Thomas Jefferson acquired an interest
in western exploration early in life. His father Peter was a surveyor,
map maker, and land speculator on the Virginia frontier. Jefferson
spent his childhood in the Blue Ridge Mountains on the western
edge of the Virginia Piedmont. Though he never physically ventured
beyond the Virginia Blue Ridge, Jefferson had a life-long commitment
to supporting western exploration and asserting American claims
to western lands. More than most of his contemporaries, Jefferson
realized that the American West was not an empty wilderness, but
a land crowded by conflicting nations and claims of sovereignty.
Even before holding national office, Jefferson tried on several
occasions to organize expeditions to the west. While president,
Jefferson successfully acquired the Louisiana Territory from France
in 1803 and sent the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1803–1806) on
a mapping and scientific exploration up the Missouri River to
the Pacific. He also sent other expeditions to find the headwaters
of the Red, Arkansas, and Mississippi rivers and to gather scientific
data and information on Native Americans.
In seeking to establish, what he called "an empire for liberty,"
Jefferson influenced the country's policies toward Native Americans
and the extension of slavery into the West. Despite a life-long
interest in Native American culture, President Jefferson advocated
policies that would dislocate Native Americans and their way of
life. In 1784, Jefferson opposed the extension of slavery into
the northwest territory, but he later supported its westward extension
because he feared that any restriction of slavery could lead to
a civil war and an end to the nation. At the end of his presidency,
Jefferson looked forward to a United States that spread across
the entire continent of North America.
Jefferson urges pacific exploration
via Russia in 1786
While serving as American minister to France, Thomas Jefferson
urged John Ledyard (1751-1789) of Connecticut, who had explored
the Pacific with Captain Cook, to seek a Pacific route across
North America by crossing Russia. "I suggested to him the enterprise
of exploring the Western part of our continent by passing thro
St. Petersburg to Kamschatka, and procuring a passage thence in
some of the Russian vessels to Nootka sound, whence he might make
his way across the Continent to America." Ledyard undertook the
journey but was stopped mid-way across Russia by Russian authorities
Assessing the equality of Indians
and African Americans
In this letter, Jefferson offers an additional glimpse into
his struggle to make sense of racial differences and similarities.
As part of his reply to the charges of French scientists that
plant and animal life, including humans, degenerated in America,
Thomas Jefferson asserted: "And I am safe in affirming that the
proofs of genius given by the Indians of N. America, place them
on a level with Whites in the same uncultivated state . . . .
I believe the Indian then to be in body & mind equal to the
whiteman. I have supposed the black man, in his present state,
might not be so; but it would be hazardous to affirm, that, equally
cultivated for a few generations, he would not become so."
Ban on slavery and involuntary
servitude in western territories
Thomas Jefferson drafted the March 1, 1784, Congressional committee
report proposing a ban on slavery and involuntary servitude in
the federal territory. The draft ordinance provided "that after
the year 1800 of the christian æra, there shall be neither
slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the said states, otherwise
than in punishment of crimes . . . ." Although the southern states
in Congress successfully deleted this paragraph in 1784, a similar
prohibition was included in the final ordinance adopted by Congress
Frederick Edwin Church.
The Natural Bridge, Virginia
Copyprint of oil painting.
Courtesy of the Bayly Art Museum, University of Virginia, Charlottesville
Natural Bridge Of Virginia
The Natural Bridge was a unique rock formation in Rockbridge
County, Virginia, which Thomas Jefferson patented with 150 surrounding
acres on July 5, 1774. Jefferson considered the Natural Bridge
"that most sublime of nature's works." Viewed by Jefferson as
the symbolic gateway to the west, the Natural Bridge was about
as far west as Jefferson personally ventured. Although identified
with western expansion and exploration, Jefferson never penetrated
beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
Jefferson names the Western "States"
As a member of Congress, Jefferson developed a plan for the
creation of territories and new states that formed the basis of
the Ordinance of 1784, which accepted the cession of most of Virginia's
old Northwest to the federal government. His original plan envisioned
fourteen states, which he named after Native American and historical
sources. Although most were not used, Michigania did evolve into
Michigan and Illonia became Illinois. Most importantly the ordinance
established the principle that new states would be admitted to
the union on an equal basis with the older states.
Acquisition of Louisiana Territory
In this succinct note to the newly appointed American minister
to France, James Monroe, President Jefferson's outlines his reasons
for acquiring New Orleans. This letter demonstrates that Jefferson's
skillfully voiced arguments for a narrow construction of the constitution
and limited powers of the federal government wavered in the face
of the western states' demands for access to Mississippi ports
and lands. In this instance, the balance shifted toward the proactive,
federal government. His willingness to bend a central principle
resulted in doubling the new country's land mass.
