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The Jeffersonian Imagination

Neither the geologic nor the Native American histories were known of this place when Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on the northwest expedition known politically as the Corps of Discovery. America's founding was conceived in a vessel named the virgin land. The ideas of the early colonists carried over into national rhetoric making the continent a metaphoric wilderness that was not only ideologically free of human life; but also, requiring a Christian farmer to tame the land into a garden. Leo Marx writes in his The Machine in the Garden, "Prospero's island community [in The Tempest] prefigures Jefferson's vision of an ideal Virginia, an imaginary land free of both European oppression and frontier savagery. The topography of The Tempest anticipates the moral geography of the American imagination" (Marx, 72). Using Shakespeare's play is one tool for interpreting early American social history. This brave new world became a playground for the enlightenment era President to experiment in natural history, which encompassed botany, ornithology, ecology, and geology, and came to be one of the first anthropological studies in Native American cultures. Jefferson said to French botanist Andre Michaux, his first chosen spokesman for the expedition, "[T]ake notice of the country you pass through, it's general face, soil, river, mountains, it's productions animal, vegetable, & mineral so far as they may be new to us & may also be useful; the latitude of places'; the names, numbers, & dwellings of the inhabitants and such particularities as you can learn of them" (Ambrose, 71). When Michaux was eventually recalled due to his political alliances with the French, Jefferson chose the woodsman Lewis and trained this man of solid character in the intellectual fields necessary.

Jeffersonian vision

Many describe Jefferson's imagination as a doorway to invention, architecture, politics, and philosophy; however, in this case I will refer to Jefferson's imagination as a container of formation, a mold for creating a nation within the bounds of his mindset. His mindset was firmly planted in only what was known before; empirical evidence ruled understanding. Horseback was the fastest mode of travel, carrying the President from Monticello to Philadelphia in no less than ten days (Ambrose, 52). Only stratagems of water transport seemed possible, and became a prospect of commerce. To discover a river to achieve transcontinental travel would be the linchpin of controlling the new west. Mental and written cartography at his time indicated of the American west a vast region known as the terra incognita often roamed about by woolly mammoths. The pseudo-scientific ideas of the time blended Biblical and cosmological outlines of the world. Jefferson believed that there was destined to be a four-stemmed river dividing the land into cardinal quadrants; "that all great rivers of the West - the Missouri, Columbia, Colorado, and Rio Grande - rose from a single "height of land" and flowed off in their several directions to the seas of the hemisphere" (Ambrose, 53).

Politics of course did have a role in this great cultural explosion. The United States politically took over and owned about one thousand square miles stretching westward to the Mississippi River and between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. The young Republican took office on March 4, 1801, and Jefferson became the spokesman for expansion in opposition to the Federalist ideal of a centralized government. During an important moment in national construction, Jefferson joined the space race to own Louisiana against the British, Spanish, French, and Russians. A risky move for a nation only 25 years old, the political controversy with its original inhabitants perhaps was not ostensibly questioned until maybe 150 years later. But Jefferson envisioned a great "Empire of Liberty" (Ambrose, 56), not as much a single nation, but more a group of juxtaposed nation-states to share a language, government, and law. The continent could also become, to the land hungry Virginian plantation owner, a region of yeoman farmers, independent and self-sufficient.

The man, the myth, the legend.

The Pacific Northwest was owned by Spain and Portugal as stated by the Papal Bull of 1493. However, as historian Norman Graebner describes, their hegemony was illusory, as pirates and privateers moved into the land stripping it of resources. By the mid-1700s a burgeoning sea otter trade was established. The delight of possible profit spurred explorations by English mariner Captain Cook and Captain Gray in the late 18th century. The overseas disputes diminished with the sea otter population and Spain and England gave up colonies by 1800. Nevertheless, Jefferson believed profit lay in the American west and was determined to overtake it. He wrote to Lewis and Clark, "The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River, and such principal streams of it, as by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across the continent, for the purposes of commerce" (Graebner, 8). In the end, their mission may not have been completed as Jefferson foresaw; but, would succeed in conquering the western frontier for the United States.




Daughter of Ice Jeffersonian Imagination Native Understanding Lewis & Clark Journals Early Explorers Private Property

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