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Why did Thomas Jefferson want the west?

Stephen Ambrose
Stephen Ambrose

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Well, he didn’t want it for his generation. The first thing you gotta remember about life at the turn, into the 19th century, is that nothing moved faster than the speed of a horse. So that the distance in North America, even to the Mississippi River, were so great that it was very hard to imagine how you were ever going to incorporate Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, into the United States of America. There was a very real possibility that those nations west of the Appalachian chain... there was a very real possibility that those states beyond the Appalachian chain would have to secede from the United States and form a separate nation that would allow them access to New Orleans which was the only way out to the world for them. So in that circumstance, why did Jefferson want Louisiana? Because he had a great mind. And because he was an empire builder, and because he was a Virginia planter. And Virginia planters were extraordinarily wasteful people. They would go into, it was almost (tight air?) country that Jefferson grew up in. And they would go into as yet uncultivated areas, gird the trees, plow around them, plant tobacco, after three years, move on to another field, using what they had the most of, labor, slave labor. And land. To create a crop, tobacco, that did no good and a lot of harm, and then move on. Those, those, those Virginia planters could never have enough land. George Washington owned hundreds of thousands of acres and he wanted more. Jefferson was not a great landowner by Virginia standards, but he still had thousands and thousands and thousands of acres and he wanted more. And they were always dreaming of more land. So number one, Jefferson wanted land. Number two, Jefferson had a mind that encompassed the continent and he envisioned the creation of a great nation that would stretch from sea to sea, that would be bound together by a political concept, not by geography. That would be bound together by a political concept, not by commerce. The commerce was gonna go down in New Orleans. They couldn’t imagine a train, or an automobile, or a truck. But it would be bound together by a political idea, the idea of liberty. And he wanted to spread that liberty all the way out to the West Coast and make this one great nation, joined together by democratic principals as expressed in his Northwest Ordinance, which was, I think, one of his greatest of many gifts to the American people.

Did Jefferson have a dream for the West?

Jim Ronda
Jim Ronda

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You know the great American folk poet, Woody Guthrie, has a line about that in his song, Roll on Columbia, Guthrie said, “Tom Jefferson’s vision would not let him rest. An empire he saw in the Pacific Northwest sent Lewis and Clark and they did the rest. Roll on Columbia, roll on.” That’s a wonderfully simple way to talk about Jefferson’s ideas for the American West. When in fact, those ideas were really very complex. The French foreign minister, Tallyrand, once said that America had an empire of circumstances, an empire of accidents. And so, on one hand, you could say that Jefferson was drawn to the West by a series of accidents, by a series of circumstances. After all, Thomas Jefferson was so much a man of the Atlantic. By character, by temperament and by education. He was a man who really looked to the East and not to the West. And yet in the 1780’s and 1790’s, things kept shoving the West in front of him. Second hand news about the Canadians in the West. Fear about French or Spanish incursions into the West. Those were the circumstances, the accidents, that Tallyrand was talking about that seemed to draw Jefferson’s attention toward the West. So, on one hand, it sounds as though Tallyrand was right. Jefferson’s interest in the West was really the result of some accidents, some circumstances. But, you know, Dayton, on on second thought, that isn’t quite right either. Because there were some other things that were going on. And here we need to think about the ideas.

Thomas Jefferson made the expedition happen. What was his interest in the West?

Dayton Duncan
Dayton Duncan

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The Lewis and Clark expedition begins in the mind of Thomas Jefferson. From the very, for a long time he’d been fascinated by stories of the West. Like many Enlightenment people, he wanted to learn more. I mean, he was insatiable for knowledge, and he wanted to know what was out there farther west. He tried three times before he was president to mount expeditions, American expeditions, to cross the continent, to find a northwest passage. And once he became president, he could finally accomplish it.
 
 

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What were his misconceptions about the West?
Well, it’s odd. I mean, here’s Jefferson, one of the smartest men of any age. He had, his library had more books about the West than any library in the world. And yet, what did those books tell him? They told him that there might be woolly mammoths wandering in the West. That there were mountains made out of salt. The volcanoes erupting. That there were Indians who had blue eyes and spoke a Welsh language. I mean, the West was a rumor, it wasn’t a fact in Jefferson’s mind, or in the mind of Europeans at that time.
 

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