enjoy the benefits of liberty and would as a consequence always be closely allied to the original American nation, but he saw no need for Madison’s extended republic to stretch to the Pacific and certainly not to Tierra del Fuego. He found it easy to contemplate the development of more than one independent republic on the American continent.

When the moment of fruition came, Jefferson did hesitate just a little. Perhaps it was the other side of the revolutionary drive, the fear of defeat or the provincial implications of the doctrine of the virtuous republic, that made him draw back for a moment. Constitutional scruples over the purchase of Louisiana were important enough, but these could be overcome. Jefferson’s real fears went deeper. It struck him that the acquisition of so much new territory might have serious consequences for the future of the new nation. So much unbridled expansion offended his compulsion for order. He wanted the tidiness, the sense of symmetry and design, that characterized his own life to be realized in the life of the republic. Thus he hoped that the drift of population across the Mississippi could be delayed for a time. In the meanwhile, making a virtue of necessity, he recommended that the native people who clung to their savage ways be encouraged to move to the new acquisition. As a consequence the Indians who remained would be freer to join the ranks of civilized men and Jefferson’s new republic would be relieved of an obstacle to its proper cohesion. But he went even further. He suggested that the French population that had long since spilled onto the west bank of the Mississippi be encouraged to withdraw. Of course none of these things happened. Few of the Indians went west until they were forced to do so 30 years later. The French stayed put. The Americans were quick to follow Lewis and Clark into the Missouri Valley. And Jefferson bought Louisiana and saw to its exploration.

Necessarily the centerpiece of Jackson’s book is the expedition of Lewis and Clark. Jefferson had been assiduous as a promoter and student of exploration. He counseled more than one hopeful wanderer, and he rifled the bookstores of Europe in search of books and maps dealing with America. He may well have been the best informed scholar on either continent on matters dealing with the trans-Mississippi West. Thus before Jefferson’s two Virginia colleagues embarked on their venture, they were exposed to the most up-to-date information then available. They reached their goal and returned, and Jefferson could not but be happy with their accomplishments.

Although he was in many ways the quintessential modern man, Jefferson’s search for knowledge of the uncharted West revealed how dependent he was bound to be on the information and legends bequeathed by past ages. In fact, by reaching the Pacific, his agents Lewis and Clark had fulfilled one of the great quests that had haunted Europeans since Columbus’s discovery turned out to be a New World. They had found the passage to India. In addition the land between the Mississippi and the mountains, as Lewis and Clark described it, fitted all the requirements of the mythic garden that man had long sought throughout the world but particularly on the virgin continent. Jefferson and his colleagues found it easy to ignore information that tended to modify their conviction that the West was the garden of the world. It was more than a decade before news of the great American desert cast doubt on Jeffersonian faith in the hoary legends of the past.

Jefferson’s inclination to place a rosy interpretation on descriptions of the Western regions stemmed, no doubt, from his agrarian proclivities. Even before seeing the cities of Europe, he had expressed a decided preference for the superior virtue of rural America. He had, therefore, a considerable investment in the pastoral dream that played such an important part in the American creation of a self-image. So he found it easy to believe that the lands of the West conformed to the well-worn conception of the middle landscape. In this garden of the West, Americans would possess an ideal setting in which to build their asylum free of the degradation and luxury of European urban existence.

Yet Jefferson was no more credulous than other men of his time who searched for Welsh or Hebrew Indians in the American wilderness (Lewis and Clark thought they might have found descendants of Madoc’s Welshmen in the Nez Percé) or stumbled upon anomalous creatures in their travels. Political opponents made what they could of his supposedly overheated imagination. John Quincy Adams later came to regret his own part in ridiculing the President’s reputed gullibility. No doubt the New York Evening Post exaggerated when it accused Jefferson of belief in the existence of a “lake of molasses” or a “vale of hasty pudding stretching as far as the eye could see” in the newly acquired territory. But Jefferson did hold certain opinions that struck some people as curious. He was convinced of the old tale of the great salt mountain in the West and of the existence of volcanoes. The salt mountain turned out to be a fable, but the volcanoes have become all too real in recent times. And he thought that the mammoth and the megatherium would yet be found. More important, he was convinced that the waters of the Missouri and Columbia were separated by only a short portage and that the Blue Ridge dwarfed the Rockies. Lewis and Clark disabused him of these misconceptions. The portage, they reported, stretched for some 340 miles, 200 on a good road, 140 over high mountains, and 60 miles through deep snow. Jefferson did not trust in other fantasies popular at the time: the existence of fabulous mines of silver and gold (scarcely a fantasy, after all), a mountain of pure crystal, or a river of brine.

