Saturday, July 1, 2017

Summer Reading 2017 Jefferson's America: The President, the Purchase, and the Explorers Who Transformed a Nation


Did you ever have to write a report on a president when you were in school? I remember writing about Thomas Jefferson when I was in third grade. I was impressed with all his accomplishments, and had a hard time figuring out the pronunciation of Monticello. But the only sources back then were the biographies in the school library, or the family edition of World Book Encyclopedia. Those books barely mentioned the explorers he sent out to map the Louisiana Territory, mostly just their names and the dates of their expeditions. If you had the same experience, there is now a cure for our lack of information - Jefferson's America by Julie M. Fenster.

In her book, Fenster traces the events and world politics that led up to the Louisiana Purchase. She explains the personalities involved - Jefferson, Napoleon, Carlos IV, Talleyrand, Godoy, Grenville - and the posturing and empire building they were attempting in North America. Mixed in with the international scene, there were also the internal politics of the United States. Jefferson's service under Washington, his own presidency, the famous Burr-Hamilton duel, and other events and relationships are painted in as the backdrop of the action along the western frontier. 

It seems amazing that so many people had so many different schemes and personal agendas. When we look back at the times of the founding fathers, we tend to imagine that everyone was pulling together for the good of our fledgling nation. We are surprised to hear that the government was run by human beings rather than saints, and that they played power games and backed pet projects just as politicians do today. And it may seem callous to us that Jefferson would send men out to explore when he knew that the other nations with territories outside the U.S. borders might kill them on sight. But each man who answered his call "was hungrier than all those he left behind to see the New World of his generation - the American West."

Jefferson's explorers were successful to varying degrees, and they received varying amounts of fame and recognition for their efforts. Some became household names, like Lewis & Clark. Others, such as Thomas Freeman, tend to be forgotten outside of history classrooms. They were not just filling in blank spaces on a map, or meeting native tribes and establishing lines of communication. These men were helping the president to "bring forward in place of his words the color of the rock, the words of the chiefs, the direction of the water, and the fact that the American mind had met its frontier." Jefferson needed to appease the critics who disagreed with the money spent on the territory, as well as feed the popular curiosity about what the west was like. 

The text of the book does a wonderful job of making the personalities of these historical figures come alive, and to toggle back and forth between the various expeditions to give a sense of how much was going on in so many different directions at once. It is easy to see why some details were left out of the World Book articles. Most parents wouldn't approve of their children learning about the reputation Sacajawea's husband had for "interfering with underage girls." And Ellicott's ploy of bringing his own "harlot" on a surveying mission by passing her off as his washerwoman wouldn't really be a fact to include in an elementary school report.

Along with all the details about the explorers and what they found, the author also puts the whole situation into a context that modern minds can appreciate. Yes, these men risked their lives to travel where few Europeans or their descendants had gone, but it was more than that. As Fenster puts it, this was a cold war of the early nineteenth century. "In the last part of the twentieth century,the entry into space served the same purpose in a climate just as tense between the United States and the Soviet Union." A-ha, now we get it.

Anyone interested in general U.S. history, early American heroes, or the Jefferson presidency will enjoy this thoughtfully written text. Some readers who do not normally turn to nonfiction may find themselves absorbed in the tales of pirogue portages (say that three times quickly), log jams, and grizzly bears.

There is more information about the author and the book available on the publisher's website. The hardback copy came out last spring. The books is now available in a paperback edition.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

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