Book Review



Stephen E. Ambrose.


Undaunted courage : Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson,
and the opening of the American West




New York


New York : Simon & Schuster


Lewis, Meriwether, 1774-1809.
Clark, William, 1770-1838.
Jefferson, Thomas, 1743-1826.
Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806)
Explorers -- United States -- Biography.


0684811073 (hc)

Chong Ho Yu, Ph.D.

mbrose's Undaunted Courage is a book that is a product of careful research that spans across two decades. It is admirable that Ambrose's research endeavor includes not only literature review, but also on-site observations by retracing the route of the expedition. Since 1976, Ambrose has spent many of his summers retracing Lewis and Clark's route from St. Louis to the river's source at Three Forks. After twenty years, he published Undaunted Courage with first hand experience of the geographical information (Satchell, 1998). Ambrose said that he wrote the book with the hope to inspire readers to explore the route for themselves. Indeed, park services along the route reported that tourism increased as much as fifteen percent after the book was published (Ambrose, 1996).

Although his research on historical facts is flawless, some of his views are debatable. For example, he described the death of Lewis as a suicide whereas other scholars suspected murder (e.g. Bakeless, 1947). This review concentrates on the following two issues: Does Lewis deserve more credit than Clark? What is the motive of Jefferson's deploying the expedition?

The role of Lewis and Clark

The subtitle of Undaunted Courage is Meriweather Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the opening of the America West. As the subtitle implies, more attention is given to Lewis than Clark despite the expedition being commonly known as the "Lewis and Clark expedition." As a matter of fact, the expeditionís point of view centers around Lewis even though Lewis and Clark were both captains and shared commands and responsibilities. In an interview by Economist (1996), Ambrose asserted that the charisma of Lewis and Clark's expedition is that of heroism. According to Ambrose, Americans are yearning for a hero and a sense of national unity. Lewis is the kind of figure that appeals today. He was a genuine hero with serious character flaws: a drug addict, an alcoholic, and a land speculator who went bankrupt.

Contradictingly,, several other scholars regarded both Lewis and Clark as heroes and capable explorers. According to Kreyche (1998), Lewis and Clark were complementary to each other. Although both were leaders with strict discipline, Lewis was somewhat aloof; Clark was more the extrovert and father figure. Lewis had great scientific interests in flora, fauna, and minerals, and Clark's surveying and engineering skills fit well with the demands of the expedition. While Lewis tended to view Indians as savages, Clark considered the Indian a full member of the human race and a child of nature.

In Bakeless's view (1947), Lewis and Clark were equally qualified in many areas: both were professional soldiers, both served in the Indian Wars of the Northwestern frontier, both were trained in the same field, both fully embraced the principles of democracy introduced by Thomas Jefferson, and both had the respect for authority and disciplines. However, after the expedition, Lewis failed in his personal and career lives while Clark succeeded in both areas. This was because of their individual characters instead of their training. Indeed, Lewis realized his character weaknesses and thus he chose Clark as his co-commander to supplement the leadership with the qualities that Clark possessed to a high degree.

Bakeless's perspective is concurred by Heat-Moon and Duncan (cited in Public Broadcasting System, 2000). Heat-Moon viewed Clark as the rod in the spine of Lewis. It was Clark's force of personality to deal with all team members who were not formally educated. Duncan went even further to assert that deep down in Lewis' heart, he knew that he could not complete the expedition without Clark.

Taken all of the above facts and opinions into consideration, it is difficult to understand why Clark isn't a central figure in Ambrose's book. The rationale that Lewis is a heroic figure that appeals today is also unjustified. Like Columbus, Lewis was a great explorer but a bad politician. To many people, including myself, a great hero should be a person who could manage different situations. No doubt Clark is a better role model.

Perhaps one may argue that Lewis's accomplishment is noteworthy given that he had so many character flaws. His achievement conveys an encouraging message that people with serious character flaws can still contribute to society. However, looking upon Lewis as an example might lead to negative effects. In recent years American politics have been flooded with scandals. Some people stated that personal life and professional life should be distinguished from each other. Lewis, who had character flaws, Schindler, who was a womanizer, and Jefferson, who allegedly had a sexual relationship with a Black slave, were cited as examples to support the preceding notion. In my view, people should be encouraged to overcome character weaknesses instead of using accomplishment as compensation.

