Two hundred years ago this week, President Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to his former personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis, outlining his instructions and goals for the upcoming journey of the Corps of Discovery. In perhaps the most quoted excerpt from the letter, Jefferson explains:
The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River, and such principal stream of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean... may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce.
Jefferson goes on to request detailed cartographic, geographic and anthropological findings from Lewis. He also outlines contingencies, should the Corps run into hostilities or other difficulties. Historians have relied on Jefferson's letter to understand the motives supporting the journey of Lewis and Clark and have seen it as proof of the president's complex interests.
But local author and historian Laurie Winn Carlson thinks there's more to the letter -- and to Jefferson -- than historians have previously understood. Carlson believes that Jefferson's letter failed to outline the mission's true purpose. In her new book, Seduced by the West, she argues that Jefferson's unspoken goal was to provoke Spain into attacking American interests and/or territories, thus providing the president the excuse he needed to take on yet another European colonial power. To support her theory, Carlson dug into the deeds of nefarious characters from Aaron Burr to the mysterious General James Wilkinson, who served for years as a double agent for Spain while holding command positions in the U.S. military.
Carlson says she first became interested in the dealings of the early American republic while taking a graduate class at EWU. While discussing Lewis and Clark, she wondered why the Corps hadn't returned to the east by sea rather than embarking on yet another arduous overland journey.
"I just kept thinking, 'Why wasn't there a ship there?'" she recalls. She read a book about the history of the Spanish along the Pacific coast and became further intrigued. "I thought, 'Wow, this is huge. There were all kinds of people roaming around here. It wasn't just empty, like the myth goes.' "
She dug deeper and uncovered stories of earlier attempts to cross the continent, including the fascinating tale of John Ledyard, who attempted to walk across the breadth of Russia and into Alaska. Eventually she bumped into the story of Aaron Burr, Jefferson's vice-president during his first term, who killed political opponent Alexander Hamilton in a duel and later plotted to create a new nation in the western territories and Mexico.
"Nobody's sure where to put each of these individuals, and nobody mentions Wilkinson and all of the dynamics that were going on," she says. "So, I found Aaron Burr very fascinating, and this huge amount of public support, thousands of people ready to take off and start another country."
The author of many books for children, Carlson first gained attention in the realm of history with her 1999 book, A Fever in Salem. Subtitled A New Interpretation of the New England Witch Trials and adapted from her award-winning master's thesis, the book argues for a medical explanation to the notorious accusations and prosecutions for witchcraft in 17th-century Massachusetts. Carlson later wrote Cattle: An Informal Social History, and she is currently enrolled in the Ph.D. program in history at WSU in Pullman.
As a historical study, Seduced by the West doesn't break much new ground. Historian James Ronda wrote about the Spanish connection in his 2001 book, Finding the West, and even the hegemonic Stephen Ambrose mentions Spanish intrigue in Undaunted Courage. Like most traditional historical narratives, Carlson's book focuses on European and American men and their maneuvers to grab power and land.
Where the book stands out is in its unsparing critique of Thomas Jefferson and his dealings, both personal and political. Carlson makes no attempt to hide her distaste for the nation's third president.
"His treatment of women was so poor that I can't help but be critical," she explains. "He didn't like his mother at all. He begrudged every cent of support he ever gave her, but it was her farm, her slaves. I think he was a conniving kind of person."
Perhaps due to her years of writing children's books, Carlson writes didactically, often telling the reader what to think. Rather than presenting her evidence, stating her thesis, and letting readers reach their own conclusions, she is prone to making broad-brush statements about the motives and feelings of historical figures that cannot possibly be known. Still, any time a writer from Eastern Washington makes a splash in the publishing world, it's worth noting.
"The one term you'll find in all the reviews of my books is 'provocative,'" she says. "I don't see it as deliberately trying to be a muckraker. Instead, I'm saying, 'Wait a minute, it's a different story, here's some more stuff to consider.' But if it wasn't provocative, the books wouldn't get any attention."
Histories are written generally from the perspective of the victors and those in power, so historic figures -- on the victorious side -- are glorified and made larger than life. Revisionist historians focus their energies on debunking myths and knocking traditional heroes off their pedestals. The truth, that full and complicated story of everything that happened, lies somewhere between the extremes of heroism and depravity, likely including healthy doses of each. In a similar vein, Carlson's final chapter suggests that history's view of Jefferson emerged without blemish thanks to family intervention.
"Nicholas Trist appears as an interesting person because I really think he shaped what we see as Jefferson," Carlson explains. "He married Jefferson's granddaughter solely to get next to Jefferson. He was at Jefferson's deathbed, he processed the will, he took care of Jefferson's library, he went through and sorted all his papers. He was the final one who gave us the Jefferson we have today."
A person of the 21st century inevitably carries knowledge that was unknowable 200 years ago. On the other hand, no one living today can understand the full context of life in 1803. The best we can do -- as historians, readers and those who wish to learn from the past -- is to see the various interpretations of history like Carlson's as pieces in a vast puzzle. From that perspective, Seduced by the West is a valuable contribution to ongoing debates about what kind of nation we have been and will be in the future.
Publication date: 06/19/03