Today is the 200th anniversary of the mysterious death of Captain Meriwether Lewis. A few years ago, we wrote a book about Lewis and Clark and what happened to them after the Expedition. Called To the Ends of the Earth, the book helped us say what we wanted to say about honor, extraordinary friendship, and what happens to heroes sometimes.
We have since written a new book called The Fairest Portion of the Globe (due out February 2010) that focuses on the adventure of Lewis & Clark’s early friendship. After spending the last six years working on books about Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, they have become far more than figures from a history book. They have become friends and constant companions.
Still, there is no escaping the haunting shadow of Lewis’s death at age 35. Unless the National Park Service gives permission for Lewis’s body to be exhumed–and perhaps not even then–the truth may never be known. Was it suicide or murder? If it was suicide, what drove this brilliant, witty, and courageous man to take his own life? If it was murder, who did it, and why?
There are some who believe that Lewis’s suicide–if indeed he did shoot himself that lonely, desperate night at Grinder’s Stand near Nashville, Tennessee–is an indelible stain on his character. There have been reams of paper and gallons of ink expended trying to “clear his name.”
When working on Ends, we too were trying to understand what could break a man like Lewis, and what it might mean. In the course of that research, we found a remarkable eulogy by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, memorializing a young man who committed suicide. Peale’s words cannot be improved upon as a tribute to our friend, Captain Meriwether Lewis, late of the Corps of Northwestern Discovery:
“Our friend died on his own battlefield. He was killed in action fighting a civil war. He fought against adversaries that were as real to him as his casket is real to us. They were powerful adversaries. They took toll of his energies and endurance. They exhausted the last vestiges of his courage and his strength. At last these adversaries overwhelmed him. And it appeared that he had lost the war. But did he? I see a host of victories that he has won!
“For one thing, he has won our admiration, because even if he lost the war, we give him credit for his bravery on the battlefield. And we give him credit for the courage and pride and hope that he used as his weapons as long as he could. We shall remember not his death, but his daily victories gained through his kindnesses and thoughtfulness, through his love for family and friends, for animals and books and music, for all things beautiful, lovely and honorable. We shall remember not his last day of defeat, but we shall remember the many days that he was victorious over overwhelming odds. We shall remember not the years we thought he had left, but the intensity with which he lived the years that he had. Only God knows what this child of His suffered in the silent skirmishes that took place in his soul. But our consolation is that God does know, and understands.”