Clark's Commission

"President Jefferson instructed Meriwether Lewis to
watch for living animals "which may be deemed rare
or extinct," especially mammoths. Of course, no such
creatures were to be seen, but there was another sort
of beast that neither captain ever saw, but was with
them every moment. It was a secret they shared, of the
kind that a modern psychologist might call . . .
. . . an elephant on the trail."


During the spring of 1810, Nicholas Biddle, whom General Clark had engaged to write a paraphrase of his and Lewis's journals, spent three weeks interviewing Clark at Fincastle, Virginia. They covered a wide range of questions that had occurred to Biddle after initially reading the journals. A few months later he mailed Clark another, shorter list of queries. Finally, in the early summer of 1811 an especially puzzling point came to mind. Biddle wrote to Clark:

There is one and only one more thing about which I wish you would give me information. It is the exact relative situation in point of rank & command between Captain Lewis & yourself. I think you mentioned to me that your commission was that of Lieutenant of Engineers which placed you completely on an equality with Captain Lewis who was a captain of Infantry or Artillery. I am desirous of being correct and I will get you to state to me whether I have understood you precisely so as to avoid all error on that subject.1

He was asking Clark to either explain an apparent contradiction, or to correct him if he had misunderstood: How can a lieutenant be "completely on an equality" with a captain? Clark sidestepped the question and replied:

You express a desire to know the exact relation which I stood in Point of Rank, and Command with Captain Lewis—equal in every point of view . . . . I did not think myself very well treated as I did not get the appointment which was promised me. As I was not disposed to make any noise about the business have never mentioned the particulars to any one, and must request you not to mention my disapointment & the Cause to any one.2

Clark briefly outlined his own previous military record, then explained to Biddle that in mid-June of 1803, Lewis had sent him a long letter outlining the then-secret plan for the expedition, and inviting him to share the command of it. Lewis had assured Clark that their situations would be identical in every respect, beginning with rank. Indeed, Lewis had strongly emphasized the matter: "I make this communication to you with the privity of the President, who expresses an anxious wish that you would consent to join me in this enterprise; he has authorized me to say that in the event of your accepting this proposition he will grant you a captain's commission."3 On those grounds, Clark had agreed to join the expedition, and mailed his letter of acceptance to Lewis on 18 July 1803, suggesting that Lewis inform the President of his decision so the paperwork could be completed in time. In closing, with obvious pride and satisfaction he expressed, as best he could, his compliments to the President: "the Objcets of this Plan of Governments are Great and Worthey of that great Chaructor the Main Spring of its action."4

Bad News

The whole idea, and especially the matter of the captaincy, must have been among the first topics of conversation between the two friends when they met at Louisville on October 14. It may have been during those discussions that Clark was led to believe he would receive a commission as a captain in the Engineers rather than the Infantry; perhaps Jefferson had suggested that to Lewis as an option. Also, Clark understood that the purpose of the commission was "mearly Calculated to autherise punishment to the soldiers if necessary." If he meant that two commissioned officers could legally initiate courts martial, he was wrong, although, as he assured Biddle, "no difficuelty took place on our rout relative to this point."

The following February, seven months after he sent his acceptance letter, there was still no word about the commission. Lewis wrote reminders to Jefferson and to Secretary of War Dearborn, yet no confirmation of his captaincy was forthcoming. Finally, on May 8, John Colter arrived at Camp Dubois from St. Louis bearing a letter from Meriwether Lewis, with one from Dearborn enclosed. Dearborn's was brief and to the point:

The peculiar situation, circumstances and organisation of the Corps of Engineers is such as would render the apointment of Mr. Clark a Captain in that Corps improper—and consequently no appointment above that of a Lieutenant in the Corps of Artillerists could with propriety be given him which appointment he has recd. and his Commission is herewith enclosed. His Military Grade will have no effect on his compensation for the service in which he is engaged.5

Lewis, similarly disappointed, assured Clark, "it is not such as I wished, or had reason to expect; but so it is—a further explaneation when I join you." He also advised Clark not to say anything about the letter's contents to their men, or to anyone else.6 Six years later he would remark to Biddle, "My feelings on this Occasion was as might be expected." But the morning after he read those letters he had the keelboat loaded and, with twenty of the twenty-two oars manned, took her on a shakedown cruise up the Mississippi a few miles. At four in the afternoon on the following Monday, 14 May, "Captain" Clark and the Corps of Discovery "proceeded on under a jentle brease up the Missourie." When Lewis joined him at St. Charles on the twentieth, their first serious conversation probably was about the promise Lewis had made "with the privity of the President," but neither committed any record of it to his diary.

