The legacy and success of an American President often comes from a dream of American greatness accompanied by the determination to do whatever it takes to make that dream a reality.
This was certainly the case when, on January 18, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson requested from Congress just $2500 to finance a “survey” of western territories. Jefferson asked for a rather paltry sum from Congress to gain “approval” for what he knew would be an exploration on a far bigger scale than he was willing to admit – and for which he knew would cost over $50,000 to pay the expenses of what became known as the Lewis & Clark Expedition.
In fact, Jefferson had essentially told Meriwether Lewis that he had a blank check to purchase whatever he needed to make the expedition a success. As Lewis and his co-captain William Clark explored the vast western territories, all Lewis had to do was get supplies he needed from merchants or traders along the way and tell them to send the bill to President Jefferson’s office in Washington for full payment by the U.S. government.
So, whether Lewis needed a specially made boat, whiskey for his Corps of Discovery explorers, boots, blankets or guns – he simply picked up what he need and sent the bill back to Washington to be paid.
While some might say this was “abuse of executive power” and certainly Jefferson was misleading Congress, when it came to his own strategic goals for America, the President set aside his qualms to ensure the success of his dreams of western expansion.
Jefferson had long been fearful that his predecessors, Washington and Adams, might abuse executive privilege but, as often is the case, once he himself was elected to the Presidency, Jefferson used decisive action to “go around” Congress in order to achieve his agenda.
Long fascinated by science, Jefferson referred to the team assembled by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark as the Corps of Discovery. Jefferson charged the Corps with far more than just surveying or mapping out their travels but to scientifically record all that they would see and to collect, preserve and send back to Jefferson samples of soil, plants, and animals – both alive, if possible, or preserved in such a way that scientists in Washington and Philadelphia could study the new species. In addition, Lewis arranged several times for Native Americans to travel to Washington to meet with Jefferson. When Lewis found a tribal leader willing to make a journey to meet with President Jefferson, it would be not only a costly endeavor but also require that one or more of the members of the Corps of Discovery would need to accompany the tribal members on a difficult journey.
To Jefferson, however, the danger faced by the leaders and members of the Lewis & Clark Expedition was well worth the cost and the risk of life – and in Jefferson’s eyes, worth his deceiving Congress. The West which had been claimed by both Spain and France spanned thousands of miles from what is now North Dakota to present-day Texas at the Gulf of Mexico. The Corps of Discovery were charged with exploring a possible navigable water route to the Pacific which, in Jefferson’s dreams, could lead to America one day expanding it’s holdings to the West over the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific to provide America with an unequaled route to expand trade and to encourage American settlement.
Jefferson proposed his wildly under-funded survey expedition to Congress and won their approval and selected his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to be its leader. Once Jefferson had Congressional approval, Lewis and his good friend, William Clark, were quickly underway selecting team members and purchasing supplies for their expedition. Jefferson had already mentored young Meriwether Lewis and enabled him to receive special tutoring in science and scientific methods to provide him with the skills he would need as he traveled into the territories to collect scientific data.
In a stroke of good luck, Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, offered Jefferson just what the American President had dreamed of – the opportunity to purchase all of France’s land west of the Mississippi in what become known as the Louisiana Purchase. While Napoleon had once hoped to establish a tighter hold on “Louisiana” which encompassed all of the territory west and north of New Orleans), Napoleon was too cash strapped from fighting wars on European fronts to send troops to America to battle the settlers who were moving unlawfully into the wide open spaces of the West. In a practical move, Napoleon decided to offer to sell France’s America territories to America and President Jefferson was an eager and willing buyer.
Jefferson’s dream and vision of an America stretching from “sea to shining sea” was soon to be realized but it took some luck, some deception, and the amazing courage of the Corps of Discovery to make that dream come true.