As we stumble on the Lewis and Clark Trail again and again I thought it behoved me to look into the back story. It reads like a political thriller.
In 1803 Thomas Jefferson paid Napoleon Bonaparte $15 million for 2.14 million square kilometres smack in the middle of the now United States, The Louisiana Purchase. Worked out roughly on paper, because the number is so large that my calculator keeps showing an error message, that’s over half a billion acres. It works out at acres per dollar, not dollars per acre – less than three cents an acre! What was old Bony thinking of letting that land go for pennies? Or did he just pocket the cash? Would anyone back in France prior to phones and the internet have known?
Stranger still, France helped themselves to the land in the 1600’s, didn’t want it, gave it to Spain, Spain didn’t want it, gave it back to France, France got rid of it again but for big bucks (or so they thought, not realising its potential), then Spain declared they’d been cheated. The U.S. only wanted to buy New Orleans and shipping rights on the Mississippi but ended up buying the best part of what are now 15 states!
Lewis & Clark were commissioned by Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States and author of The Declaration of Independence, to explore the Louisiana Purchase and on across to the Pacific. They set off on foot to map TJ’s bargain buy, study plant and animal life and set up good relations with the native Indian population.
TJ had an ulterior motive when using taxpayers’ money to pay Lewis & Clark to risk their lives on a mapping expedition. They brought back horticultural specimens for his private garden. TJ was educated in architecture, literature, horticulture, philosophy, history and science. He created his home, Monticello, a popular tourist attraction, in a complex design incorporating Greek and Roman styles. His collection of the Classics formed the beginning of the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. TJ was treating his term of presidency as a sideline.
And one more thing you probably didn’t know – Jefferson tied for first place with his opponent Aaron Burr but won the presidential prize in 1800 after 36 ballots in the House of Representatives. The deadlock went on for weeks while deals were made, bargains were struck and candidates lobbied for votes. The media campaign, in the written press then, bandied terms of cowardice, atheism, radicalism and being unprincipled.
The parallels between TJ and a more recent president – risking lives and using taxpayers’ money for personal gain – are rather disappointing. TJ set himself apart, however, by being known as a great intellectual unlike that other one known by just the one initial.
But that’s just my opinion.