A Tangled Web

How could this predicament have come to pass? In the first place, it was rooted in the Military Peace Establishment Act of 1802, which reduced the Army's infantry from four regiments to two, cut back the artillery to one regiment, entirely eliminated the cavalry, and reduced the commissioned officers' corps by 30%, from 248 to 172.7 New commissions were to be granted only at the lowest open rank. Clark, by resigning his lieutenancy in 1796, had forfeited his seniority.8 The only rank he could be offered now was that of a lieutenant, and the only corps with an opening was the artillery. Even if there had been a captaincy available, the President was not entitled to initiate nominations, much less grant anyone a commission. According to procedure, the Secretary of War accepted applications and made nominations, which he recommended to the President, who in turn sent them to the Senate for confirmation.

Lewis himself had played an important role in the process of reducing the officers' corps. How could he not have expected there might be a problem in that regard? Did he assume that the President, as commander-in-chief of the U.S. Army, could somehow order a position to be created? Even so, as the president's private secretary, shouldn't he have known that according to Article 2 of the Constitution the President officially held that rank only when the armed forces were called into "the actual Service of the United States"?

And what was behind that rumor that Clark would receive a commission as a captain of engineers? Jefferson himself had persuaded Congress to establish the Military Academy at West Point, as a center of engineering and scientific education that would serve the nation in peaceful times. The Act of 6 March 1802 which established the Academy also identified it specifically with a new military unit, the Corps of Engineers. However, it got off to a slow start. The first superintendent was a scientist rather than a professional soldier, and not until 1817 did the Academy have adequate leadership. Beyond that, its purposes and objectives were unstable and insecure; its staff was small and only marginally qualified; cadets were not expected to meet any standards whatsoever—one of the first was but twelve years of age.9 Legal limitations on new commissions aside, Dearborn may have felt he was doing Clark a favor by not insulting by an appointment at the Academy.

Needless to say, Clark may have been especially offended by the government's actions, considering the way it had treated his older brother George. George Rogers Clark had recruited a military force largely at his own expense to prosecute the Revolutionary War in the Ohio River valley, against British forces north of the river, and their Shawnee allies throughout Kentucky. He expected that the State of Virginia and the Confederation would reimburse him after the victory, but all his claims were rejected.10 It was at about that time, in December of 1783, when Jefferson asked George Clark if he would be interested in leading an exploration of the country from the Mississippi to California—the first of four attempts to mount an expedition. Clark declined, pleading poverty and, as respectfully as possible, blaming the federal government.11

On 24 March 1804, Dearborn sent his list of recent nominations to the President. Immediately Jefferson forwarded the list to the Senate for confirmation without commenting on the line that requested the rank of lieutenant in the Corps of Artillerists for William Clark.

The President brought it up just one time. In his message to Congress of 19 February 1806, when he presented some of the documents that had been sent back from Fort Mandan the previous spring, he reminded them of the primary objective of the undertaking, as well as its command structure: "Capt. Meriwether Lewis, of the 1st regiment of infantry was appointed with a party of men, to explore the river Missouri from it's mouth to it's source, and, crossing the highlands by the shortest portage, to seek the best water communication thence to the Pacific Ocean; and Lieut. Clarke was appointed second in command."12 In Jefferson's eyes, it was always Lewis's expedition. Since his report was a public document it was widely reprinted, not only by the government but also in the eight or nine widely popular but altogether spurious books, which began to appear in 1809, purporting to be official reports of the expedition. In fact, the first of those apocryphal publications was inspired partly by the President's 1806 Congressional message. Yet all of them bore the same title, beginning The Travels of Capts. Lewis & Clarke [sic], by order of the Government of the United States, etc.

