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February 1803, Washington City
Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, is writing a lengthy letter to William Henry Harrison, military governor of the Northwest Territory; that is, of the scarcely settled lands between the Mid-Atlantic states and the Mississippi River.
Jefferson is his own secretary, and he is almost certainly alone as he writes. The federal government of the United States is very small and highly personal. Jefferson will make a copy of this letter on an unsatisfactory machine called a letterpress that transfers a little of the ink from the original to a flimsy, almost transparent, sheet of paper. The third president is probably sitting in a pair of frayed trousers, wearing house slippers and a coat against the chill. He looks rather more like Bob Cratchit than Ebenezer Scrooge as he instructs Harrison on Indian policy and the role of the western country, across the Mississippi, in managing the Indian problem. We will get to the content of the letter in a moment, but if you are going to understand some of the history about to unfold, it is good to stop a moment and recognize that the entire Executive Office of the President consists of this middle-aged man, wearing casual clothes, alone in a rented house in Washington City.
Technically, Jefferson has a personal secretary. This is Captain Meriwether Lewis, U.S. Army, who is about to depart on an exploration of the country west of the Mississippi by ascending the Missouri River to its source and then proceeding down some western river to the Pacific Ocean. Lewis is probably unaware of the contents of the letter. He is a secretary in name only. Jefferson has brought him to Washingtonto prepare him for a more serious job than copying and filing letters. Lewis expects to lead a clandestine mission through a country that belongs to France, to Napoleon Bonaparte. The government funds for the expedition are a well-kept secret, the result of a concealed congressional vote. And Thomas Jefferson is keeping an important development hidden from the Congress: Two American envoys are about to begin negotiations to buy the island of New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi. Jefferson wants New Orleans so that trade down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers can move freely to the sea from the still lightly settled American soil along the Ohio River and the eastern bank of the Mississippi. It is a few decades before railroads, and goods from Ohio and Kentucky and Mississippi must move on the rivers. The island of New Orleans, first in French, then Spanish, and now again in French hands, is a barrier to free passage.
Napoleon has his little secret, too. Shortly after reacquiring the Louisiana Territory for France (Napoleon is governing Spain with puppets and relatives), Napoleon wants to trade it in for cash. He's not only ready to sell New Orleans, he wants to dump the whole of Louisiana--that is, all of the vast country north of Spanish Mexico and south of British Canada and west of the Mississippi River as far as to the Continental Divide, to the very headwaters of all the western tributaries of the Mississippi. Napoleon is going to need money for more adventuring in Continental Europe, and he is bleeding whole armies into a failing attempt to hang on to France's Caribbean island colony of Santo Domingo (today's Haiti and Dominican Republic). But Jefferson has no idea that this Louisiana real estate deal is in the works. So, when we read Jefferson's secret addition to his otherwise official letter to Harrison, we must remember that America stops at the Mississippi, with or without the island of New Orleans.
Jefferson begins by telling Harrison that the nation's policy "is to live in perpetual peace with the Indians, to cultivate an affectionate attachment from them, by everything just and liberal which we can do for them within the bounds of reason." Having said that, Jefferson then instructs Harrison on how to get rid of every last independent Indian tribe between the Atlantic states and the Mississippi.
Harrison is to encourage a series of government trading posts selling at a discount (to undercut the few itinerant French-Canadian traders and the increasing number of British traders coming down from Canada). "We shall push our trading . . . and be glad to see them run in debt, because we observe that when these debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they become willing to lop them off by a cession of lands. . . ."
Jefferson understands that some recalcitrant Indians may be unwilling to sell and "be foolhardy enough to take up the hatchet." In that case, Harrison is to seize "the whole country of that tribe" and drive them across the Mississippi. This would "be an example to others, and a furtherance of our final consolidation."
Jefferson is almost finished. As usual, the letter is in his own hand. And now he draws a firm line of emphasis under his last words. The contents of this letter, he reminds Harrison, "must be kept within your own breast, and especially how improper to be understood by the Indians. For their interests and their tranquility it is best they should see only the present age of their history." So, from the very beginning, we see the Indian policy of the United States for what it is: all agreements and all promises are temporary, expedient, and faithless.
There will be times, in the next few years, when almost everyone involved in this business of Louisiana will be happier if they live only in the future age of their history. The wildest plots, the most grandiose dreams, will thrive as long as the actors move toward an imaginary future bliss while ignoring present realities. Only a few will even attempt to judge the practicality of their desired future. They are an odd mixture of schemers, dreamers, revolutionaries, blackguards, and braggarts. Before it is done, Jefferson, that most complicated and opaque personality, will have played more than one of those parts.
