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Clay Jenkinson

Clay Jenkinson is a public humanities scholar who lives and writes in Bismarck, N.D. He grew in western North Dakota, not far from Theodore Roosevelt’s Badlands. He attended the University of Minnesota, the University of Colorado and Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He also is the host of the "Thomas Jefferson Hour," a syndicated public radio program dedicated to the search for truth in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson.

CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — On Jefferson And Leadership

Just a note about Jefferson and leadership.

First, he was reluctant. Thanks to the influence of classical culture, all of the Founding Fathers had to pretend that they would rather be home tending their garden than hold political power, but Jefferson seems actually to have meant that.

He was a shy, thin-skinned, scholarly man who had a poor speaking voice and loved to be home in his slippers reading from his extensive library, writing exquisite letters on fine handmade paper and tending to his prize geraniums. When he said he had no more desire to government than to ride his horse through a storm, Jefferson meant it.

Second, he seems to have learned early on to check his ego at the door. There was a kind of selflessness about Jefferson’s leadership: quiet voice, understated arguments, no drama and almost excessive willingness to hear from everyone else and seek consensus. It would be impossible to think of Jefferson raising his voice, for example, or pounding the table, or declaring ex cathedra how things were going to be handled, or sending out a dawn tweet for that matter.

He had a great quality of great leaders of not needing to get credit for his ideas. In fact, he was so determined to lead from consensus and to let the will of the people tell him how to proceed, that they might not have been a great leader in crisis.

He was no Theodore Roosevelt. In fact, he was no FDR. He believed that he existed to turn the will of the people, as far as he understood it, into careful action. Hamilton frequently found fault with Jefferson for being too cautious, not bold enough.

Third, Jefferson was an actual Utopian visionary who truly believed in the severely limited government. “A few plain duties performed by a few honest men,” he wrote. In theory, Jefferson was an anarchist. He believed in no formal government at all, that each of us would be a fully self-actualized being who governed him or herself, and then beyond that, all we would really need was a post office.

You hear people today talking about limited government, but that usually means they don’t like taxes, or they want to kill off all the government programs they don’t happen to like, like the National Endowment for the Arts or the Department of Education, and then keep the rest. Jefferson is that rarest of beings. Someone who actually wanted us to try for a minimalist national government. You can imagine what he would think of our swollen leviathan government extending its tentacles into every aspect of our lives. With 1.4 million civilians receiving salaries directly from the U.S. Treasury and literally millions of federal regulations.

If you believe in democracy or even a Jeffersonian republic, the idea of leaders is inherently problematic. Jefferson can hardly be a bold, ambitious, dramatic, strong man on a white horse and still believe that the people should largely govern themselves, even if he had had a white horse mentality, which he didn’t.

Fourth. Jefferson was a patient leader. He reckoned the time was on America’s side, that most things can probably be left alone and that precipitous action is almost always the worst possible response to a problem or a crisis.

He was always content to wait — to gather information, to see how things unfolded according to their own dynamics, buy for time — because he knew that the United States was going to get stronger, more prosperous and more independent over time and that we were uniquely blessed by the 3,000 mile moat that separated us from the broken Old World across the Atlantic.

He was extremely patient with the Mississippi River crisis between 1801 and 1803, and the result was the Louisiana Purchase. He was patient with respect to the growing Aaron Burr treason circus of 1806 and 1807, and the result was civil harmony in the trans-Appalachian west. He was patient during what he called the reign of witches in 1798, the period of the alien and sedition laws, and the result was that he became the third president of the United States at the next election. When others called for immediate action, Jefferson was content to hold his cards close to his chest and observe things.

Finally, Jefferson believed in peace, not peace at any cost, but peace if in any honorable way possible. He regarded war as ancient and medieval barbarism and savagery, trying to maintain its bloody market share in a much more enlightened world. “Peace,” Jefferson said, “is my passion.”

He believed a republic like ours should never start a war and only go to war after every possible attempt had been made to find a peaceful alternative. Of all of the Founding Fathers, Jefferson was the one who found least glory in war, violence, the parade of troops, the ingenuity of weaponry or the arrogance of the officer corps.

Do we have such leaders today? Even with some of the principles in terms adjusted for inflation and retooled for a dangerous global arena, the answer is no. Time to stop beating up Jefferson for his real and perceived faults and to hearken to his vision of a self-sufficient, highly educated, peaceful, mild-mannered self-led and self-actualized republic. If we worked on those matters, most of our troubles, to use a Jeffersonian metaphor, would disappear like the fog when the sun rises in the morning.

CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — The Supreme Court: Political From The Get-Go

We like to think of the Supreme Court as a nonpartisan and completely independent branch of government that makes sure laws passed by Congress and the states conform to the provisions of the United States Constitution.

The Supreme Court aspires to that Olympian detachment and judicial neutrality but seldom achieves it. Like it or not, there is a political substratum in court appointments, and it can produce great political tension at unsettled moments in American life. Like now.

Presidents nominate Supreme Court justices and the Senate has to confirm. There has been occasional trouble since the very beginning.

The first justice to be denied a seat on the court was a man named John Rutledge. It was 1795, just seven years into the new constitutional order. Rutledge had written an op ed piece critical of the Jay Treaty — a 1794 treaty with Britain that tried to resolve certain lingering issues from the War of Independence. That was enough for a Federalist Senate to scotch his candidacy.

Jefferson came into office in 1801 in what he called the Second American Revolution. But poised to prevent that revolution was Chief Justice John Marshall, Jefferson’s distant cousin. He was put into his life-tenured position in the last months of John Adams’ failed one-term administration. Adams, who distrusted Jefferson’s democratic radicalism, essentially engaged in last-minute court packing — Marshall and dozens of other midnight appointments — to make sure Jefferson did not take things too far to the left.

Marshall went on to serve for 34 years. He was perhaps the greatest of all Supreme Court justices. He was indeed a thorn in Jefferson’s side. Marshall wanted America to be a great centralized nation state, not a confederation of sovereign states. Marshall envisioned a nation that prized the sanctity of contract above any temporary notion of social justice. He despised Jefferson’s vision of a lightly governed, inward-looking, agriculturally based loose association of proud commonwealths like Virginia and Pennsylvania. We now live in Marshall’s America, not Jefferson’s.

Jefferson struck back at the judiciary in 1804 by convincing his partisans in the House of Representatives to impeach Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who had become an obnoxious and outspoken anti-democrat from the bench. The question was this: Can you impeach a justice for what you regard as his nasty politics. The U.S. Senate chose not to convict Chase.

Jefferson seems to have sensed that he was playing a dangerous game, one that could erode constitutional stability. In the aftermath, he admitted that such impeachments were a bungling enterprise and he desisted from meddling with the independence of the judiciary thereafter. Jefferson appointed three justices to the Supreme Court. Every one of them wound up disappointing him.

The last attempt to pack the court was in 1937, when Franklin Roosevelt, just re-elected in a landslide, attempt to increase the number of justices from nine to 15 so that his emergency New Deal legislation would not be struck down by judicial conservatives any longer. Congress balked. Even Democrats in Congress, including senators and representatives devoted to the New Deal, refused to give Roosevelt such unprecedented power. He was frustrated, but this is how our system is supposed to work.

What we should want is a justice with a first-rate mind, great analytical powers, an unusually high capacity for legal discernment and nuance, a deep grounding in the history of law, the history of natural rights and the history of constitutions, particularly “our” Constitution. What we want is someone who knows a great deal about original intent but is not a slave to original intent (that was then, this is now, and by the way “that” constitution was written to protect slavery, so how “original” do we really wish to be?) We want someone who prizes a strict protection of human rights over government efficiency or economic prosperity. What you most want on a court is a few crabby civil libertarians who understand that the whole genius of America is to leave as many people alone as possible as often and emphatically as possible.

So why are we already locked into an angry national cage match on Roe V. Wade, the abortion decision issued by the Supreme Court in 1973?

Both parties are behaving in a deplorable manner: The Republicans want the nominee to pledge to overturn Roe V. Wade. The Democrats insist that he or she hint that she will leave current abortion law in place.

Not only is this the wrong basis on which to give someone life tenure, but it trivializes the third branch of our national government into a public policy club consisting of nine unelected and largely unaccountable persons. The great questions of a great nation should not be decided by nine unelected individuals.

They are men and women like other men and women, capable of nobility and capable of pettiness, vengefulness, ignorance, prejudice, bigotry, pride and self-aggrandizement. They have good days and bad. They see some issues with great clarity and others with the kind of muddled gut reactions that characterize all of the rest of us.

The future of this country should be in the hands of an infinitely wider body than the Supreme Court. Our current approach is not much different from letting the starting lineup of the Chicago Cubs determine the future of the United States.

I believe the nomination process should be taken out of the hands of American presidents, who misunderstand and misuse their appointment power for narrow and often temporary purposes, and put it instead into the hands of a severely nonpartisan think tank of constitutional experts who look for raw judicial talent irrespective of the person’s political views. Once the foundation designated someone of outstanding merit, the Senate would confirm or deny with a straight up and down vote.