Moreover, in the "Life of Captain Lewis" that he compiled as an introduction to Nicholas Biddle's 1814 paraphrase of the journals, Jefferson wrote that Clark had received a commission as captain before the expedition began.13

The Long Wait

Then there was the overall timeline. Clark had mailed his acceptance to Lewis in mid-July of 1803. The Senate approved Jefferson's nominations, including Clark's, on 26 March 1804, and four days later the Secretary of War notified the Adjutant and Inspector that Clark was to assume his rank on 26 March. Clark received word through Lewis on 8 May 1804, six days before the Corps of Discovery embarked from Camp Dubois. He had sent his acceptance to Lewis in mid-July of 1803. Even considering the slow pace of the U.S. Mail in those days, that ten-month delay was inordinate, and in itself an insult.

Following the expedition's official conclusion at St. Louis on 23 September 1806 it took some days to wrap it up. On 10 October 1806 Clark dashed off a one-sentence letter to Secretary Dearborn: "The inclosed commission haveing answered the purpose for which it was intended, I take the liberty of returning it to you." Aside from the standard formal, florid closing salutation, that was all.

Meanwhile, in his initial report to Jefferson, dated the day of the Corps' arrival in St. Louis, Lewis made a gesture toward reinforcing his original premise:

With rispect to the exertions and services rendered by that esteemable man Capt. William Clark in the course of late voyage I cannot say too much; if sir any credit be due for the success of that arduous enterprize in which we have been mutually engaged, he is equally with myself entitled to your consideration and that of our common country.14

The response was as he had promised his co-commander; their pay and land grants were equal. Furthermore, in what may have been an effort to soothe Clark's feelings, Dearborn proposed on 24 February 1807 that "first Lieutenant William Clark"—who had been routinely advanced to that rank while he was at Fort Mandan in the winter of 1804-1805—should be promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Second Regiment of Infantry. Ironically, on the very next day Dearborn's pen slipped when he hastened to assure the President that inadvertently the promotion of "Capt. Clark" had been left off the list he had sent. On the 28th Jefferson duly nominated "1st Lieut." Clark15 for the higher rank, but the Senate rejected it on the grounds of "Principal"—again, no doubt, a question of seniority.It didn't matter to Clark. He was told that the senators had "unanimussly agreed that they would confirm any other nomonation." Promptly, ten days later he was appointed superintendent of Indian affairs for Louisiana Territory, and three days after that, on 12 March, brigadier-general of militia for Upper Louisiana territory. No one had said a word in his presence about the old affront.

The Beast

Ever since the day the Senate had confirmed William Clark's appointment as a lieutenant in the Corps of Artillerists, it had been a part of the public record which anyone in the country could have found out, beginning with the 17 senators who voted on it. Evidently all persons who might have been concerned chose not to spread it around, perhaps out of embarassment for being unable to meet Clark's expectations.

In his letter of explanation to Nicholas Biddle, Clark stated his position a second time before closing, and re-emphasized his desire for secrecy:

I do not wish that any thing relative to this Comsn. or appointment should be inserted in my Book, or made known, for very perticular reasons, and I do assure you that I have never related as much on this subject to any person before. Be so good as to place me on equal footing with Cap. Lewis in every point of view without exposeing any thing which might have taken place or even mentioning the Commission at all.16

How did the subject come up to begin with? One suspects that Biddle had been aware of this incongruity in the story—this Achilles heel. The fact that this was his very last question to Clark, rather than the first, seems a measure of his own sensitivity to its implications. In any case, the monstrous secret shadowed the Corps of Discovery wherever it went. This was the beast that shared their days and nights, ate with them, sweltered and shivered with them, squeezed itself unseen among them in the boats or lumbered along behind "the captains" in fair weather and foul. It was a monstrous symbol of denial fattened on mistakes, misunderstandings, and blind bureaucracy. It had been harmless because its name was never called, nor its presence ever acknowledged. Silently, Lewis and Clark kept up appearances. Back home it grew thin by neglect. But on the "tour," had it been enraged by a vindictive word or deed from any quarter, in jealousy or in malice, or in innocent curiosity, it was capable of rending the Corps of Discovery asunder, demolishing the expedition, and turning the course of American destiny in a different direction.

