Stephen E. Ambrose.
Undaunted courage : Meriwether Lewis, Thomas
and the opening of the American West
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.
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 publishedUndaunted
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
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
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),
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: http://www.pbs.org/lewisandclark/
Satchell, M. (1998 December). Historian's corps of discovery.
U.S. News & World Reports, 125(2), 57.