Jefferson's instructions for
Lewis and Clark, June 20, 1803
President Jefferson consulted experts before writing these detailed
instructions to Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) instructing him to
explore the Missouri River basin, conduct scientific and ethnographic
studies, and find a route to the Pacific Ocean. Lewis, his private
secretary and a U.S. army captain, spent months in scientific
studies to prepare for the mission. Significantly, the instructions
were written before Jefferson knew of the final Louisiana Purchase.
Jefferson was particularly concerned that the expedition establish
an American presence among the Native American tribes and secure
their trading and diplomatic loyalties for the United States.
A Journal of the Voyages and Travels
of a Corps of Discovery,
Under the Command of Capt. Lewis
and Capt. Clarke. . . .
Page 1 -
Philadelphia: Matthew Carey, 1812.
Rare Book and Special Collections Division
The Lewis and Clark expedition
These two engravings were added by Matthew Carey of Philadelphia
to the 1812 publication of the journal of Sergeant Patrick Gass
(1771-1870), the first eyewitness accounts of the expedition to
be made public. The pictures were said to depict actual incidents
in the Lewis and Clark journey. Gass's journal first published
in 1807, appeared seven years before the official Lewis and Clark
narrative. Patrick Gass was promoted to sergeant at the death
of Charles Floyd, the only man to die on the expedition.
Lampooning Jefferson for expanding
on the Louisiana Purchase
Thomas Jefferson's plan in 1805 to build on the Louisiana Purchase
by buying West Florida from Spain is lampooned in this cartoon.
Induced by the sting of the hornet Napoleon, Jefferson vomits
gold coins before a dancing Spanish representative holding maps
of East and West Florida and carrying French Minister Charles-Maurice
de Talleyrand's instructions in his pocket. West Florida was captured
by the United States during the War of 1812, and East Florida
was acquired by treaty in 1819 during James Monroe's administration.
Nicholas King map used by
Lewis and Clark
This composite map was prepared by Nicholas King, at the request
of Thomas Jefferson and Albert Gallatin, secretary of the treasury.
It represents the geographical knowledge of the trans-Mississippi
West available to government officials on the eve of the expedition.
It is believed that Lewis and Clark carried this map at least
as far as the Mandan-Hidatsa village in present day North Dakota,
where Lewis added additional information obtained from fur traders
and Native Americans.
Transfer of Louisiana
Formal transfer of Upper Louisiana was made at St. Louis on
March 9, 1804. President Jefferson appointed Capt. Amos Stoddard
(1762-1813) of the United States Artillery as commissioner of
the United States to receive the transfer. This engraving was
done to commemorate the centennial of that event.
Jefferson collects and loses
Jefferson began his pioneering efforts to collect standardized
vocabulary lists on Indians in 1780 and wanted to trace their
origins through comparative linguistics. By 1809 Jefferson had
collected several dozen lists which were stolen and almost totally
destroyed while being transported from the President's House to
Monticello. Jefferson sent the surviving fragments to the American
Philosophical Society in 1809. Peter Du Ponceau (1760-1844), a
scientist who shared an interest in Indian vocabularies, sent
Jefferson this information on the Nottoway & Iroquois idioms.
Jefferson expresses concern
Thomas Jefferson warned John Adams in this letter that despite
the progress of some Indian Nations, such as the Cherokee, to
adopt representative government, many Native Americans "will relapse
into barbarism & misery, lose numbers by war & want, and
we shall be obliged to drive them, with the beasts of the forest
into the Stony mountains." In a previous August 28, 1807 letter
to his Secretary of War Henry Dearborn, Jefferson stated "if ever
we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will
never lay it down till that tribe is exterminated, or driven beyond
Extension of Slavery is
"like a fire bell in the night"
In this letter Jefferson voiced the fears of many Americans
that conflicting views of states' rights, slavery, westward expansion,
and the powers of the federal government had brought the United
States to the verge of civil war. Despite the Missouri Compromise
of 1820, which allowed Missouri to enter the Union as a slave
state, the intransigent nature of these explosive issues proved
Jefferson to be prophetic. "This momentous question, like a fire
bell in the night, awakened and filled one with terror, I considered
it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for
the moment. but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence
. . . we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him
nor safely let him go."
"an empire for liberty"
Outgoing president, Thomas Jefferson, offered some expansionist
advice to incoming president, James Madison. Jefferson believed
that expansion of the American republic throughout the continent
would be possible because European powers would be preoccupied
with warring against each other: "we should then have only to
include the north [Canada] in our confederacy, which would be
of course in the first war, and we should have such an empire
for liberty as she has never surveyed since the creation: &
I am persuaded no constitution was ever before so well calculated
as ours for extensive empire & self-government."
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