Captain Meriwether Lewis

"Lewis and Clark." Everyone's heard of them, especially recently due to the present Bicentennial of their famous expedition. Some people know lots about what they did. But, not many people know Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark well as unique individuals. I'll try to draw a clearer picture of Captain Lewis here.

Together with their small party between 1803 and 1806, Lewis and Clark did what none had done before. They were the first people to travel from the United States overland, and often by river, all the way to the Pacific and back. Along the way, they made copious notes on everything of possible interest to President Jefferson and the outside world, losing one man (of just under fifty) due to illness in the process. They took the first tangible steps extending Thomas Jefferson's vision of an "Empire of Liberty" all the way to the west coast.

Perhaps you don't believe this country is an "Empire of Liberty" today. That's a matter of personal opinion, values and knowledge (or ignorance). To the extent it's not, it's due to our own choices as citizens, built upon the progressive loss of vision in that dream by American citizens over the past two centuries. Lewis and Clark were believers in that vision. Let's look at Lewis' version of it.

Meriwether Lewis was a person with many strengths and some weaknesses. That certainly puts him in good company. He was a Jeffersonian if ever there was one. Growing up a neighbor of Thomas Jefferson's in Albemarle County, Virginia, Lewis became President Jefferson's personal secretary after the "bloodless revolution of 1800," living in the President's House (now called the White House). Lewis was among the handful of people who knew Thomas Jefferson best. He believed, like Jefferson, in the virtue of a democratic republic, one where citizens understand life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and have the courage and energy to act to defend and extend those things.

Along with his mentor and friend, Lewis opposed a powerful highly centralized government run by and benefiting a small aristocratic elite, which was, by contrast, the preference and goal of Federalists such as Alexander Hamilton. Rather Captain Lewis believed that power should remain diffused among citizens more broadly where it originated and where it belonged.

He was so attached to the original republican idea that, in the French style, he wrote his mother as "Cittizen Lucy Markes." (Spelling was not his forte.) One of his first duties as Jefferson's secretary was to identify for President Jefferson officers in the United States Army with strong Federalist inclinations. The Army had been packed with such men by the two previous Federalist administrations. The standing (regular) army was far too large and that tree needed to be pruned.

When Lewis opened the west for "these" (as opposed to "the") United States he was not doing so in behalf of some typically European-type land grab. He actually believed, with Jefferson, that he was working to extend the reach of liberty to those areas that might otherwise have fallen into the hands of one of the European monarchies very interested in the area between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean.

Meriwether Lewis was a hero. He was a true republican in the best sense of that term. Sadly, if he is remembered at all today, it's usually as a guy in a leather outfit on a camping trip fighting grizzly bears.

January 23, 2004