In 1804 Lewis and Clark went up the Missouri River in a fifty-five foot flatboat and two canoes. The boat held twenty-one bales of gifts for the Indiansbeads, ribbons, mirrors, cooking pots, and tools. They moved slowlymapping, exploring and hunting as they went. It was dangerous country, with unexpectedly high mountains, difficult deserts, fierce animals, and suspicious Indians. Lewis and Clark had prepared for danger, but they weren't prepared for the beauty: for the colors of wildflowers or the brilliance of sunsets on snowy mountain peaks. At the Great Falls of the Missouri, Lewis paused to write. "I saw the spray arise like a column of smoke.... [The] projecting rocks below receive the water in its passage down, and break it into a perfect white foam which assumes a thousand forms."
They were awed by the towering Rocky Mountains, made cautious by the rattlesnakes, bears, and mountain lions, and stunned by the endless herds of buffalo. President Jefferson had asked them to take careful notes . He wrote, "Other objects worthy of notice will be: ... the animals of the country generally, ... volcanic appearances, climate, the winds prevailing at different seasons."
Lewis and Clark saw a world that would soon be gone . They saw birds and animals no white men had seen before. They dug up the bones of a forty-five-foot dinosaur. They added two hundred species to the world's list of known plants. They learned from the Native Americans how to use some of those plants as medicines and foods. They established friendships with Indians and prepared for trade with them.
America was born of an idea and a dream. The dream was of a paradise: a land of great beauty that would be a place of freedom and justice for all. For the first time in the history of the western world, ordinary people's prosperity and happiness had become the stated goal of society and government .
But America was to be both dream and nightmare. The Founders were unable to abolish slavery, and it was the opposite of liberty and equality. How could there be slavery in the land of the free? Ending that paradox would be the most important battle in all of our history.
Those Founders never suggested that good, fair government would be easy to achieve. They had set a splendid goal: liberty and justice for all. They wrote an extraordinary plan of government; a constitution better than any known before. Now the nation as a whole was being tested. Never before had a large, diverse nation tried to offer all its citizens freedom and equality. It wasn't going to be easybut Americans would keep working toward that goal of justice for all.