Posted January 20, 2004
R.M. Montgomery took a fascinating period in history and made it less so. Bottom Line is that is just wasn't fun to read. I saw the book on a $4 table at an outlet store. After reading it, I can see why it was sitting there. One of the first things that Mr. Montgomery tells us is that WM Clark cannot spell, and that he will correct the diary entires for us, lest we think Clark is a fool. He says very clearly that he will not mention it again, yet at least three times during the book, Montgomery makes reference to Clark's poor spelling. He also seems to be jealous of Aaron Burr's sex life. He makes countless references to it, such as creating the 'two backed beast. My last issue is that the author seems to hate everyone in the book. He has almost nothing good to say about anyone. Even polar opposite from Alexander Hamilton to Thomas Jefferson. In Montgomery's world, no one can do anything right. The author offered comentary about every person and event that took place. I think he was trying to be funny, but the commentary wasn't working. It only make the book harder to read. W/O knowing anything else about R.M. Montgomery, I don't think I'll be reading anything else by him anytime soon.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 29, 2002
I claim no special knowldge of Jefferson or General Wilkinson but I do when it comes to Zebulon Montgomery Pike. This book bristles with factual errors concerning this great American. The author apparently never visited Colorado or he would not claim that Pike never even saw the massif that was named for him. Pikes Peak can be seen for a hundred miles or more from the eastern prarie which was Pike's route along the Arkansas River. Pike wrote from South Park that he had continually seen what he called Grand Peak every day (except when he was in the valleys) for the past two months. The author claims that Pike only ascended some foothill when he attempted to climb what would become Pikes Peak, when the truth is he climbned Mt. Rosa, 11,499' which was the first recorded ascent of any mountain in the American West. Moreover, he was the first American, in the United States, to reach the Alpine Zone (11,400' in Colorado). Some foothill. Pike was made a captain in November of 1806 while the author claims it happened in 1808. Pike died a hero's death for his country in the Battle of York. The author all but calls him a traitor. He apparently thinks that this young man came to Colorado to start a war with Spain. He asks us to believe that he and his men knew the location of Sante Fe and ignores the fact that Pike did not turn south at Canon City Colorado which would take them there in a few weeks. Instead Pike led his men into the Rocky Mountain Winter to the north-west, away from Sante Fe. The author insults such noted historians Steven Harding Hart and Archer B. Hulbert,Harvey Carter,Eugene Hollon, and Donald D. Jackson by claiming Pike has 'slipped beneath the notice of professional histonians.' He implies nothing but juvenile historians should deal with him further. Zebulon Pike is the Viet-Nam Vet of our early explorers. He starved, and froze, and became exhaused for our country as a matter of course. He led his men in the field of battle and won the first victory in the War of 1812. He made a marine type landing in the face of well armed and alerted Brittish Regulars, malitia and pro-Brit Indians. The author says he had an easy victory over a few 'Canadians' who defended Fort York. Authors like Montgomery have given Pike scant credit for his many acompolishments. He even claims Pike was never within 100 miles of the Sante Fe Trail. Pike followed the Arkansas River from Great Bend Kansas to Canon City. The Sante Fe Trail follows the Arkansas River from Great Bend, Kansas all the way to Bent's Fort, near Las Animas, Colorado where it turns south to Raton Pass. Why not give him his due? Pike's greatest accompolishment was not even mentioned in the book. Pike opened the eyes of America to what was going on in New Spain. Pike told America how the people were slaves to either Cross or Crown. He said their lives were regulated by the peal of the church bell or the rattle of the drum. He told how anxious the people of Mexico (northern New Spain) yearned for freedom and trade with America. Pike predicted the revolution of 1810 and said not one officer in a hundred was loyal to Madrid. Pike was the revealer who lived and died for his country and none of this is even mentioned. So many errors of fact and such a broad conclusion. As far as Pike is concerned much of this book should be in a novel, as it is not non-fiction.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 14, 2000
With all due respect to Mr. Montgomery, Publisher's Weekly and Kirkus have a point. This is not quite history, not quite good writing, not quite fun to read. If you're in the mood for some compelling history this summer, try The Great Divergence by Kenneth Pomeranz, well enough written to be easy to read, it is history of the sort that does matter, it will take you to new places and provoke you to think aobut the world in a new light. Even better written is Diana Muir's Bullough's Pond, a dazzling tour de force that proves that great writing and compelling, carefully researched history can be found in a single volume. A proposition that Mr. Montgomery does not prove.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 21, 2000