Envisaging the West: Thomas Jefferson and the Roots of Lewis and Clark


Letter from Bernard Lacépède to Thomas Jefferson

Bernard Lacépède to Thomas Jefferson, May 13, 1803
Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress
Bernard Lacépède applauds Jefferson's dedication to exploration and expansion, predicting success and the expansion of United States trade and communication because of it.

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Paris May 13, 1803

Monsieur President

I hasten to have the honor of thanking you for the letter which you have kindly sent to me by Monsieur Monroe. This letter, Monsieur President, is a mark of your esteem and consequently a very honorable testimonial for me. I shall preserve it, moreover, as a monument for history. It is so seldom that one sees the chief magistrate of a great nation unite the enlightenment and solicitude les lumieres et les soins which the well-being of his fellow-citizens demands with the boundless knowledge and the labors of a celebrated philosopher.

It is never a mistake to predict that a great and useful undertaking will be carried out by a nation which is free and governed by a leader worthy of that nation. It was therefore without surprise but with much satisfaction that I learned from your letter that you are going to have the sources of the Missouri Maps: explored, and to seek a river which, at its source, is near to the source of the Missouri Maps: , and bears its waters to the great northern ocean. This river which you wish to discover could well be the Colombia Maps: which Monsieur Gray, your fellow-citizen, discovered in 1788, or 1789. Monsieur Broughthon, one of Captain Vancouver's companions, went up that river for one hundred miles, in December 1792. He stopped at a point which he named Vancouver Maps: , and which is situated at 45° N. and 237° E., reckoning from the London meridian. At that point, the river Colombia Maps: is still a quarter of a mile wide, and the depth varies between 12 and thirty-six English feet. The river is then still far from its source at Vancouver Point Maps: ;

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and yet, from this point one sees Mount Hood Maps: , at a distance of twenty leagues; now this Mount Hood Maps: could well be a dependence of the Stony Mountains, of which Monsieur Fielder saw the beginning at about 40° N., and the source of the Missouri Maps: probably is in the Stony Mountains between the 40th and 45th parallels. If your nation could establish an easy communication route by river, canal and short portages, between New Yorck, for example, and the town which would be built at the mouth of the Colombia Maps: , what a route that would be for trade from Europe, from Asia, and from America, whose northern products would arrive at this route by the Great Lakes and the upper Mississippi Maps: , while the southern products of the New World would arrive there by the lower Mississippi Maps: and by the Rio Norte of New Mexico, the source of which is near the 40th parallel! What greater means to civilization than these new communication routes! Nevertheless, whatever may be the success of the expedition you are going to make, it will be extremely useful for the progress of industry, the sciences, and especially natural history. May your fellow-citizens, by the wisdom of their choice, preserve forever their liberty, their government, and the peace! Hitherto, the movement of enlightenment has been from east to west. The inhabitants of the United States, if they do not reject their destiny, will one day halt and reverse this movement.

Buffon died without being able to make use of the very valuable present you had given him. The American animals on which he had reported were the species of reindeer, that of the roe and that of the cougar.

The fifth and last volume of my history of fishes is going to appear. I am now writing the history of cetaceans. The advantage which the National Institute has of counting you among its members leads me to hope that you will kindly allow me to

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present you with a complimentary copy of these various works.

If my health had not been completely upset by the terrible misfortune I had last winter of losing a dear wife, I would plan to come to your continent one day, to see your young nature, your happy nation and her honorable chief magistrate; but good fortune is no longer meant for me.

Monsieur President, accept the expression of my humble admiration, my keen recognition and my respect.

Paris, 23 floreal, year 11 - 13 May 1803.

B. G. E. G. Lacépède.