America is awash in men and women who would be outstanding Supreme Court justices. But the very last questions we should want to ask them is where they stand on Roe V. Wade, or the Affordable Care Act, or affirmative action.

CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — Realizing The Dream

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

So Jefferson wrote, 242 years ago.

It “is” self-evident, if you think about it. According to Scientific American, 150 human beings are born somewhere on Earth every minute. In the eyes of God or from the perspective of the planet Jupiter, a human is a human, whether she is born in Berlin or Bombay, Cairo or Cambridge or Calcutta, Manhattan or Madrid or Mexico City. Two arms, two legs, one heart, two kidneys, finger nails, hair, a brain, a belly button, a unique capacity for language. As Shakespeare’s Shylock puts it:

“Hath not a person eyes? hath not a person hands, organs,

dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with

the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject

to the same diseases, healed by the same means,

warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as

a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?

if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison

us, do we not die?”

Both President John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush (to take two quite different examples) said that every human being wants the same basic things. Food, shelter, clothing, the rule of law, a respect for basic rights, basic opportunity. On Jan. 6, 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously spoke of the Four Freedoms: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear.

I remember reading the United Nations Declaration of Rights incised on the high wall of the magnificent new Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg not long ago. The museum designers clearly felt that the rights and dignities articulated in the U.N. Declaration of Rights were so universal, so irrefutable, so obvious — if you think about it — that they must be writ large and inset into the walls of the museum itself to make sure everyone who ever walked through those doors had to have a visceral encounter with the self-evident truths of human aspiration. I bought a poster of the Declaration as my only souvenir of that trip to Winnipeg.

If this is true, “that all men are created equal,” why do we see those UNICEF and Oxfam Africa relief ads on television showing 3-year-old children with distended stomachs and flies perching on their lips and eyelids? Those children were born randomly into the world, just as a child in Omaha, Neb., or Santa Monica, Calif., is born randomly into the world. And yet any rational person knows that the child of Omaha has an infinitely higher chance of living a full, comfortable, secure life than the child of Upper Volta or Uganda.

If this is true, “that all men are created equal,” why does a person born Nez Perce, born Hidatsa, born Cherokee, born Navaho, born Shoshone, born Crow, born Cheyenne, have an unmistakably harder time getting her basic needs met in life than someone born 100 miles away in an Anglo-American community?

And of course, the whopping Fourth of July irony is that this continent where Anglo-Americans thrive belonged to the Crow, Cheyenne and Shoshone for centuries, for millennia, until Columbus bumped into the Western Hemisphere and touched off a series of holocausts that are not over yet. I know people in Bismarck but I could be speaking about Denver, or Spokane, Wash.,, who are aware that the Native Americans who live near and among them have a higher infant mortality rate, a higher suicide rate, a higher likelihood of dying in violence, than that other human being, born a few dozen miles away, the “same” human being, as seen from Jupiter, living in the same bioregion — and to these irrefutable facts the white folks of Bismarck merely shrug.

If this is true, “that all humans are born equal,” why did we just learn — to the consternation of many — that young women who compete in what is self-styled as the most significant women’s scholarship program in the world — the Miss America Pageant — will no long have to strip to near nakedness and strut around in front of 25 million people to win that scholarship?

Imagine for a moment if men competing for the Rhodes or Marshall or Wilson or Fulbright scholarships had to parade in public in speedos or a G-string in order to win the opportunity to study at Oxford University.

For that matter, if this is true, why is it that a woman randomly born in Yemen or Iraq, who is raped by a mere stranger, may be killed by her father to preserve his honor?

Maybe Jefferson was just wrong. Lovely, high-minded words, an agreeable fiction, but one that has no basis in the facts on the ground.

As Jefferson wrote those glorious and revolutionary words in a boardinghouse in Philadelphia, 256 miles to the south, about eight days’ travel under the conditions of the time, gangs of his 200 black slaves were hoeing his tobacco fields back home, baking bricks for his neoclassical Palladian mansion and cleaning the privies for his white wife and white young children. While he trimmed his quill and let some of the greatest words in the English language glide through his pen onto paper, a black mother gave birth at Monticello to an infant who was born: into slavery. Not born equal, born permanently and legally defined as a species of property that the Enlightened Mr. Jefferson could buy or sell, whip or caress, shackle or slap, rent out or even kill with legal impunity. We all live with some contradictions, but that would seem to be an insurmountable one.

