Julie Fenster’s new book Jefferson’s America fills very interesting niche in early American history. Everyone with even a smattering of American history education knows of the Louisiana Purchase and the exploits of Lewis & Clark.
What Fenster does in her book, is to fill in this era with details largely lost in a typical American history survey course. For example, with the first mention of the Louisiana Purchase there is usually a map shown of the geography of the Purchase. However, when Jefferson paid $15M he and no one else knew the extent of the purchase. There simply was no knowledge or established boundaries. The establishment of the boundary between America and Spanish claims is the result of diplomatic maneuvers and gifted foresight of Jefferson to avoid a shooting war with Spain. The foresight that Jefferson had was to see a path for establishing American claims not by occupation with armed troops but rather through exploration. Fenster does an excellent job of illuminating this vision.
It would have been easy to go over the well traveled ground of the Lewis & Clark expedition to excess. But, in Jefferson’s America the Lewis & Clark expedition is described in just enough detail to illustrate its position in the context of Jefferson’s vision and diplomatic efforts.
In addition, however, we also learn about several other expeditions equally as important but much lesser known. For example there is the expedition of William Dunbar and Dr. George Hunter up the Ouachita River. This less expansive and lesser known, never the less, provided Americans with their first scientific data and interaction with Native Americans in the territory.
Jefferson also commissioned Lt. Zebulon Pike to explore the head waters of the Mississippi River (remember Lewis & Clark explored the Missouri River). During the same 3 year period, he also commissioned Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis to navigate the Red River with the expected direct confrontation with armed Spanish troops. The result of Freeman’s trip was the establishment of the Red River as the boundary with Spanish territory.
Swirling in the background of these expeditions of Jefferson is the intrigues of another character lesser known to most, General James Wilkinson. Wilkinson becomes a player because of his intrigues as a paid confident of the Spanish government at the same time as an American government official. ‘Jefferson’s America’ doesn’t do just to the complex Gen. Wilkinson. The reader is directed to the biography, An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson by Andro Linklater.
Overall Jefferson’s America is an excellent book to fill in a short but important period in our history.