Lewis's Birthday Meditation

Lewis's journal entry for 18 August 1805, opened on a new phase in the Corps of Discovery's odyssey. It began with Clark's departure that morning to explore the headwaters of the Columbia, while Lewis began preparations for portaging the Corps' baggage across the "dividing ridge" from Camp Fortuate into the valley that the Sacagawea's people, the Shoshones, called home. Drouillard shot a deer; another man trapped a beaver; a net was set to catch some trout. Lewis's pen then abruptly moved on into a 164-word meditation that has challenged students of the expedition since 1893, when Elliott Coues first quoted it in a footnote to Nicholas Biddle's paraphrase of the journals (1814), from which the editor himself, perhaps unable to make sense of it, had omitted it.

This day I completed my thirty first year, and conceived that I had in all human probability now existed about half the period which I am to remain in this Sublunary world. I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little indeed, to further the hapiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation. I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and now soarly feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended. but since they are past and cannot be recalled, I dash from me the gloomy thought and resolved in future, to redouble my exertions and at least indeavour to promote those two primary objects of human existance, by giving them the aid of that portion of talents which nature and fortune have bestoed on me; or in future, to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself.

Coues read this in the light of historical hindsight as a "sadly interesting passage, . . . when we remember how near the young nobleman was to his tragic end."1 The same general interpretation has largely prevailed ever since. It has been remembered as "the most gloomy self-examination of the entire journal," and "a passage of unreasonable melancholy," of poignant sadness and self-doubt.2 But there is nothing in Lewis's words that links them directly with his suicide.

It is true that, faced with the certainty of the expedition's collapse without the Shoshones' help, he had recently acted with a conspicuous lack of probity in his dealings with them. At Cameahwait's village on the fourteenth and fifteenth of August, 1805, he had won the young chief's loyalty and promise of assistance by assuring him that white traders would soon arrive to sell them the guns they needed. Then, back at the forks of the Jefferson on the sixteenth, with Clark and his party nowhere in sight or earshot, and with the Indians' resolve beginning to weaken, he had duped them into waiting a little longer for Clark and his contingent to appear. He did so by taking advantage of their unfamiliarity with pencil, paper, or written words. He faked a long-distance communication, ostensibly between himself and Clark. Invoking Indian jargon via Drouillard's eloquent signing, he referred to Clark as "my brother Chief." He sent Drouillard and a Shoshone volunteer to retrieve the note he had left for Clark on a stake by the river, then proceeded to "read it" to Cameahwait and his followers as if it were Clark's answer, improvising it on the fly. Clark was "just below the mountains and was coming on slowly up," he related. Moreover, Lewis continued, if the Shoshone chief didn't believe the message was from him, Lewis should send one of his own men, with an Indian as a witness, down the river to meet him.

Still, some of the Shoshones were restive, and didn't hesitate to say so. Several complained that Cameahwait was "exposing them to danger unnecessarily," and that the white men had "told different stories." Lewis slept fitfully that night, but it all worked out perfectly when the Corps was reunited at noon the next day. He confided to his journal that his ruse using the written messages "set a little awkward" on his mind, but there is nothing in his birthday rumination to suggest that his dishonesty had hurled him into a pit of depression. That might have come up again much later, as our missteps sometimes do. On the contrary, within the fleeting moments of introspection encompassed by the short but intense paragraph he would pen on the 18th, two days later, he was completely detached from his surroundings.

The tone and diction of Lewis's paragraph are totally inconsistent with anything else in that day's events either, nor even with any experiences he had undergone up to that time during the expedition. Nothing in the orders he had received from his Commander-in-Chief explicitly declared that his mission was "to further the happiness of the human race," even though his day-to-day work as an explorer and naturalist would certainly "advance the information of the succeding generation." Moreover, it is a common human impulse to reflect upon the implications of reaching life's midpoint, but Lewis gave no hint that he was in dread of his future. On the surface, at least, he was energized by its possibilities. Even if the inexplicable lapses in his journal-keeping were the results of profound and extended periods of depression, as has been suggested, a vow "to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself" would hardly have helped that condition.

