Thomas Jefferson’s spirit of scientific endeavour is what America needs today

Now a firm tenet of American romantic popular imagination, Lewis and Clark’s early nineteenth-century expedition, sponsored by Thomas Jefferson, was also a pragmatic one, which led the nascent US from precarious republic to rising foreign power. To hold off China’s growing hegemony, the country must repeat this feat of idealism and realism.

A stamp printed in the USA shows Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
A stamp printed in the USA shows Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Credit: Borislav Marinic / Alamy Stock Photo

When a Chinese spy balloon made its way across the United States earlier this year, Americans found themselves witnessing a visual manifestation of the nascent cold war between their country and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). President Biden’s order to shoot down the balloon did not change the fact that the PRC is racing to overtake the United States as the world’s leading innovator. While the West remains divided on how to respond to the rise of China, the nature of the conflict is clear. It is nothing less than an economic and technological competition for global influence.

From telecommunications to robotics, the PRC is nurturing its technological strength in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. To prevent Chinese hegemony in the region and maintain a balance of power, the US needs to compete as an economic power, not just as a military one. The CHIPS and Science Act is a strong example of how industrial policy is being embraced again in Washington, but this is only the beginning. When the US fought the Cold War against the Soviet Union, foreign policy leaders understood how vital technological advancement was to victory. The Moon landings cannot be separated from the context of the Space Race.

It is time for the US to look again towards the frontiers of knowledge as part of the new cold war with the PRC. Scientific discovery has long been a companion to national strength in the history of great powers. The United States is no exception. Far from having a libertarian, nightwatchman state, the early American republic was administered by an active federal government that sought ways of developing the territories it accumulated in line with Thomas Jefferson’s vision of building an ‘empire of liberty’. This meant identifying and cultivating the resources and knowledge available to the US to reinforce its national strength.

Namechecked as a champion of small and limited government, Jefferson was just as concerned about government authority as his Federalist rivals such as Alexander Hamilton. The early American republic faced the challenge of how to establish order and security in vast swathes of newly-acquired territory after the Revolutionary War, which would define much of Jefferson’s time as president. The 1787 Northwest Ordinance had already established governance over the Ohio frontier. Historian and Jefferson scholar Peter Onuf wrote in 1987 that ‘The frontier would have to be transformed before the West could play its part in a revitalized union, a transformation that required the exercise of authority — to maintain order, protect legitimate land titles, and foster economic development — by a strong national government.’

The federal government made its presence clearly felt in matters of trade, land, education, and colonisation. American bureaucracy grew rapidly under Jefferson in response to the task of balancing different interests such as the state governments, speculators, traders, settlers, and tribesmen. Political science professor Stephen J. Rockwell condemned Jefferson for this apparent contradiction, writing ‘The icon of limited government had a lot of practical ideas about how to use government to achieve public ends.’ Jefferson is certainly a complex and enigmatic figure, but this apparent contradiction flows from his idealist aims but often pragmatic means of achieving them.

More fundamentally, Jefferson was just as much a nationalist as Hamilton, but he envisaged a different kind of nation emerging from the Revolutionary War. Opposing Hamilton’s powerful centralised government and his admiration for Britain’s fiscal-military state, Jefferson believed in a small and decentralised republic with a strong federal government capable of nation-building. In 2012, historian Brian Steele went so far as to call Jefferson ‘the author of an American nationalism’. The young republic’s borders were not secure and there was no guarantee that the United States could endure another conflict. This called for an active foreign policy to secure the future of the American experiment.

The empires of Britain, Spain, France, and Russia all had claims on territory in North America. All were potential dangers to the long-term survival of the US and its potential expansion. The British still held Canada. Spanish control persisted to the west and south of the republic. Russia contested the Pacific Northwest. Napoleonic France renewed its interest in colonialism. The Native American tribes continued to be major players. Nothing about American expansion appeared inevitable to Jefferson and his allies. The republic’s existence was always precarious and at risk of premature end.

Western expansion was also driven by a specific conception of how the United States economy could best flourish. For Jefferson, this meant an agricultural economy capable of exporting its goods to international markets through strong commercial links. Scholar Franics Cogliano notes ‘Acquiring land and guaranteeing access to overseas markets would be the major foreign policy concerns of Jefferson (and his successors James Madison and James Monroe).’ At this point in time, agriculture and commerce were the primary economic concerns in American politics. Capital and industry would have to wait their turn until later in the nineteenth century, despite the best efforts of the Federalists.

