Book Review by Sapphire Ng
Copyright May 2016
Jefferson's America constitutes a rather transformative reading experience; it skillfully reenacts the grandeur and inspiring era of Jeffersonian exploration as it transports the reader through a time capsule to the administration of President Thomas Jefferson. A guaranteed favorite for history lovers, the narrative is a delightful mix of sacrifice and bravery, of admirable displays of leadership and demonstration of painful resilience coupled with unbelievable tenacity for survival, of camaraderie versus conflict and betrayal, triumphs and certainly failures. Meticulous details are a given in the book; there are inclusions of primary sources such as the correspondences between Jefferson and his explorers, or those he sought to enlist on his expedition roster, geographical descriptions, or even certain specificities on celestial navigation and associated measurements.
Fenster appropriately established the context for the book—details were furnished on the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. Most significantly, the Jefferson administration is said to be best known for the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. It was surely refreshing to read of specific attributes said to be associated with Jefferson—he was America's “first expansionist or even imperial president;” he was rather single-minded focused on acquisition, he drastic precedents for policy on new lands, and relentlessly sought “knowledge that was invaluable to his strategy for American security.” Other particulars, on the other hand, was conveyed somewhat amusingly; Jefferson's administration was based on “a frugality bordering on parsimony,” and he had a curious preference for “a downright emaciated navy.”
Related hostilities and disputes pertaining to territorial acquisition and ownership represents a predominant theme of the book. Memorably, the American and Spanish tension over the Louisiana Purchase was said to be “a war of insinuation” with “the weapon of the war” in the form of exploration. The Spanish desire to “quash American ambitions in the Southwest” was repeatedly emphasized; Spain expressed “wrath” and resentment towards American incursion, and the Spanish-American relationship “simmered just under the boiling point” every day under Jefferson's leadership. The Spanish execution of Philip Nolan, a celebrated American, for trespassing was symbolic of the antagonism, whilst Carlos Martinez de Yrujo—the Spanish ambassador to the United States—was a messenger and carrier of the Spanish attitude towards Americans.
At the core of the narrative are the Men of Jefferson variously recruited by the President; men entrusted with “the future of the American West,” and survey of the Louisiana Territory—a “complicated city” and “that shapeless composition of all countries.” Most prominent are Meriwether Lewis and William Clark whose successful expedition exemplified “the best of the Louisiana Purchase.”
Lieutenant Zebulon Pike was a remarkably poignant figure in the book, described by the author as “a singular man, sublimely stupid in pursuit of a goal,” and whom in death, was revered as an American who “did not even know how to quit.” It was heartbreaking to learn of Pike's terrible physicality as he eventually arrived at the supposed source of the Mississippi River, and his subsequent agonizing 12-mile trudge across the frozen Leech Lake. Pathetically, Pike's description of “one of the most horrific in the annals of exploration during Jefferson's era” was the direct consequence of his oblivion and poor judgement—his Sergeant and one of his Corporals suffered, the former “broke a blood vessel, and vomitted nearly two quarts of blood,” whilst the latter “evacuated nearly one pint of blood, when he attempted to void his urine.”
Other important explorers discussed in the book include the “zealous slaveholder” and suave master of the “art of benign internationalism,” William Dunbar, the surveyor Thomas Freeman, and George Hunter. Dunbar and Hunter embarked upon the Ouachita expedition, the first government-sponsored scientific project in United States history to present results; Freeman—whom Freeman's Corner, the location of the northeast corner of the Vincennes Tract and an anchor for Indiana Territory, was named after—was formally appointed to the Red River expedition.
Certain details of the explorations are distinctly absorbing, for example the mention of treacherous territories or perilous tribal encounters. Sensationally attention-grabbing is a point spotlighted regarding the Mdewakanton lands; explorers caught in the lands potentially “face the specter of being tied alive to a tree, with their own intestines used for rope.” A beautiful analogy of “tortured” and “unrepentant brawlers” were drawn to the nature and character of the “waterways of the West.” Another ominous instance is Lewis and Clark's encounter with the Tetons tribe; the tribe conspicuously displayed “sixty-five scalps” from a raid on an Omaha village.
It was a strikingly unique experience as well to be mentally transported to the time of the happenings of landmark events or enactments of specific legislations. It was surely enlightening to learn that the addition of the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution occurred during Jefferson's presidency. Or that the 1798 Sedition Act, “a hallmark” of the Adams presidency, was sanctioned at the time Jefferson was president of the American Philosophical Society (APS), and was vice president to President John Adams. The author even ventured as far back as before the American Independence, to the year of the Boston Tea Party—year 1773—“when the threat of rebellion, as well as the discussion of rights, dominated the American colonies.”
Unmistakable are certain pieces of information bound to sustain reader interest and engagement, notably comparisons drawn between the historical era and the present 21st century. Texas, during the Jefferson administration, was plainly and “practically unpopulated except for a string of missions and a scattering of Indian nations.” Of potential interest to linguists, the word “philosophical” back then bore a different meaning it does today; it referred to “the pure sciences.” In the realm of education and the synthesis of knowledge, the borders of Louisiana were extraordinarily and commonly listed in geography books as “indeterminate,” and distinct disciplines such as “chemistry, biology, astronomy, zoology, or anthropology” have yet to be fully embraced by American colleges.
The reader would appreciate certain intriguing pieces of information, particularly those specialized to certain fields. Personally, the brief description furnished by the author on the “meticulous process” involved in “the designation of headwaters”—the requirement of “an array of measurements at various times of year and the examination of all of the river's tributaries”—was singularly illuminating particularly during the evaluation of Pike's success, or rather failure, of locating the actual source of the Mississippi River.
The book is undoubtedly educational, and exciting in select portions. Certain parts of the book which contains exceedingly mundane details of the expeditions however seemed rather bland.
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books for this review.