Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson acquired an interest in western exploration early in life. His father Peter was a surveyor, map maker, and land speculator on the Virginia frontier. Jefferson spent his childhood in the Blue Ridge Mountains on the western edge of the Virginia Piedmont. Though he never physically ventured beyond the Virginia Blue Ridge, Jefferson had a life-long commitment to supporting western exploration and asserting American claims to western lands. More than most of his contemporaries, Jefferson realized that the American West was not an empty wilderness, but a land crowded by conflicting nations and claims of sovereignty. Even before holding national office, Jefferson tried on several occasions to organize expeditions to the west. While president, Jefferson successfully acquired the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803 and sent the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1803–1806) on a mapping and scientific exploration up the Missouri River to the Pacific. He also sent other expeditions to find the headwaters of the Red, Arkansas, and Mississippi rivers and to gather scientific data and information on Native Americans.

In seeking to establish, what he called “an empire for liberty,” Jefferson influenced the country's policies toward Native Americans and the extension of slavery into the West. Despite a life-long interest in Native American culture, President Jefferson advocated policies that would dislocate Native Americans and their way of life. In 1784, Jefferson opposed the extension of slavery into the northwest territory, but he later supported its westward extension because he feared that any restriction of slavery could lead to a civil war and an end to the nation. At the end of his presidency, Jefferson looked forward to a United States that spread across the entire continent of North America.

Western Wondering

Jefferson urges pacific exploration via Russia in 1786

While serving as American minister to France, Thomas Jefferson urged John Ledyard (1751–1789) of Connecticut, who had explored the Pacific with Captain Cook, to seek a Pacific route across North America by crossing Russia. "I suggested to him the enterprise of exploring the Western part of our continent by passing thro St. Petersburg to Kamschatka, and procuring a passage thence in some of the Russian vessels to Nootka sound, whence he might make his way across the Continent to America." Ledyard undertook the journey but was stopped mid-way across Russia by Russian authorities and deported.

Thomas Jefferson. Autobiography manuscript 1821. Manuscript. Manuscript Division (152)

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Assessing the equality of Indians and African Americans

In this letter, Jefferson offers an additional glimpse into his struggle to make sense of racial differences and similarities. As part of his reply to the charges of French scientists that plant and animal life, including humans, degenerated in America, Thomas Jefferson asserted: “And I am safe in affirming that the proofs of genius given by the Indians of N. America, place them on a level with Whites in the same uncultivated state . . . . I believe the Indian then to be in body & mind equal to the whiteman. I have supposed the black man, in his present state, might not be so; but it would be hazardous to affirm, that, equally cultivated for a few generations, he would not become so.”

Thomas Jefferson to Marquis de Chastellux June 7, 1785. Manuscript letter Manuscript Division (153)

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Ban on slavery and involuntary servitude in western territories

Thomas Jefferson drafted the March 1, 1784, Congressional committee report proposing a ban on slavery and involuntary servitude in the federal territory. The draft ordinance provided “that after the year 1800 of the christian æra, there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the said states, otherwise than in punishment of crimes . . . .” Although the southern states in Congress successfully deleted this paragraph in 1784, a similar prohibition was incl

Thomas Jefferson. Draft Report of the “COMMITTEE appointed to prepare a PLAN for the Temporary Government of the WESTERN TERRITORY,” March 1784. Broadside with annotations in the hand of Jefferson. Page 2. Manuscript Division (154)

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Natural Bridge Of Virginia

The Natural Bridge was a unique rock formation in Rockbridge County, Virginia, which Thomas Jefferson patented with 150 surrounding acres on July 5, 1774. Jefferson considered the Natural Bridge “that most sublime of nature's works.” Viewed by Jefferson as the symbolic gateway to the west, the Natural Bridge was about as far west as Jefferson personally ventured. Although identified with western expansion and exploration, Jefferson never penetrated beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

Frederick Edwin Church. The Natural Bridge, Virginia, 1852. Copyprint of oil painting. Courtesy of the Bayly Art Museum, University of Virginia, Charlottesville (150)

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Jefferson names the Western “States”

As a member of Congress, Jefferson developed a plan for the creation of territories and new states that formed the basis of the Ordinance of 1784, which accepted the cession of most of Virginia's old Northwest to the federal government. His original plan envisioned fourteen states, which he named after Native American and historical sources. Although most were not used, Michigania did evolve into Michigan and Illonia became Illinois. Most importantly the ordinance established the principle that new states would be admitted to the union on an equal basis with the older states.

H.D. Pursell. A Map of the United States of N. America in Bailey's Pocket Almanac. Philadelphia, 1786. Copyprint of engraving. Rare Book and Special Collections Division (155)

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Western Explorations

Acquisition of Louisiana Territory

In this succinct note to the newly appointed American minister to France, James Monroe, President Jefferson's outlines his reasons for acquiring New Orleans. This letter demonstrates that Jefferson's skillfully voiced arguments for a narrow construction of the constitution and limited powers of the federal government wavered in the face of the western states' demands for access to Mississippi ports and lands. In this instance, the balance shifted toward the proactive, federal government. His willingness to bend a central principle resulted in doubling the new country's land mass.

Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe January 10, 1803. Manuscript letter. Manuscript Division (163)

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Jefferson's instructions for Lewis and Clark, June 20, 1803

President Jefferson consulted experts before writing these detailed instructions to Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) instructing him to explore the Missouri River basin, conduct scientific and ethnographic studies, and find a route to the Pacific Ocean. Lewis, his private secretary and a U.S. army captain, spent months in scientific studies to prepare for the mission. Significantly, the instructions were written before Jefferson knew of the final Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson was particularly concerned that the expedition establish an American presence among the Native American tribes and secure their trading and diplomatic loyalties for the United States.

Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis, June 20, 1803. Manuscript letter. Manuscript Division (168)

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The Lewis and Clark expedition encounters Indians

These two engravings were added by Matthew Carey of Philadelphia to the 1812 publication of the journal of Sergeant Patrick Gass (1771–1870), the first eyewitness accounts of the expedition to be made public. The pictures were said to depict actual incidents in the Lewis and Clark journey. Gass's journal first published in 1807, appeared seven years before the official Lewis and Clark narrative. Patrick Gass was promoted to sergeant at the death of Charles Floyd, the only man to die on the expedition.

Patrick Gass. A Journal of the Voyages and Travels of a Corps of Discovery, Under the Command of Capt. Lewis and Capt. Clarke. . . . Page 2. Philadelphia: Matthew Carey, 1812. Engravings. Rare Book and Special Collections Division (174, 175)

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Lampooning Jefferson for expanding on the Louisiana Purchase

Thomas Jefferson's plan in 1805 to build on the Louisiana Purchase by buying West Florida from Spain is lampooned in this cartoon. Induced by the sting of the hornet Napoleon, Jefferson vomits gold coins before a dancing Spanish representative holding maps of East and West Florida and carrying French Minister Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand's instructions in his pocket. West Florida was captured by the United States during the War of 1812, and East Florida was acquired by treaty in 1819 during James Monroe's administration.

James Akin. “The PRAIRIE DOG Sickened at the Sting of the HORNET or a Diplomatic Puppet exhibiting his Deceptions,” Newburyport, Massachusetts. c. 1806. Copyprint of etching with watercolor. Prints and Photographs Division (167)

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Nicholas King map used by Lewis and Clark

This composite map was prepared by Nicholas King, at the request of Thomas Jefferson and Albert Gallatin, secretary of the treasury. It represents the geographical knowledge of the trans-Mississippi West available to government officials on the eve of the expedition. It is believed that Lewis and Clark carried this map at least as far as the Mandan-Hidatsa village in present day North Dakota, where Lewis added additional information obtained from fur traders and Native Americans.

Nicholas King. Map of Western North America, with annotations by Meriwether Lewis 1803. Reproduction. Geography and Map Division (171)

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Transfer of Louisiana

Formal transfer of Upper Louisiana was made at St. Louis on March 9, 1804. President Jefferson appointed Capt. Amos Stoddard (1762–1813) of the United States Artillery as commissioner of the United States to receive the transfer. This engraving was done to commemorate the centennial of that event.

Ford P. Kaiser. “Transfer of Louisiana,” in James W. Buel, ed., Louisiana and the Fair. 10 vols. St. Louis: World's Progress Publishing Co., 1904. Copyprint of engraving. Prints and Photographs Division (180)

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Western Realities

Jefferson collects and loses Indian vocabularies

Jefferson began his pioneering efforts to collect standardized vocabulary lists on Indians in 1780 and wanted to trace their origins through comparative linguistics. By 1809 Jefferson had collected several dozen lists which were stolen and almost totally destroyed while being transported from the President's House to Monticello. Jefferson sent the surviving fragments to the American Philosophical Society in 1809. Peter Du Ponceau (1760–1844), a scientist who shared an interest in Indian vocabularies, sent Jefferson this information on the Nottoway & Iroquois idioms.

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  • Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Smith Barton, September 21, 1809. Manuscript letter. Manuscript Division (177a)

  • Peter S. Du Ponceau. “Affinities of the Nottoway language with the Iroquois Dialects,” July 13, 1820. Manuscript. Manuscript Division (177b)

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Jefferson expresses concern about Indians

Thomas Jefferson warned John Adams in this letter that despite the progress of some Indian Nations, such as the Cherokee, to adopt representative government, many Native Americans “will relapse into barbarism & misery, lose numbers by war & want, and we shall be obliged to drive them, with the beasts of the forest into the Stony mountains.” In a previous August 28, 1807 letter to his Secretary of War Henry Dearborn, Jefferson stated “if ever we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will never lay it down till that tribe is exterminated, or driven beyond the Missisipi.”

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, June 11, 1812. Manuscript letter. Manuscript Division (178)

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Extension of Slavery is “like a fire bell in the night”

In this letter Jefferson voiced the fears of many Americans that conflicting views of states' rights, slavery, westward expansion, and the powers of the federal government had brought the United States to the verge of civil war. Despite the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which allowed Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state, the intransigent nature of these explosive issues proved Jefferson to be prophetic. “This momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled one with terror, I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment. but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence . . . we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go.”

Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes, April 22, 1820. Manuscript letter. Manuscript Division (159)

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Jefferson envisions “an empire for liberty”

Outgoing president, Thomas Jefferson, offered some expansionist advice to incoming president, James Madison. Jefferson believed that expansion of the American republic throughout the continent would be possible because European powers would be preoccupied with warring against each other: “we should then have only to include the north [Canada] in our confederacy, which would be of course in the first war, and we should have such an empire for liberty as she has never surveyed since the creation: & I am persuaded no constitution was ever before so well calculated as ours for extensive empire & self-government.”

Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, April 27, 1809. Manuscript letter. Page 2. Manuscript Division. (149)

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