Study Guide

Louisiana Purchase and Lewis & Clark Introduction

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Louisiana Purchase and Lewis & Clark Introduction

Batman and Robin, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Pinky and the Brain—there are so many dynamic duos that American culture has bestowed upon us. Imagine all of these amazing duos combined: two guys (or mice) saving the day, exploring the West, and trying to take over the world—er, conducting scientific experiments, to boot. 

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark formed the Corps of Discovery, assembled by Thomas Jefferson. Their task was to explore the great unknown, at least as far as the Pacific Ocean, anyway. Here was America, a nation intent on moving out west and boldly going where no man—well, European man—had gone before. And Lewis and Clark were sent to blaze the trail.

The same year that Lewis and Clark began their massive hike, the Louisiana Purchase—a clear win for the U.S. and President Thomas Jefferson—hit the books. 

Louisiana had been owned by Spain since 1763, but the French had long dreamed of retaking the lost land. In 1800, French ruler Napoleon, struck a super secret deal, snagging the territory back from Spain (who France had given it to just 40 years earlier in another super secret deal).

But then, Napoleon failed to squash a slave revolution in Haiti. Wait, what? Yes, Haiti's independence movement was also a slave rebellion. Not only was this an incredible achievement for the people of Haiti, but France felt the blow of it. 40,000 French troops were killed, it was super costly, and losing Haiti meant keeping the nearby Port of New Orleans for supplies and military defense was no longer necessary. Napoleon's dream of his own New World empire quickly disappeared.

Basically, developments in Haiti had important effects on two fronts: they made France less willing and able to keep the Louisiana Territory itself and also more desperate to make a profit by selling it. So, the U.S. was able to purchase the Louisiana Territory at seriously below market price.

$15 million dollars for the entire Louisiana Territory? That's 3 cents an acre, guys. Not only was it a steal of a deal, but it doubled the size of our already growing nation. And all this new land needed to be explored, of course.

Back to the journey of Lewis and Clark: it was a true voyage of discovery. Jefferson's instructions to Meriwether Lewis were broad. Not only were they to map the unknown wilderness of the American West and establish friendly relations with the Native Americans who lived there, but they were also to conduct detailed observations of flora and fauna (plants and animals), of climate (weather), of soils and minerals, and even of fossils of extinct species.

Prior to the journey, Lewis received special training in scientific methods and in the use of instruments like the sextant, telescope, and chronometer. He brought with him on the journey an extensive—and heavy—library of scientific references, including books on botany (plants), mineralogy (rocks and minerals), and astronomy (space, the final frontier).

Lewis and Clark's journals were full of careful illustrations of newly discovered species. The explorers collected more than 300 specimens of plants and animals for shipment back to Washington, D.C. Three animals—two magpies and a prairie dog—even made it back alive.

And obviously, they were able to explore the newly-added Louisiana Territory as well as all the way into the Oregon Territory. At least until it rained so much they were forced to go home. 

Stupid weather.

What is Louisiana Purchase and Lewis & Clark About and Why Should I Care?

Lewis and Clark's two-year expedition from St. Louis to the mouth of the Columbia River and back—a pretty impressive feat if we do say so ourselves—solidified American claims not only to Louisiana but also to the Oregon Territory of the Pacific Northwest. 

But they weren't just exploring for exploring's sake—they were also doing sciencey things, in true Enlightenment fashion. Following detailed instructions from Thomas Jefferson himself, Lewis and Clark became diplomats, anthropologists, botanists, zoologists, meteorologists, and geologists, collecting tons of information on the land, people, plants, and animals they encountered, and writing it all down in their famous journals.

Taken together, the Louisiana Purchase and Voyage of Discovery are usually remembered as a total slam-dunk for the United States and for Thomas Jefferson: an incredible real estate purchase combined with a courageous feat of exploration to help make Jefferson's vision of a transcontinental American "empire of liberty" a reality. 

But if we look at the big picture, we can see that buying all that extra land, while awesome in many ways, also caused a lot of political problems for our little fledgling nation. Jefferson himself believed the purchase was unconstitutional (whoops), and yet he went through with it anyway. 

