When Meriwether Lewis led the Corps of Discovery out of St. Louis and into the Louisiana Territory in 1803, he was an obscure government officer. When he returned three years later, he was a national hero. Three years after that, he was dead, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The meteoric rise and tragic fall of Lewis, a man of great intellect, courage, and potential, makes for great history and great debate. His suicide in particular has raised the hackles of many over the years who cannot fathom why, in the prime of his life and career, Lewis would chose to end it all. Though his contemporaries and friends William Clark and Thomas Jefferson accepted suicide as the cause, his family, perhaps ashamed of the stigma it carried, believed that his death was the result of foul play.
In Meriwether Lewis, authors Thomas C. Danisi and John C. Jackson claim a definitive explanation for Lewis’ dramatic final act, and move to dispel the more sensationalist and macabre embellishments that have tarnished his reputation in the 200 years since his death. Their conclusion serves as the intriguing hook on the book’s larger goal, which is to illuminate the pre- and post-expedition years that formed his character and led to his death. Danisi and Jackson’s work is cut out for them.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition is one of America’s grandest adventures, one that explores not only the vast, uncharted land of the new country but raises a number of compelling questions about the possibilities that existed at that time. Lewis and Clark’s interactions with Native Americans, while condescending and, at times, opportunist, seeded hope that the two cultures might be able to cooperate and discover common ground in the Louisiana Territory. Simply stated, it’s just a tremendously fascinating story.
Rather than delve into the interesting narrative that’s been covered time and time again, however, Danisi and Jackson are more concerned with what might inelegantly be called the boring stuff. Meriwether Lewis describes the man’s youth in Virginia as a protégé of Thomas Jefferson, explicitly cultivated as an agent for the President’s interests in natural philosophy (what would now be called science) and Republicanism. The expedition’s preparation is detailed, but the journey itself is lightly dodged.
Danisi and Jackson do take a moment to reflect on possible venereal diseases the Corps of Discovery, and their renowned Native American guide Sacagawea, may have contracted in the uncivilized west. It’s a curious and slightly distasteful digression that may have been less stark in a larger expedition narrative; here, as one of the few morsels of expedition information that is conveyed, it sticks out as a peculiar miscalculation.
On the other side of the epic trip, Lewis is tapped to serve as the governor of Louisiana Territory, what might be described as the original Wild West, as a motley crew of unruly settlers, corrupt underlings, and displaced holdovers from the Spanish and French regimes caused him many headaches. Here, Meriwether Lewis descends into a numbing series of administrative issues concerning land grants, titles, budgetary quarrels, and inter-office bureaucratic fighting. Frederick Bates, cast as Lewis’ chief antagonist during these years, is little more than a sniping paper pusher whose petty corruption and sarcastic epistles fail to make him an adequate foil for the studious virtue of Lewis.
The saga of the Missouri Fur Company, a monopolistic venture founded by New York entrepreneur John Jacob Astor and funded in part by the US Government, thanks to some crafty accounting on the part of Lewis, is the most compelling story of the governorship. Unfortunately, it is mostly depicted in the distance, the perspective stuck behind Lewis’ desk as men fan out across the new territory, fighting, trading, and negotiating with tribes in an effort to make Louisiana profitable.
Lewis’ later years are filled with frustration, and readers of Meriwether Lewis feel his pain. Danisi and Jackson, self-described “independent historians”, are meticulous about their citations. It’s admirable that they wish to properly cite their sources; however it is perhaps best done through the use of end notes that appear, en masse, at the back of the book, instead of in three-page bursts of citations that follow each chapter and disrupt the overall narrative flow of the biography. Each chapter feels more like an essay, and there are clear disconnects between adjacent chapters where it seems clear that they were written by different authors and not properly healed through editing. Concepts, ideas, or events are introduced in one chapter, only to be reintroduced in the next as if they had not previously been raised.
Much of Meriwether Lewis is dominated by a reconstruction of Lewis’ official business; naturally, that is the easiest aspect of his life to reconstruct, as it is documented in government papers and letters bound with red tape. It’s not necessarily the most interesting aspect of his life, though. Danisi and Jackson attempt to shed light on Lewis the man, and not just Lewis the bureaucrat, but their examination of his personal life lacks punch. That he had few, if any, romantic relationships is touched on, but the authors offer little to mull over other than that Lewis was devastatingly shy and somewhat awkward.
As Lewis himself discovered, as he struggled (and ultimately failed) to turn his Louisiana expedition into a marketable, narrative book, turning out a good story isn’t easy. At least Lewis had strong, compelling material to work with. One can only imagine the melancholy he would’ve descended into if he had to compose an autobiography of the years he wasn’t discovering new and exciting worlds, as Danisi and Jackson must. Meriwether Lewis is an adequate chronicle of the man’s blue period, and of early American governing, but by omitting the most significant experience of Lewis’ career and life, it seems sadly incomplete.