If Jefferson and other slaveholder revolutionaries really meant those words, said Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine and Joseph Priestley and Richard Price and Benjamin Rush, Jefferson would have had to find a way to free his slaves because if he couldn’t or wouldn’t free his slaves, he must not really have meant what he wrote in the famous preamble of the Declaration of Independence to have universal application. He must instead have been speaking about his own club, his own tribe, his own fraternity.

All humans are not born equal because it depends on where you were born and what color you were born into. That if you got to choose, and you wanted to thrive on Earth not suffer for everything you achieved, from a purely rational point of view, you would really want to be born white, male if possible, in western Europe at the very least, and in America if you can make that happen. That from the view of the U.N. Declaration of Rights or FDR’s Four Freedoms you would not want to be born black or brown, in a Second or Third World country, or on an Indian reservation. Think about the implications of that.

But we don’t get to choose where we are born and to whom. You are just randomly born, just as a daffodil is randomly born or an oak or an ant. The great human aspiration — never more clearly or beautifully articulated than by my hero Thomas Jefferson — is that you will not be punished or rewarded by the accident of your birth. You may not remain equal very long in life — someone is a better sprinter, someone a better student of calculus, someone better at selling stocks and bonds, someone luckier in love — but the great idea is that you are at least born with an equal chance at thriving or at least subsisting comfortably with a living wage on Earth.

Just what Jefferson meant by his magnificent words is not clear, but Abraham Lincoln wisely told us we have no choice but to read Jefferson’s ideals in the fullest, widest, deepest possible way. And I say, as the 21st century creates economic opportunity unprecedented in the history of the planet, is it too much to ask?

On this Fourth of July, please have a conversation about the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence with the people around you. And let us know what you hear.

CLAY JENKINSON: Pivotal Moments In History

Clay Jenkinson wrote this June 11, the day President Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jon Un in Singapore.

I am glued to the coverage of the summit between Donald Trump and Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore. We can have no idea what this will mean six months from now or six years from now. But it is a great moment in history no matter what.

The Korean war ended in 1953, but the 38th parallel has been one of the most serious flashpoints on the planet ever since. Despise President Trump if you wish — he has provided plenty of evidence for our contempt — but what if it takes the equivalent of a “Dennis Rodman figure” to make this happen? Bill Clinton didn’t do it. GW Bush didn’t do it. Barack Obama didn’t do it.

Trump was right when he said our previous 40 years of policy toward North Korea did not prevent the regime from developing nuclear weapons: 60 or atomic devices and hydrogen bombs, too). President Trump is the norms-shatterer, and he refused to listen to those who said we must not give a ruthless dictator the credibility that comes from appearing on the world stage with the American president.

Maybe President Trump will bring about a historic breakthrough that his predecessors have been unable or unwilling to help create. If so, he will deserve our gratitude. Here’s why.

The Korean Peninsula from the International Space Station.
The Korean Peninsula from the International Space Station.

I saw a NASA documentary film a year or so ago that showed images taken from the International Space Station. One of those images provided a contrast between South Korea and North Korea at night. South Korea was all lit up, lights everywhere. North Korea was almost entirely black because it is a desperately poor country, a vicious military “utopia” that has diverted such wealth as it has to weapons development and regime security measures. The photograph of the Korean peninsula reminded me of Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous statement about America north and south of the Ohio River in the 1830s:

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859).
Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859).

“The State of Ohio is separated from Kentucky just by one river; on either side of it the soil is equally fertile, and the situation equally favourable, and yet everything is different. Here (on the Ohio side) a population devoured by feverish activity, trying every means to make its fortune. … There (on the Kentucky side) are people who make others work for them and show little compassion, a people without energy, mettle or the spirit of enterprise. … These differences cannot be attributed to any other cause but slavery. It degrades the black population and enervates (saps the energy of) the white.”

Seeing that film threw me into a serious depression. Millions of people live in North Korea. The accounts we have of life there are deeply disturbing: near-starvation, grisly public executions, profound repression, a wholesale grayness to life, deprivation, sadness, desperation. Why should the same people south of an artificial boundary carved out by the United Nations and the United States be prosperous, well-fed, and comparatively free and those same people north of that artificial boundary live in a manner last seen in the 17th century — or the seventh?

It seemed to me that the Free World should intervene, that a broad coalition of prosperous nations should step in, remove those in the north who hold their people down so cruelly, and unite North and South Korea. Why should there not be reunification on the Korean peninsula of the kind we saw in Germany in the late 1980s? Why does the Western world permit this madness to continue? Why have we chosen to “live with” this nightmare scenario?

The United States has a larger, more expensive military than the next 15 or so nations. We are essentially infinitely powerful. Why not use our immense power to right some of the wrongs of the world? What good is it to be the most powerful nation in human history, the sole hegemon of the planet and not use that immense power and moral authority to make the world better where it cries out for reform?