Jefferson responded to these circumstances by working towards bringing North America under his ‘empire of liberty’. These ambitions predated his presidency, going as far back as the Revolutionary War. In Notes on the State of Virginia, published in 1785, Jefferson foresaw the Mississippi River as ‘one of the principal channels of future commerce for the country westward of the Alleghaney’. While prepared to use military force, Jefferson hoped that western expansion could be achieved through colonisation by American settlers bringing their values and institutions with them. In his first inaugural address, Jefferson foretold a time ‘when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits and cover the whole … continent, with a people speaking the same language, governed in similar forms and by similar laws.’

As governor of Virginia, Jefferson had asked George Rogers Clark, elder brother of William Clark, and head of the state’s forces, to lead an expedition to the Pacific but this did not happen. During his time as American ambassador in Paris, Jefferson met explorer John Ledyard in 1785, who had been to the Pacific on Captain Cook’s third voyage, and hoped he would sail to the West Coast  with naval commander John Paul Jones, and then travel east by land. Jefferson also approached sea captain Robert Gray in 1792 after he found the mouth of the Columbia River, followed by the American Philosophical Society and French botanist Andre Michaux in 1793. Scotsman Alexander Mackenzie beat the United States to the Pacific in 1802 and Jefferson wanted to outdo the British with a mission to discover an even greater knowledge of the West.

The imperative to explore the West became even more intense when the Louisiana Purchase added over 820,000 square miles to the US, doubling the republic’s size. In addition to this vast increase in territory, the country gained the immensely valuable port of New Orleans, bringing the Mississippi River under American navigational control. This was nothing less than a strategic masterstroke in the geopolitical game being played across North America. All at once, France was out, and the republic gained new land and commercial strength. The Spanish had also lost a significant bulwark against possible American expansion into Mexico. By proceeding with the purchase, the possibility of conflict with Spain had dramatically risen.

Despite the potential dangers, the purchase was popular in the United States. It was ratified by the Senate by 24 to seven votes on October 20, 1803, and the press hailed Jefferson’s deft use of diplomacy. It left unanswered questions, however, that would shape the decades following Jefferson’s presidency. The treaty did not clarify precisely where the boundaries of the Louisiana Territory lay, whether the purchase included the Floridas, the status of Native Americans in the new territory, and whether slavery would be permitted. Jefferson hoped that expeditions to explore the West could begin to develop a response to some of these questions.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition was the first major attempt by the federal government to survey its western territories under the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson, elected on the pledge of shrinking the size of government, followed his unprecedented use of executive power in 1803 with a costly state-sponsored mission led by Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark. Under their command was the Corps of Discovery, a US Army unit, made up of military and civilian volunteers.

On January 18, 1803, Jefferson asked Congress to provide authorisation for an expedition ‘for the purpose of extending the foreign commerce of the United States’. Congress approved and supplied $2,500 of funding for the new Corps of Discovery, which Jefferson signed into law on February 28, 1803 — before he knew the US would be acquiring the Louisiana territory. Scholar William Nester wrote in 2013, ‘In the American imagination, Jefferson’s launching of the Lewis and Clark expedition ranks with authoring the Declaration of Independence and the Louisiana Purchase as his crowning achievement. Indeed, no mission in all American history demanded more courage, skill, and sheer endurance.’

Many dangers would have to be faced, including weather, terrain, and wildlife as well as potential disputes with Native Americans and the Spanish. Crossing the Mississippi would be no easy feat either. Jefferson chose Lewis, his private secretary, to lead the expedition. Aged 29 and having served nine years in the army, mainly in administrative duties, Jefferson had known Lewis since childhood. He said Lewis had ‘courage undaunted’ and ‘a firmness & perseverance of character which not but impossibilities could divert from its direction’. Lewis, however, had struggled in the past with depression, alcohol, and womanising, and had been court-martialled in 1796 but was later acquitted. Lewis asked his friend William Clark to accompany him as a first lieutenant.

Jefferson defined the mission as a scientific pursuit to reassure the French, Spanish and British, and secure passports for the explorers. Only the Spanish objected, though they were ignored. In truth, the expedition was also a commercial and diplomatic venture. It set out to discover the West’s people, geography, resources, and plant and animal life. Lewis consulted the American Philosophical Society in preparation, but he also went to the federal armoury in Harpers Ferry, Virginia for supplies of tomahawks, knives, and .54-calibre rifles. Lewis received instruction from professors and experts, including Dr Benjamin Rush, on botany, anatomy, navigation, and medicine. He spent the full $2,500 on 3,500 pounds of supplies. The total cost of the expedition was ultimately $38,722.35. In today’s money, this huge sum would be worth around $958,000.

