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

Thematic View

For Jefferson, pondering the West became an academic exercise as the Revolutionary War neared its conclusion. It was in 1780 during his troubled time as Virginia's governor that he received from the French legation to the United States a query seeking details on the natural features and characteristics of his state. Jefferson's responses to the survey questions formed the foundation of his Notes on Virginia, a work later published in France and England that reveals Jefferson's attitudes on and understanding of a variety of subjects ranging from race relations to the differences between Old and New World animals. This work pushed Jefferson to consider in greater detail the land west of the Mississippi and to reflect on it in relation to the emergent American regime. Consequently, he redefined his conception of the West to encompass an even greater portion of the North American continent.

In many areas of scholarly and scientific endeavor, the dominant forces in American intellectual life of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century were the distinguished members of the American Philosophical Society Held at Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge. The organization, founded in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) and others, was created to foster the arts and to studying agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation in order to spur improvements and assure economic vitality for the new nation while encouraging greater scientific achievement. The body of knowledge mastered by member polymaths ran the gamut from astronomy to paleontology.