I don’t know how many of you can relate, but there’s nothing I enjoy more than absently browsing around a bookstore. If you can sympathize, surely you’ve noticed that every bookstore in America seems to have a copy of Stephen Ambrose’s, Undaunted Courage nestled somewhere amongst the stacks. I don’t think I’ve even been in the history section of a Barnes & Noble or Books-a-Million and not seen it (along with Jared Diamond’s, Guns, Germs & Steel and everything David McCullough ever wrote).
Despite the book’s ubiquity, I’d never read it until last month. Now I understand the popularity. What a terrific read. History as it should be written - well paced, informative and captivating. Moreover, the late Stephen Ambrose was a man with a real love of country. That love bleeds through the pages and you can’t help but notice how excited and proud he is to share the story of the the Lewis & Clark expedition with his reader. It’s a great story to tell because it exemplifies the best of our nation. I suspect this is why the Lewis & Clark expedition continues to hold a place in popular imagination; a true tale of courage, enterprise, resourcefulness, imagination and (I’ll just say it) undauntedly kick-ass Americans.
The Lewis & Clark expedition was the moon landing of its day. In 1803, Thomas Jefferson acquired the Louisiana Territory from France and enlisted his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis (a young army veteran), to lead a westward expedition aimed at exploring the newly acquired lands and locating the elusive Northwest Passage; the mythical and long sought after all-water route to the Pacific. Lewis brought aboard a co-captain, William Clark, and they cobbled together a band of roughhewn frontiersmen, trappers, soldiers and adventurers who would ultimately set off on a two-and-a-half year, 4,000 mile long journey.
These guys had more balls than a 24-hour driving range - and I include Sacagawea in this praise. She may well have been the toughest of the bunch. Sacagawea was the expedition’s lone female member and a Shoshone Indian who frequently served as a guide and interpreter. I was fascinated to learn that she traveled with Lewis & Clark from the Dakotas to the Pacific and back again, all the while carrying a newborn baby alongside her.
Think about that for a moment, then a moment longer. Amazing.
Over the course of the book, you can’t help but be impressed by Meriwether Lewis, both for his qualities of leadership and for the personal issues he had to overcome, for if Meriwether Lewis were alive today he would undoubtedly be diagnosed as a depressive. Tragically, he lived in an age during which medical science was unable to treat this disorder and he would ultimately take his own life. During the extraordinary expedition which would come to define his career, however, Lewis was able to not only preserver, but excel. Ambrose is rightly effusive in his praise.
To my mind however, the most captivating observation about the expedition lies in its origins and ultimate purpose. Back in 1787, some sixteen years prior to the great trek, Thomas Jefferson had been the among the chief craftsmen of the Northwest Ordinance - a truly revolutionary document. I’ll let Ambrose tell you why this is important,
The same basic rules would come to apply to all the territories of the west as the nation expanded toward the Pacific. The Lewis & Clark expedition’s great accomplishment was ultimately inaugurating the birth of an American empire - but not one built on colonies and resource extraction as had long been the European model. Instead it would be based upon the admission of equal states, the granting of full citizenship and rule of law.
America at its best.