Kind of undermines his whole thing about keeping executive power small and not overreaching what the Constitution specifically spells out, huh?

Even more troubling in the long term, the Louisiana Purchase created half a century of sectional conflict, as Southern slave states and Northern free states fought to impose their respective labor systems on the new territories. The new states that eventually emerged from the purchase—thirteen of them, from Louisiana to Montana—would very delicately hold the balance of power between slave and free states. 

Not to be total downers on this slam-dunk of a purchase, but a lot of these big events that went down because of the Louisiana Purchase—like the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision—ended up pushing us down the road to Civil War.

We won't go into those ugly episodes now, but keep that thought in your back pocket as you travel along with Lewis and Clark, our dynamic duo. Actually, throw in Thomas Jefferson, too: there's our trifecta.

Louisiana Purchase and Lewis & Clark Resources


Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (1996)
Ambrose, one of America's most popular narrative historians, tells the story of Lewis and Clark's expedition to the Pacific in all its glorious detail.

C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938)
Trinidadian C.L.R. James was perhaps the best scholar to emerge from the Caribbean in the 20th century, and this classic history of the Haitian Revolution remains indispensable decades after its first publication. James' lively writing and incisive Marxian analysis make sense of the dizzying series of twists and turns that roiled Saint-Domingue between 1791 and 1804. 

Roger G. Kennedy, Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause: Land, Farmers, Slavery, and the Louisiana Purchase (2003)
Kennedy's book is a bit of a mess in terms of organization, but is still worthwhile for its deep exploration of the tragedy inherent in Thomas Jefferson, who dreamed of an expansive yeoman's republic but paved the way for the expansion of slaveocracy.

Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985)
Mintz's fascinating historical and anthropological study traces the journey of sugar from a rare and valuable luxury spice to an indispensable everyday consumer product. Mintz ably tells the remarkable story of how sweetness, and our desire to taste it, has profoundly shaped the world we live in.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995)
If the Haitian Revolution was indeed one of the most astounding events in human history, how come so many of us know so little about it? Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot explores the question of why some past events are enshrined in our historical narratives, while others—like the Haitian Revolution—are largely forgotten ("silenced").


Black Liberator
Toussaint Louverture, former slave and leader of the Black uprising in Saint-Domingue

Haitian Revolution
Engraving of fighting between ex-slaves and French soldiers in Saint-Domingue/Haiti

Sugar: Invaluable Cash Crop
Sugar cane, driver of the global economy in the 17th and 18th centuries

Journal of Discovery
A page of Meriwether Lewis' journal, including an illustration of salmon

Napoleon Bonaparte, French Emperor and seller of Louisiana

Louisiana Territory
Map of the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the United States in 1803. 13 states would eventually emerge from the lands acquired.


Lewis and Clark's Journals
The journals of Lewis and Clark—among of the most exciting primary sources in American history—are now available in searchable format online. Not to be missed by anyone interested in learning more about the voyage of discovery.

Recreate the Voyage of Discovery
National Geographic has created a fascinating interactive online exhibit on Lewis and Clark. Especially strong on Lewis and Clark's scientific discoveries and observations, the site features extensive excerpts from the Captains' diaries and a fascinating inventory of all items carried by the Corps of Discovery.

More Lewis and Clark
As a companion to Ken Burns' documentary, Lewis and Clark, PBS has constructed a fine website that meets their usual high standards. A fun interactive trail map is but one of dozens of interesting features.

Jefferson's West
The folks who run the museum at Thomas Jefferson's estate at Montiecello, Virginia, have created an online exhibit that contextualizes the Lewis and Clark expedition within Jefferson's broader vision of a larger "Empire of Liberty" in the American West. Be sure to check out the full text of Jefferson's instructions to Meriwether Lewis.

Historical Documents

First Black Republic
Toussaint Louverture's Haitian Constitution of 1801

Jefferson's Instructions
Thomas Jefferson's instructions to Meriwether Lewis for organizing the Voyage of Discovery

Meriwether Lewis' packing list for the Voyage of Discovery

The Treaty
Here's the full text of the treaty that doubled the size of the United States, along with an entire learning guide devoted to the discussion of it.

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