The motive of the expedition

According to Ambrose, Thomas Jefferson was an empire builder. His background as a planter drove him to absorb as many lands as possible. George Washington owned hundreds of thousands of acres and he still wanted more. Jefferson was not a great landowner by Virginia standards, but he owned a lot and expected more. Driven by this empire-building mentality, Jefferson sent the expedition team to encompass the continent stretching from sea to sea.

Another expert on Lewis and Clark expedition, Jim Ronda (2000) holds a slightly different analysis. He cited the French foreign minister, Tallyrand to support his view that America is an empire of circumstances and accidents. One could say that Jefferson was drawn to the West by a series of accidents and circumstances. Jefferson was a man of the Atlantic rather than pacific. At first he was interested in developing the East instead of the West, but yet in the 1780's and 90's things kept happening to draw his attention to the West such as the news about Canadians in the West and the transfer of Louisiana from Spain to French.

In my view, the underlying motive of the expedition is beyond an imperialistic frame of mind and reactions to accidents. Even if there were no commercial values in the western lands, and there were no clear and present threats pressed by Spanish and French, the expedition would still happen. It is because the spirit of exploration is within the deeper root of the American culture. As Ronda said, one of the ways to understand American history is to think about the US history as a series of journeys. Americans are forever going somewhere (cited in Public Broadcasting System, 2000).

Boorstin (1994) compared Lewis and Clark expedition to the lunar landing; it was a replay of the spirit of the westward expedition that built the nation. At first glance the comparison is strange. Lewis and Clark looked for a Northwest Passage and a trade relationship with Indians whereas lunar landing does not seem to bring us any practical values. In actuality, both expeditions share a common thread: exploration for the sake of exploration. It is highly possible that Jefferson might have sent a team to study the west regardless of its practical values. Jefferson is considered one of the smartest men of any age. At that time his library had more books about the West than any library in the world. However, those books are full of rumors and misconceptions about the west. For example, they alleged that there might be woolly mammoths in the West, mountains made of salt, and Indians who had blue eyes and spoke a Welsh language. Jefferson, as a well-educated man, might be highly interested in debunking these myths. Thus, one should not downplay curiosity as a motive of the expedition.

Lessons from the expedition

A 1984 poll indicated that most American historians chose Lewis and Clark's expedition as the single event that they would have liked to witness (cited in Adler, 1997). Why does this historical event attract so much enthusiasm? Ronda argued that sometimes it is hard to understand why the expedition is so important. Lewis and Clark didn't start the fur trade. They didn't pioneer a route that other overland immigrants would use. They didn't provide the legal framework for an American claim to the Pacific Northwest. Ronda contended that the charisma of the expedition is about the spirit of journey: Life is a journey and all of us are members of the Corps of Discovery. To me, the spirit of journey, instead of heroism, makes Ambrose's book inspiring.

In Ambrose's book, the expedition team was portrayed as a cohesive group. On several occasions, team members even risked their own lives to help each other. In an interview by Public Broadcasting System (2000), Ambrose asserted that the number one story of the expedition is teamwork: There is nothing that people cannot do if they get together and act as a team. The most fascinating aspect of the team is its diversity. The team is composed of white soldiers, an Indian girl, and a Black slave. It is true that racial equality did not exist at that time. When Lewis listed all the men who had been to the Pacific and back, The Black slave, York, was excluded. After the expedition, York could not earn his freedom in spite of his contribution. Nevertheless, the diversity of the team projects the subsequent ideal of American exploration. To Americans, exploration is not only going where no one has gone before, but also going hand in hand together. In the late 1960s, the TV series "Star Trek" continued the Lewis and Clark tradition by introducing a team of space explorers that includes an Asian, a Black woman, a Russian, and a Vulcan. As Ambrose said, teamwork is the number one lesson that we should learn from the expedition.


Adler, J. (1997 November 3). The civil warriors. Newsweek, 130(18), 73.

Ambrose, S. (1996 August 26). On the trail of Lewis and Clark. Newsweek, 128(9), 46-47.

Bakeless, J. (1947). Lewis and Clark: Partners in discovery. New York: William Morrow & Co.

Boorstin, D. J. (1994 July 11). Expeditions of the human spirit. U.S. News & World Reports, 117(2), 61.

Economist (1996 July 27). The West as it was. The Author, 340(7976), 72-75.

Kreyche, G. (1998 January). Lewis and Clark. USA Today Magazine, 126(2632), 46-51.

Public Broadcasting System (2000). PBS online: Lewis and Clark. [On-line] Available:

Satchell, M. (1998 December). Historian's corps of discovery. U.S. News & World Reports, 125(2), 57.



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