I just finished Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, a biography of Meriwether Lewis. Of course the major focus of the story is on the Corp of Discovery expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific, but Ambrose focuses on Lewis’ relationship with Thomas Jefferson, and his kinship with William Clark also. I learned a lot about Lewis and the expedition, but also about the history and life in the US at the beginning of the 19th C. Lewis’ character as both a renaissance man and as a self-reflective young success were perhaps the most interesting facets of the book.
Lewis lived with Jefferson in the President’s House for the first two years of Jefferson’s presidency. Lewis was a personal secretary, and the two bachelors rattled around the mansion with their eleven servants. They played host frequently to the important political figures of the nation. Jefferson was very scientifically minded. Upon determining that Lewis should lead the expedition across the soon to be acquired Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson sent him to Philadelphia to study with the greatest minds in the US. He learned cartography, ethnology, ornithology, geology, and several other “ologies.” It was as if he was cramming for all the final exams of a liberal studies career in three months. The study paid off huge, as Lewis discovered and documented species after species that were as yet unknown to science. The value of the scientific work completed on the expedition was immense, and it was only a sidelight to Lewis’ unparalleled success leading the platoon across the continent.
Meanwhile Lewis was self-reflective, depressed, prone to drinking alcohol in excess and haunted by his inability to find a wife. He wrote on his 31st birthday just east of the continental divide, headed westward, “I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little indeed, to further the happiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation. I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and now soarly [sic] feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended.” Lewis was haunted throughout life by the desire to accomplish, and the sinking feeling that his current effort was not enough to satisfy his desire.
I’m sure I will reflect on Lewis’ quote again when I hit my 31st birthday, coming up here soon, but I hope to be set on a trajectory that is fit to accomplish some of the desires God has laid on my heart.