Jefferson’s problem was not credulity or an excessive inclination for the bizarre. On the contrary, he was a man of reason and science who searched the world about him for evidences of order. The mammoth and megatherium were cases in point. His conception of nature told him that what once certainly existed continued to exist. If a type could cease to be, then the very order of the universe was in jeopardy. There was nothing unreasonable in instructing Lewis and Clark to search for signs of those mysterious creatures. So also for Jefferson’s geographical deductions. His belief in an easy portage arose in part from the widely accepted canons of symmetrical geography. Order and balance were salient characteristics of nature. Rivers running in one direction would certainly be designed for easy carriage to rivers running in the other. For example, maps of the time frequently recorded the existence of a central pyramid of land in the West from which all the rivers originated, Jefferson might have had an excessive faith in the simplicity of the natural order, but he was no more naive than other learned men of his time.

Jefferson’s real achievements, however, were not to be found in the testimony he could offer concerning the order of nature. Under his guidance Lewis and Clark dispelled much of the mystery of the West, but they also staked a serious American claim on the Pacific. True enough, the passage to India could not become a reality until railroads bound together the two coasts. Nor would the garden prove as immediately fertile as the legend predicted. But in the years succeeding the return of Lewis and Clark the Americans established hegemony over the tribes of the lower Missouri, challenged British control of the interior fur trade, and made their presence known in the Northwest.

Inevitably, Jefferson’s interest in the West involved him in the fate of the native peoples. Jackson offers a sympathetic treatment of Jefferson’s Indian policy. “We must remember,” he writes, “that he was a benevolent man facing an insoluble situation” (p. 217). By the standards of the time Jefferson was indeed benevolent, though it might be argued that that was precisely the problem with his approach to the native peoples. He saw the Indians as one factor among many in a world gradually unfolding toward an improved order of life. The process was inexorable, and if the Indian cooperated Jefferson offered him a future. If he resisted or proved incapable of benefiting from the improvements offered, he would suffer the fate of all outworn cultural artifacts.

Of course the Indians did resist, and Jefferson was merciless (at least rhetorically) in proposing a policy of retaliation. During the Revolution, when the native peoples joined the other side, he wished their extermination. White men implicated in the savage assault on civil life deserved the same. Witness, for example, his treatment of Henry Hamilton, the British lieutenant governor at Detroit, captured by George Rogers Clark and dispatched to Williamsburg while Jefferson held the governorship. Jefferson put him in irons and refused him the usual amenities due a prisoner of war because he had supported the Indians in their attacks on the frontier. For Jefferson, Hamilton’s crime was compounded. He fought to impose tyranny in America, and he did so allied to the savage Indians who had made clear their determination to resist the advance of civilization.

In the years after the Revolution, Jefferson supported a policy designed simultaneously to incorporate Indians into the white man’s society and to facilitate the movement of the frontier. More than once during his administration reports from the field gave evidence that the problem was far more obdurate than he was wont to believe. As a consequence, he proposed an early version of removal and fell into the habit of manipulation and downright chicanery in his treatment of the Indians. But he really never believed that the problem was insoluble. He continued to trust in that extraordinary anthropological paradox that the native people would survive by becoming white men. He possessed no taxonomy of the human condition that would permit Indians to be defined as a separate people with a way of life worthy of preservation. Indians were savages who inhabited an early stage of life that should be transcended as quickly as possible. Jefferson’s benevolence required that he assist in that process. He found support for his position in the major scholarly writings of the time, and nothing happened in his years of dealing with real Indians to undermine his conviction.

Jefferson’s preoccupation with the Indian reveals how important the West loomed in his thinking about America. Certainly Jackson’s vivid narrative makes this point beyond challenge. Though bound to his library and with much of his scholarly life formed by the great writers and thinkers of the Enlightenment, Jefferson’s attention seemed forever drawn to the West. What he knew about science and about the organization of human life made him anticipate an “empire of liberty” which would find its ultimate fulfillment in those uncharted lands toward the Stony Mountains. One could hardly expect him to know that this achievement would spell the ruin of his image of the pastoral garden.


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