There really was an elephant on the Lewis and Clark trail.

1. Biddle to Clark, 8 July 1811. Jackson, ed., Letters, 2:569.

2. Clark to Biddle, 15 August 1811, ibid., 2:571.

3. Lewis to Clark, 19 June 1803, ibid., 2:60. Lewis's use of the word privity, which at that time bore the force of legal authority, reflected the influence of his position as the President's private secretary. Noah Webster, in his Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806), compressed the broader nuances it had by then accumulated in its 500-year etymological history into a two-part definition in three words: "knowledge, private communication." Still current in legal language, it has begun to acquire new connotations and uses in the current age of digital information and communication.

4. Clark to Lewis, 18 July 1803, ibid., 1:110. Having served in the Kentucky militia beginning in 1789, Clark was granted a commission as a lieutenant in General Anthony Wayne's regiment in 1792, eventually being assigned command of a Chosen Rifle Company (to which Wayne had transferred Meriwether Lewis following his court martial). Clark resigned his commission in 1796 and returned to the family farm at Louisville to help his brother George manage his tangled affairs. During the next few years he frequently traveled to the East Coast and to Washington, where he and Jefferson became well acquainted. William E. Foley, Wilderness Journey: the Life of William Clark (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004), 40.

5. Dearborn to Lewis, 26 March 1804, ibid., 172

6. Lewis to Clark, 6 May 1804, ibid., 1:179.

7. Russell F. Weigley, History of the United States Army (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 82.

8. In May of 1800 Clark received a commission as a cavalry captain in the militia of Jefferson County, Kentucky. Landon Y. Jones, William Clark and the Shaping of the West (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), 108, 345n.

9. Weigley, 108. The earliest responsibilities of the Corps of Engineers were the design and construction of lighthouses, as well as fortifications for the defense of American seaports such as New York and New Orleans. Between 1838 and 1863 the Corps of Topographical Engineers, a branch of the Corps of Engineers, mapped much of the trans-Mississippi West. Since 1824 the Corps of Engineers has been responsible for maintaining the navigability of rivers by removing sandbars, snags, and other obstacles. It has also constructed and maintained many dams on the nation's commercial waterways.

10. In 1794 the state of Virginia sought to make amends by granting him seventy-four thousand acres of land in western Kentucky. It was a hollow gesture at the time, since the land legally belonged to the Padouca tribe—actually Apaches whom early French colonists had called padu-kesh ("enemy people"). George turned the tract over to William in the late 1790s in payment for William's assistance in settling some of his wartime debts. In 1818 Andrew Jackson negotiated a treaty in which the Padoucas relinquished their title to all their territory, which left the state of Virginia's land grant in William's hands. In 1827, in order to convert some of the property into cash, William platted a town site on 100 acres at the confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers, and named it Paducah. Landon Y. Jones, William Clark and the Shaping of the West (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), 290-91.

11. Jefferson to George Rogers Clark, 4 December 1783; George Rogers Clark to Jefferson, 8 February 1784; Jackson, ed., Letters, 2:654, 655-56.

12. Jefferson to the Senate and House of Representatives, ibid., 1:298-99.

13. Actually, Clark's commission was not delivered until 187 years later when, on 17 January 2001, President Bill Clinton presented the posthumous commission to two of Clark's descendants, Peyton "Bud" Clark, and John Clark.

14. Lewis to Jefferson, ibid., 1:323-24.

15. Clark had been given a routine promotion to first lieutenant on 31 January 1806, when he was wintering at Fort Mandan.

16. Clark to Biddle, 15 August 1811. ibid., 2:572.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge-Cost Share Program.