“I received, my dear Sir, with unspeakable joy your letter of Sep. 23 announcing the return of yourself, Capt. Clarke & your party in good health to St. Louis,” Thomas Jefferson wrote on October 24, 1806. “The unknown scenes in which you were engaged, & the length of time without hearing of you had begun to be felt awfully.”
Meriwether Lewis had finally made it home. Jefferson had not heard from him in well over a year, since the shipment of specimens and artifacts Lewis and Clark sent from their winter camp in Fort Mandan in April 1805 had reached Washington. Jefferson welcomed Lewis home, assuring Lewis of “my constant affection for you & the joy with which all your friends here will receive you.” Lewis was hailed as a hero when he finally arrived back at the President’s House on December 28. He had last seen Jefferson three and a half years before.
It must have been a great moment for the young explorer. Even so, Lewis knew the trip was not without its disappointments. The fabled Northwest Passage, an easy all-water route across the continent, had not been found—because it didn’t exist. Both Lewis and Jefferson hoped that the other benefits of the trip—the knowledge of the flora and fauna, Indian peoples, potential trade routes and geography—would be enough to justify the expedition’s considerable expense to Congress.
Lewis remained with Jefferson for several months, debriefing the president on the specifics of the journey. In February 1807, as a reward for his success, Jefferson appointed Lewis governor of the Territory of Upper Louisiana. In addition, Jefferson assigned Lewis the important task of getting the expedition journals ready for publication, a work that would include a two-volume narrative of the voyage, a scientific volume describing the plant, animal, and mineral discoveries of the expedition, and a final volume featuring Clark’s map and other geographic data.
It was too much—and a sure recipe for failure. Lewis hurried to Philadelphia to enlist the advice of experts to help with the journals, but he seems not to have considered hiring anyone else to actually write the narrative. No doubt Jefferson, with his facility with words, assumed Lewis could do it easily himself. But Lewis struggled with re-entry into normal life; after two and a half years immersed in the wilderness—not to mention recovering from a painful gunshot wound—it would not be surprising if he were overwhelmed and exhausted. Jefferson, who had traveled to France as a U.S. diplomat but otherwise never been more than a few hundred miles from Monticello, simply did not understand.
For months, Lewis drowned in paperwork, trying to get together records and receipts of the expedition’s expenditures. He worked on a detailed paper on an Indian policy for Louisiana. Business in Louisiana was increasingly urgent—the territory was fraught with disputes over land and Indian rights—but Lewis did not actually arrive in the territory to take up his job until March of 1808. He was immediately engulfed in a political hornet’s nest.
Meanwhile, the expedition journals sat there, unpublished. By the summer of 1808, Jefferson was losing patience. “Since I parted with you in Albemarle in Sept. last I have never had a line from you,” he chided in a letter to Lewis dated July 17. After wanting to know what Lewis was going to do about returning the Indian chief Sheheke to the Mandan villages, he nagged: “We have no tidings yet of the forwardness of your printer. I hope the first part will not be delayed much longer.”
Lewis did not reply to the letter. Imagine his anxiety at Jefferson’s disappointment—he had not yet written a single line. Most writers need quiet, uninterrupted time to complete a work; it requires both concentration and effort. Lewis did not have uninterrupted time. And now he was letting Thomas Jefferson down.
Jefferson’s last communication to Lewis was on August 16, 1809. By this time Jefferson was out of office, and the journals had languished for almost three years. Jefferson wrote: “I am very often applied to know when your work will begin to appear; and I have so long promised copies to my literary correspondents in France, that I am almost bankrupt in their eyes. I shall be very happy to receive from yourself information of your expectations on the subject. Every body is impatient for it.”
Again, Lewis didn’t reply. He still had not started the narrative, and by this time, he was in deep trouble with the Madison administration for expenses incurred trying to get Sheheke back home. Lewis made plans to go to Washington to straighten the mess out, but he was never to see his mentor again.
In October 1809, at Grinder’s Stand on the Natchez Trace, Lewis “did the deed which plunged his friends into affliction, and deprived his country of one of her most valued citizens,” Jefferson wrote in a biographical sketch published in 1813. He continued, “While he lived with me, in Washington, I observed at times sensible depressions of mind…after he returned to St. Louis, and sedentary occupations, they returned upon him with redoubled vigor, and began seriously to alarm his friends.”
It is unknowable to what degree the pressure of Jefferson’s expectations—and Lewis’s failure to meet them—contributed to Lewis’s misery. What is known is that Jefferson was still disappointed, four years later. He had invested a great deal of time training Lewis, and perhaps he felt that it didn’t pay off.
Still chafing over the unpublished journals, Jefferson added to his memorial of Lewis: “[The nation] lost, too … the benefit of receiving from his own hand the narrative…of his sufferings and successes in endeavoring to extend for them the boundaries of science, and to present to their knowledge that vast and fertile country which their sons are destined to fill with arts, with science, with freedom and happiness.”