Undaunted Courage Summary
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Stephen Ambrose’s nonfiction work Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (1996) is an examination of the life of Meriwether Lewis, half of the historic Lewis and Clark Expedition. The text is based on the journals and letters of Lewis, William Clark, and Thomas Jefferson. Writings by members of the Corps of Discovery, a special unit of the United States Army that formed the basis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, also provide material. Ambrose is a well-respected biographer having penned works on the lives of Dwight Eisenhower, George Custer, and Richard M. Nixon.
For generations, Lewis and Clark have been at, or near, the top of the list of the heroes who explored the North American continent and inspired those who came after them. In a period stretching over two years and thousands of miles, they uncovered the mysteries hidden in the West from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean. While their exploits rank among the earliest American adventures, the background of the expedition is what Stephen Ambrose brings to the table as a new perspective an often told tale. He looks at President Thomas Jefferson’s role as the main supporter of the journey. Jefferson is painted as a man of vision who advised Lewis throughout the preparatory phase of the expedition. He talks about the impact that the Corps of Discovery had on Indian nations in the West, the role of the fur trade in shaping the West, and the times after the trek concluded.
While the primary goal of the book is to present a biography of Lewis, it would be impossible to do so without much attention to Clark to whom he will always be linked in history. Their journey together is recounted. Included are those that played a role in the expedition, such as soldiers, frontiersmen, a slave of Clark’s, and Sacagawea, the Shoshone Indian woman. Their voices contribute to the narrative in the form of excerpts from their journals. Ambrose’s research and the inclusion of primary source material add to the richness of the storytelling. While the author does not shy away from the aspects of Lewis that might be considered less than heroic, notably arrogance and a quick temper, overall the picture given is one of a man who deserves his status as one of the great explorers in history and one who was a respected leader of others.
Events cited include his being court-martialed for breaking Army rules and challenging a fellow officer to a duel during a drunken brawl. He ultimately was not court-martialed but was transferred to a different company. The transfer turned out to be fortuitous as it was there he met his future partner, William Clark, serving as captain of the company. Ambrose tells of numerous times that Lewis threatened Indians whom he felt had offended him. Such actions brought him to the brink of defying Thomas Jefferson’s orders that Lewis avoid any interactions with Indians that could threaten the success of the expedition. Further, Ambrose points out Lewis’ tendency to kneejerk react in situations leading to decisions made with bad judgment.
Another new angle of Lewis that Ambrose writes of is that the explorer suffered periods of depression or melancholia, which even Jefferson had referred to. Also mentioned are periods during which Lewis battled alcoholism. In spite of any acts on the part of Lewis that might have seemed contrary to the desires of Jefferson, Jefferson was clearly a staunch admirer of the explorer and recognized his potential as a leader. When Jefferson set out to reduce the large number of Federalist officers in the army and the size of the force overall, he turned to Lewis and appointed him as his private secretary.
When the expedition of Lewis and Clark concluded, Jefferson selected Lewis to be Governor of the Louisiana Territory. In addition, he pushed him to have his journals printed as soon as possible. For reasons that remain unclear, Lewis was not especially responsive to the encouragement from Jefferson or to his faith in him. He largely shirked the responsibilities of the office to which he was appointed. Further, he did not pursue having the journals published. In addition to these shortfalls in his public life, he was dealing with bankruptcy stemming from bills he charged for the expedition but failed to have approved, leading the Madison Administration to deny payment. A variety of factors converged on Lewis, including his depression, the financial problems, and misuse of drugs and alcohol leading to mental deterioration and his ultimate death, alone at an inn along the Natchez Trace. Historically, it was believed that he was murdered, but in this text, Ambrose supports the view that Lewis died at his own hand.
Publishers Weekly said of Undaunted Courage, “Without adding a great deal to existing accounts, Ambrose uses his skill with detail and atmosphere to dust off an icon and put him back on the trail west.”
Chapter 4 Thomas Jefferson's America 1801 Summary and Analysis
When Thomas Jefferson becomes President of the United States of America, the nation numbers slightly less than five and one-half million people. That includes approximately one million slaves. Geographically, the nation is a vast open country, nearly limitless in potential, and nearly completely unknown. Overland travel is slow and difficult, seldom averaging more than a score of miles in a day—even over a rarely encountered roadway. Rivers form the dominant highways and are the only way to transport substantial bulk materials. The relative positions of the Eastern seaboard states are known, as is the position of the distant Oregon country. Roughly, three thousand miles of terra incognita lay in between. Jefferson incorrectly speculates that a water route along major rivers probably exists which could link the two population centers. Meanwhile, many European nations...
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