A Gasconade

Here is the context in which President Jefferson made the extravagant prediction quoted by Dr. Fritz in the last section of his A Synopsis" of the history of the Lewis and Clark Expedition:

Let us, then, with courage and confidence pursue our own Federal and Republican principles, our attachment to union and representative government. Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe [the then-warring powers of Europe]; too high-minded to endure the degradations of the others; possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants, to the thousandth and thousandth generation."1

For the purpose of time measurement today, the term "generation," which denotes the interval of time between the birth of parents and the birth of their children, is considered to be thirty years, but Jefferson himself defined a generation as nineteen years. If we interpret Jefferson's phrase, "thousandth and thousandth" to mean two thousand years, then he was saying that "our chosen country" would not be filled for 38,000 years! We cannot be sure whether he was referring to the land encompassed by the United States at that moment, or anticipating his country's eventual occupancy of the continent all the way to the Pacific. In either case, this rhetorical flourish must have sounded, even then, like a boastful exaggeration–a gasconade.2 At the time of the expedition's bicentennial observance, the U.S. was about halfway through Jefferson's tenth generation.

1. First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801, in Merrill D. Peterson, ed., Thomas Jefferson: Writings (New York: Literary Classics of theUnited States, Inc., 1984), 493–94.

2. Not to be confused with the Gasconade River in Missouri, which was named by French explorers, reportedly because it reminded some of them of the pre-Revolutionary province of Gascogne on the Atlantic coast at the boundary between France and Spain, now the region known as Gascony. Lewis's description of the stream in his treatise on "Affluents of the Missouri River" (Moulton, Journals, 3:338), concludes with a different definition: "at it's entrance it is 157 yards wide, but is much narrower a little distance up, and is not navigable, (hence the name gasconade)." The Corps of Discovery camped opposite the mouth of the Gasconade River on May 26, 1804.