Questions for Consideration

by Robert Hunt, Seattle, Washington

Concerning Lewis's mission and orders, it is true enough to say, as Jefferson himself did, rather scoldingly in a special context, that the mission was "single"—"the direct water communication from sea to sea." But, despite this statement and the literal terms of Jefferson's instructions, should the matter be left at that?

Was Lewis's task solely, even primarily, to find a Northwest Passage? Or the shortest route for commerce? Can he be faulted, or his mission considered a failure, for not finding something which did not exist? And was Jefferson's overriding premise "wrong," or his "rationale for the entire expedition . . . inherently flawed" on that account? Must not the surrounding historical and political circumstances of the Expedition come into focus here?

One turns to related documents for references about the mission. For example, the background for the British passport: the British Chargé d' affaires, Edward Thornton, noted in his report that the "ostensible object" of the voyage was "extending the external commerce of the country." But the "real nature of the plan," he said, was otherwise, viz., "exclusively scientific"—with background "apprehension" at the time of possible French designs in the area. Thornton further noted that Jefferson had "for some years past" been considering an exploration of the Western Continent, mindful indeed of Mackenzie's prior (competitive British!) achievement in that direction. Jefferson's concerns about foreign powers (French, Spanish, Russian, British) on the Continent, especially on the Pacific, were evident even as early as his days as Ambassador in France when he sent John Paul Jones to Brest to spy on Lapérouse who was then outfitting a French expedition suspected of coveting a settlement on the Northwest Coast. (See my article, "Of Rivers and Oceans," in We Proceeded On, Vol. 13, No. 2 (May 1987)—Albert Gallatin's observations for Jefferson's benefit while planning instructions for Lewis are especially revealing—indicating strategic concerns beyond a water route for commerce. Surely Lewis would have been aware of these concerns. . . . The comments of Madison, Lincoln and Gallatin, as well as background of the passport, suggest that the expedition was compelled by urgencies not solely definable as a search for the mythical Passage. For domestic legal and political niceties, it was couched (for those who could prove hostile to it) in terms of "commerce" via a water passage; but the question remains whether this was the fundamental motivation. Was not the real mission geopolitical?

More questions:

Concerning the risk of dividing the party into smaller "indefensible units," one recalls that the original concept of the Corps was for a body of not more than 8 or 10 men. In that light, was the Expedition "indefensible" at the outset? Jefferson himself felt that "such numbers will be sufficient to secure . . . against opposition of individuals or of small parties," but, with due admonishment for safety's sake, left to Lewis's discretion "the degree of danger" to be risked knowing full well that, as Lincoln had commented, "Capt. Lewis . . . will be much more likely, in case of difficulty, to push too far, than to rec[e]de too soon."

It is clear by hindsight that Lewis's greatest risk was the venture to the upper Marias, ending in the tragic Blackfeet fight. Do we remember that, as first conceived, a group definitely larger than the four men making this reconnaissance was originally contemplated? The theft of horses impelled Lewis to proceed with the dangerously reduced number. Here, "pushing too far," was he harking back to Gallatin's underlining of the "vast importance to the United States" of the "destinies of the Missouri country"? Was Lewis truly defying the orders of his Commander-in-Chief in the risks he undertook?

Some may be so bold as to ask whether he might have been negligent, despite the risks, in not seizing the opportunity and doing as he did, considering all the circumstances on the spot, at that moment of history, and his soldierly understanding of his mission?

As for being possibly subject to court-martial in these matters, Lewis gave ample other occasions for such proceedings during the expedition—consider for example his misrepresenting to the men of the Corps the rank of William Clark. (See also my article on "Crime and Punishment," in We Proceeded On, Vol. 15, No. 2 and No. 3 (May & August 1989).

Again, second-guessing, one may say that Clark, besides Lewis, took untoward risks on the Yellowstone journey. Was this fiasco due to faulty planning, or to the seemingly inexcusable lack of security resulting in the inexplicable theft of all the horses? In both Lewis's and Clark's defeats in these two situations, was it the plan, or was it careless military precaution, which caused the failure?