Schiller Institute on YouTube Schiller Institute on Facebook RSS

Home >

This Week in History
February 17-23, 1803:
President Jefferson Signs Authorization
for Lewis and Clark Expedition

February 2013

Thomas Jefferson.

On Feb. 28, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson signed the Congressional authorization of $2,500 for a small expedition to explore the Missouri River to its source, and to search for a river flowing to the Pacific Ocean within portage of the Missouri. In the confidential message he had sent to Congress on Jan. 18, Jefferson emphasized the expansion of trade with the Indians and recommended that to keep the measure from attracting notice, Congress should designate the appropriation as being "for the purpose of extending the external commerce of the United States." The answer to why Jefferson's message had to be confidential, lies both in the political circumstances of 1803, and in the history of Pacific Coast exploration.

After the United States gained its independence, not only Great Britain, but many of the other monarchies of Europe vowed to limit America's power and to hem her in to as small a territory as possible, to be surrounded by areas controlled by those monarchies. Within that policy, America's Pacific Coast attracted special attention, since the prospect of Americans breaking through to the western ocean was viewed with fear and horror in Europe. There was also intense European rivalry for the rich fur trade in the area, many of which were marketed in Canton, China.

At the end of the American Revolution, those European rivalries in the Pacific Ocean escalated. While the Russians moved down the Alaskan coast, the Spanish, in California, explored northward. The British, following the maps made by Capt. James Cook during the Revolution, sent expeditions by George Vancouver and John Meares, and Meares founded a trading post at Nootka Sound, on the west side of Vancouver Island, in present-day British Columbia. This was seized by the Spanish in 1789, almost precipitating a war, but ending in the Nootka Sound Convention which opened the way for British settlement. The French, too, sent an expedition in 1785, under Admiral Lapérouse to search for the fabled Northwest Passage. It mapped the Alaska coast and selected Lituya Bay as a possible fur-trading site, but the expedition came to naught.

The Americans did not wait to see which European powers would win out. In 1787, Boston merchants sent two ships under John Kendrick, a captain of privateers during the Revolution, to explore the Pacific Northwest coast. Kendrick reached Nootka Sound, avoiding conflict with the Spanish, and also visited Japan, his ship being the first to fly the American flag in a Japanese port. In 1789, one of his officers on that cruise, Capt. Robert Gray of Rhode Island, was put in charge of the ship Columbia, which he sailed to the Northwest coast and then to Canton. He returned to Boston in 1790, the first American to circumnavigate the globe. In 1791, he wintered on the Pacific Coast, and on May 11, 1792, in a daring move with important implications for the Lewis and Clark expedition, he took the Columbia past the dangerous bar blocking a mighty river and sailed up that river, later named after his ship.

Jefferson read many of the accounts of the European voyages, but the one that had the strongest effect on him, was the 1801 Voyages to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans written by Alexander MacKenzie. MacKenzie was a partner in the North West Company, a fur-trading company headquartered on Lake Athabaska in western Canada. His first expedition to the Pacific ended in the Arctic Ocean, but on his second try, in 1793, he followed the Bella Coola River to an inlet of the Pacific. In his book, he made a strong plea to the British government to quickly claim the Pacific Coast, specifically to shut out the Americans. His book became available in American bookstores in the spring of 1802, and Jefferson and his secretary Meriwether Lewis discussed its implications.

General George Rogers Clark..

Jefferson had a deep interest in the subject of Western exploration. As a member of Benjamin Franklin's American Philosophical Society, he had often made proposals on behalf of the Society to launch scientific expeditions west of the Mississippi. In 1783, he had written to George Rogers Clark, William Clark's older brother, who had wrested the old Northwest from the British during the Revolution, to ask him if he would lead an expedition to the West. Clark had to regretfully decline due to failing health.

Then, when, in 1785, Jefferson became Ambassador to France, he met Connecticut adventurer John Ledyard, who had sailed with Captain Cook to the Pacific Northwest, and had published a journal of his experiences. Jefferson and other Americans in Europe raised money to send Ledyard on two projected expeditions to Nootka Sound, but the project failed. Once back in America, Jefferson, Washington, and other leading Americans raised money to send French botanist André Michaux, who had been doing scientific research in America for 10 years, on a trip westward. Unfortunately, Michaux turned out to be an agent of the French Republic, and tried to recruit frontier Americans to attack Spanish settlements west of the Mississippi River.

Therefore, when Jefferson read MacKenzie's book, he determined to name Meriwether Lewis as head of the projected American expedition, and to have him trained by leading American scientists. But there were several grave crises in America just at the time that Jefferson was about to go to Congress and request the funds. As early as December 1801, Jefferson had received reliable reports that a secret treaty between Spain and France would cede Louisiana to France, and France was already interfering in American affairs by fighting to regain the island of Santo Domingo in the Caribbean. The possible transfer of ownership was also worrisome, because Spain, which was weak compared to Napoleonic France, had concluded a 1795 treaty with the United States, allowing for the "right of deposit" at New Orleans, part of its territory. Western Americans had no easy overland route to take their goods to America's East Coast, and so they floated them down the Mississippi River, and loaded them on ships which sailed to the East Coast, or to Europe. The "right of deposit" gave them the right to store their goods in New Orleans until ships were available.

Then, on Oct. 18, 1802, the Spanish intendant at New Orleans suspended the right of deposit without providing, as the treaty required, an alternative place for American goods to be stored. In this atmosphere, Jefferson, in November, asked the Spanish Minister in Washington, whether his government would object if Congress authorized an expedition to explore the course of the Missouri River, having as its main object the advancement of geographic knowledge. But, the Minister was suspicious, and said that he thought his government would object to Americans mapping its territory. He reported to Madrid that the American President might be hoping "to discover the way by which the Americans may some day extend their population and their influence" to the Pacific Coast.

Just a week before he submitted his confidential message to Congress on what was to become the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Jefferson sent to the Senate the nomination of James Monroe as special emissary to France and Spain to negotiate on buying New Orleans, and on restoring the right of deposit. On April 11, Napoleon's Minister Talleyrand asked U.S. Ambassador Robert Livingston if America would be interested in purchasing all of Louisiana. By the time it left Illinois the next year, the Lewis and Clark Expedition had been transformed from a quiet attempt to cross and map Spanish territory to reach the Columbia River, into a national expedition across new American territory, which was widely publicized and eagerly followed, every step of the way, by the American public.


The original article was published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly, as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting and updating these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.