To the objective and sympathetic reader, Lewis's birthday meditation doesn't sound like a plaint of self-pity or an anguished lamentation. Even though it might have been inspired by an emotional reaction to his recent experiences among the Shoshones, it reads more like a well-rehearsed script drawn from memory, one that he has used before to regain control of himself. A close study of the rest of his journals shows that every time Lewis confronted a crisis, a major disappointment, a temporary frustration, or a momentary danger, he followed this very formula: He wrote down what was troubling him, accepted it with self-assurance or, at the least, resignation,3 and finally took action. In this instance, faced with a premature midlife crisis, he repeats a declaration he has learned by heart: He confesses his misspent moments, then applies one of his typical strategies – "I dash from me the gloomy thought" – and resolves to commit himself thenceforth to empathy and altruism. Any modern psychotherapist will recognize in it a prescription for good mental health: Put the past in perspective; make plans for the future; live in the present.

In other words, this eloquent soliloquy can be read as a Deist's trope on the Golden Rule or the Serenity Prayer, or as a moralism from Poor Richard's Almanac. It reflects not weakness but nobility, not despair but strength. It is a testament to the very qualities that Thomas Jefferson wrote of in his obituary. Meriwether Lewis, he said, was a man "of courage undaunted, possessing a firmness and perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from it's direction." Lewis was persevering.

It has been said that the paragraph reflects Lewis's background in Freemasonry. According to Eldon Chuinard it "fits well with the Masonic ritual that Lewis had many times recited in his lodge work."4 Initiated into the order 1797, Lewis rose to the degree of Royal Arch Mason by late 1799, and two years after the expedition ended he was instrumental in establishing the first Masonic Lodge in St. Louis. A summary of the history and purposes of the fellowship published about the time he joined the order explained that above all, Freemasonry taught its members to "practise benevolence and charity; for by these virtues, masons have been distinguished in every age and country."5 Perhaps those are the "two primary objects of human existance" referred to in that long and murky final sentence of his. However, historians of the fraternity have thus far been unable to find any literal correspondences between Masonic ritual and Lewis's phraseology in his birthday soliloquy.6

Tragically, Lewis lost touch with his old creed of forebearance, steadfastness, and action sometime within the three years between the end of expedition and his death by his own hand during the night of October 10, 1809. For some reason or other his lifeline unraveled and then, wrote the editor of the newspaper in nearby Nashville, Tennessee, "In the death of Governor Lewis the public behold the wreck of one of the noblest men."


1. Elliott Coues, ed., History of the Expedition under the Command of Lewis and Clark, . . . (1893. Reprint, 3 vols., New York: Dover Publications, 1965), 2:513n.

2. Respectively: Albert Furtwangler, Acts of Discovery: Visions of America in the Lewis and Clark Journals (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 131; James R. Fazio, Across the Snowy Ranges: The Lewis and Clark Expedition in Idaho and Western Montana (Moscow, Idaho: Woodland Press, 2001), 23; Dayton Duncan, Scenes of Visionary Enchantment (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), 104. Stephen Ambrose took a more objective view in Undaunted Courage . . . (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 279-80.

3. On at least two occasions during the expedition Lewis resolved problems by consigning their outcomes to "the chapter of accidents." The expression came from a sentence in a popular book by the British memoirist Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773). Lord Chesterfield wrote to a friend in 1753 in reference to his own growing deafness: "The chapter of knowledge is a very short, but the chapter of accidents is a very long one. I will keep dipping in it, for sometimes a concurrence of unknown and unforeseen circumstances, in the medicine and the disease, may produce an unexpected and lucky hit." Lewis, however, used the aphorism more often in connection with a near calamity than with a "lucky hit." John Bradshaw, ed., The Letters of Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, 3 vols., (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1892), 3:1054.

4. Eldon G. Chuinard, "Lewis and Clark: Master Masons," We Proceeded On, Vol. 15, No. 1 (February 1989), 19. Chuinard implied that their naming of a tributary (now the Big Hole) of Jefferson's River the Wisdom River reflected Lewis's Masonic background. That may be true coincidentally, but Lewis himself wrote, on August 6, 1805, that they named two forks of "River Jefferson" Wisdom and Philanthropy, respectively, "in commemoration of two of those cardinal virtues, which have so eminently marked that deservedly selibrated character through life." Lewis might not have admitted that Freemasonry was on his mind, but those two words, which are thematic throughout Masonic history and ritual, were certainly on the tip of his tongue.

5. Thomas Smith Webb (1771–1819) The Freemason's Monitor; or, Illustrations of Masonry (In Two Parts; Albany, New York, 1797), 10, 21–22.

6. Marie M. Barnett, Librarian, Grand Lodge of Virginia, Allen E. Roberts Masonic Library and Museum of Virginia, Inc. Personal communication, December 16, 2002.


Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Committee for the Humanities.