This day I completed my thirty first year, and conceived that I had in all human probability now existed about half the period which I am to remain in this Sublunary world. I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little indeed, to further the hapiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation. I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and now soarly feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended. but since they are past and cannot be recalled, I dash from me the gloomy thought and resolved in future, to redouble my exertions and at least indeavour to promote those two primary objects of human existance, by giving them the aid of that portion of talents which nature and fortune have bestoed on me; or in future, to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself.—
What would you think about someone who wrote this in his diary? Would you think the person was depressed and gloomy—tormented by regret and full of self-doubt? Or would you think the writer was motivated and forward-looking, determined to improve himself and eager to explore future possibilities?
Meriwether Lewis wrote this passage in his journal on August 18, 1805, the evening of his thirty-first birthday. It is probably the most picked-over paragraph in the entire body of the Lewis and Clark journals. Of everything Lewis ever wrote, these words have done more than anything else to cement his image as a melancholy, troubled man, already headed down the path to suicide.
Historians differ in their interpretation of Lewis’s birthday note. It is nearly impossible not to view his words through the prism of his violent death four years later. It is striking that Lewis wrote these words while at the Continental Divide—a critical point in the Expedition, where he seemed to have come so far and accomplished so much. Yet Lewis had no way of knowing at that moment how the journey would turn out. He didn’t know that in a little over a year he would be returning home a hero. At that moment, he had the Rocky Mountains to cross.
His thoughts seemed to be running along the lines of “I haven’t done anything yet.” Given the task ahead—and the reality that there was no turning back—it would not be surprising if he felt the weight of the world on his shoulders. Still, this is hardly evidence of excessive melancholy. Impatience with himself and the situation, perhaps—but hardly suicidal impulses.
One of the most interesting commentaries on the birthday note I have read comes from historian John D. W. Guice in By His Own Hand? The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis. As a professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, Guice used to hand out the birthday journal entry to his university students on the first day of class, with instructions to write a few sentences about the person who wrote it. “Of the several hundred paragraphs that I received over two years, not one student identified the birthday thoughts as evidence of depression or impending self-destruction,” Guice wrote. In some respects, he suggests, the self-reflective thoughts Lewis expresses are typical of someone who is approaching what they consider to be middle-age.
So what do you think? Was Lewis already losing it at the point in the expedition? Is the birthday note evidence of depression and impending mental disintegration? Or as the country song says, was he simply expressing the hope that, “I’ll do better in my next thirty years?”