On July 4, 1803, when the Louisiana Purchase was announced, Jefferson wrote a secret letter of credit to Lewis with the promise of reimbursement from the federal government for any emergency costs. Lewis’s instructions from Jefferson were to go up through the Missouri towards its source, proceed over the Rocky Mountains, reach the Pacific, and come back. The Corps of Discovery set out on May 21, 1804, at St Charles, Missouri with 45 men made up of the two leaders, 31 soldiers, 11 hunters, and Clark’s slave, York. A keelboat and two dugout canoes were used for their journey up the Missouri River. It would be a two-and-a-half-year journey with the overriding goal of discovering the best route to the Pacific.

This would help the US to map its new territory, establish friendly relations with the Native Americans, increase American commerce, and collect scientific evidence. Jefferson wanted detailed records of the expedition’s experiences and findings. They shared a secret code for sensitive communications regarding the expedition, using the key word ‘artichokes’. The expedition found a vast range of animal life, such as prairie dogs, jackrabbits, antelope, buffalo, and grizzly bears, collected hides and skeletons, and drew sketches as they journeyed further West. Lewis also managed to collect and press over 240 plant specimens. This was a major expansion of the Jeffersonian philosophy embodied in Notes on the State of Virginia, blending scientific discovery with national diplomacy.

The explorers set out to engage with Native American tribes to improve diplomatic relations, support commercial ties in the fur trade, and learn more about their customs and culture. Jefferson told Lewis that the tribes were to be approached ‘in the most friendly & conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit; allay all jealousies as to the object of your journey, satisfy them of its innocence, make them acquainted with the position, extent, character, peaceable & commercial dispositions of the U.S., of our wish to be neighborly, friendly, & useful to them’. It was with the Mandan tribe that the explorers met Sacagawea. Lewis hired her as an interpreter to help them communicate with the Shoshone tribe near the source of the Missouri and establish friendly relations with other tribes. For her crucial role in the expedition’s success, Sacagawea has been commemorated by statues, plaques, and memorials across the United States.

When the expedition reached the Three Forks of the Missouri, the tributaries were named after the Treasury secretary Albert Gallatin, secretary of state James Madison, and Jefferson, who Lewis credited as ‘the author of our enterprize’. Facing the Rocky Mountains, the expedition discovered that there was no Northwest Passage – the sought after, hypothetical route to the Pacific — after all. Instead, they would continue the journey by land to the River Columbia, which took them towards the Pacific. Following their return to St Louis in Missouri on September 23, 1806, celebrations were held across the nation and Lewis reported to Jefferson personally on the expedition’s findings.

Now firmly placed in the American popular imagination, the expedition was conceived with less romantic intentions. It was launched to support Jefferson’s foreign policy goals, particularly his efforts to secure the United States’ territorial claims. This was a process in which Lewis and Clark would continue to play leading roles as territorial governors of Louisiana and Missouri. Future expeditions were launched under military officers and explorers Zebulon Pike and John C. Frémont as the republic continued to expand westward. Lewis and Clark began the opening of the West, leading to the spread of settlers inspired by the Jeffersonian dream.

Tension between Jefferson’s limited government philosophy and expansion of state power has fuelled the debate around his place in history. He is often depicted as, and criticised for being, an idealist who contradicts his principles or allows his principles to prevent sensible action being taken. For these widespread accusations of inconsistency, Jefferson has been famously dubbed ‘the American Sphinx’ by biographer Joseph J. Ellis. Jefferson dreamt of an age of peace and reason, yet he also responded boldly to the geopolitical situation his country faced, making the survival of the American experiment his priority. He put it best himself when he said ‘What is practicable must often control what is pure theory.’

It is the struggle between idealism and realism that continues to define US foreign policy. When the two can be made to work together, the US is capable of great deeds. Lewis and Clark embodied the romantic and enlightened spirit of their young nation, but they were also on a mission to consolidate its power and advance its interests. There is no reason why the US cannot do so  again by aggressively pursuing a national strategy for science, technology, and innovation that makes the next great leap in expanding human knowledge, whether it be in space exploration or artificial intelligence. A combination of Jeffersonian ideals and practice could be the key to fighting the new cold war and preventing Chinese hegemony in the twenty-first century.



David Cowan