I recently finished Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. I don’t read much historical nonfiction, but I now plan to change that. The story of Lewis and Clark is riveting and full of lessons for modern life.
Ambrose focuses on Meriwether Lewis and the outsized role Thomas Jefferson played in Lewis’ life before, during, and after the expedition he co-led with William Clark. Lewis was a man with a highly diverse skillset: he was an experienced woodsman, a practiced naturalist, an engaging writer, and a brilliant company commander. He and William Clark were undoubtedly, unquestionably, the right men to lead the Corps of Discovery to the Pacific Ocean and back (with lots of help and luck). Indeed, Lewis’ entire life up to that point seemed to be in preparation for such a mission.
But after the journey, his life fell apart.
After Lewis and Clark
The Corps of Discovery returned in 1806, and Thomas Jefferson promptly appointed Lewis governor of the Louisiana Territory. This was a huge responsibility for which the 32-year-old Lewis was not prepared.
Lewis struggled with his administrative duties in his new home of St. Louis (at the time a rowdy frontier town). He bought land on credit, and his growing debts added to his stress levels. He was unlucky in love and failed to “find a wife.” Always a heavy drinker, Lewis was soon battling full-blown alcoholism and opium use. The journals he had kept during his journey—often writing for an hour or more in the evening after a full day’s work with little food—were not published during his lifetime (to the chagrin of Thomas Jefferson, who had promised many of his friends a copy). They were his life’s work.
In 1809, at age 35, he died by suicide.1
A case study in the importance of clarity
What can we learn from the life of Meriwether Lewis? That’s a complex question for serious historians (and I’m definitely not one of those) but we laymen can take a stab at it, too. For me, a major theme in Undaunted Courage is the power of clarity.
When the task before him was clear, Lewis was unstoppable. Crossing the imposing Bitterroot Mountains, negotiating with hard-bargaining Native American tribes, fighting off sleep to write 1,500 words describing a previously unknown species of flower—Lewis was up for nearly any task. His boundless energy, optimism, and devotion to the mission jump off the page. The dude was a dynamo.
Without clarity, he faltered. Governing the Louisiana Territory was nothing like leading an expedition—there was no clear goal, and military discipline doesn’t translate to politics. As a rookie governor—and of a frontier territory, no less—Lewis must have been perpetually unsure of his priorities. Meanwhile, his priceless journals gathered dust in the corner as the scientific community (and Thomas Jefferson) waited impatiently.
At the end of the day, Lewis was like the rest of us: he excelled when he had a clear picture of what he was supposed to be doing.
Can you identify with him? I sure can. It’s worth asking, especially when we’re struggling: do I have the clarity I need?
Lewis’ cause of death is a matter of some disagreement among scholars—it’s possible he was murdered—but most historians believe his death was a suicide. ↩︎