A couple of years ago, I visited the Douglas MacArthur museum in Norfolk, Va. I’ve never been much of a fan of MacArthur, but I came away from that experience deeply impressed both by MacArthur’s greatness — however flawed by colossal arrogance and vanity — and even more impressed by the museum. So I read a couple of biographies of MacArthur and afterward felt less certain that I was on Truman’s side in the great dispute that led to MacArthur’s dismissal on April 11, 1951.

Korea was the arena of MacArthur’s greatest moment and also his gravest mistake. His incredible landing at Inchon (September 10-19, 1950) was one of the supreme moments of the 20th century. It changed the course of the Korean War and made it possible for South Korea to be saved from the absorption aggressions of North Korea. But his subsequent overreach, worthy of the “Iliad’s” Patroclus, getting too close to the Yalu River when he was explicitly forbidden by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the president to carry the war so close to the Chinese border, a blunder that brought the Chinese into the war and nearly led to a UN (i.e., American) debacle.

The amazing David Halberstam (1934-2007).
The amazing David Halberstam (1934-2007).

I urge everyone to do some serious reading about these things. Korea was not (as “M*A*S*H” would have it) merely pre-Vietnam. The whole nature of the conflict was different. Here are a few books that I very highly recommend, especially the work of the great David Halberstam, one of the greatest journalists of the second half of the 20th century:

  • Martin Walker: “The Cold War: A History.”
  • David Halberstam: “The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War.”
  • William Manchester: “American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur, 1880-1964.”
  • David McCullough: “Truman.”

We have no idea how this story will play out, of course. Brian Williams of MSNBC called today’s meeting  “a handshake that changed the course of history.” We will see.

But what if Donald Trump pulls this off? What if his bold move, even if it fails in the short term, marks the moment when the reunification of the Korean peninsula found its beginning? What if 10 years from now, or 50, or 100, the 25 million people of the DPRK (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) have better lives, more food, even a little more freedom? What if in his egomaniacal way Donald Trump proves to have crafted the sparking moment that ends a conflict that began 70 years ago and reduces the tensions in one of the most volatile and unstable parts of the world?

Every American should hope that President Trump’s bold, arguably reckless, move changes the course of human history. It may well come to nothing. This may be not much more than a moment of narcissism for two colossal narcissists. But it may be so much more than that, and — whatever happens —  we have the glory of living through one of the most dramatic moments of our era. If this meeting permits the world to pull back from the nuclear brink, we will have reason to rejoice.

CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — Who Killed Meriwether Lewis?

When I heard a few weeks ago that a new biography of Meriwether Lewis has been published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, I immediately ordered it. It’s called “Bitterroot: The Life and Death of Meriwether Lewis,” and the author is a woman named Patricia Stroud, whom I had never heard of until now.

In a sense, the title gives it away, the life and “death” of Meriwether Lewis. A biography of Churchill does not call itself the life and death of Winston Churchill, any more than a biography of Abigail Adams calls itself the life and death of the second first lady.

Everyone who knows anything about Meriwether Lewis beyond that he was one half of the famous exploring duo knows that he died a violent death at the age of 35, just three years after the completion of the most successful exploration mission in American history. His death — by a gunshot wound to the head and another to the abdomen — is a mystery. Most serious historians have long since concluded that Lewis committed suicide on the Natchez Trace 72 miles from Nashville, Tenn., at a grungy frontier version of an Airbnb; but some — and they are tenacious — believe that Lewis was murdered.

You cannot pick up this new biography by Stroud without realizing from the title alone that she is going to spend a good deal of her attention trying to sort out this fascinating but perhaps ultimately unanswerable mystery.

Here’s what every student of the life of Lewis wants to know. If he committed suicide Oct. 11, 1809, why did he kill himself? I know this will sound odd, maybe even perverse, but I have spent a fairly significant proportion of my adult life trying to answer that question. I wrote a whole book — my big book — about it, “The Character of Meriwether Lewis: Explorer in the Wilderness.” If Lewis was murdered — as the passionate murderists insist with a kind of violence of temper that is frankly a little weird — the question then becomes, who murdered him and why?

I’ll attend to that part of Stroud’s book, but let me first say a few words about her biography in general. Whenever I read a book about something I know a lot about, I start by turning to passages that deal with things I know as well as my own birthday or the color of the sky. How the author handles those subjects will usually tell me something about his or her larger credibility.

So I read Stroud’s account of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the great journey from St. Charles, Miss., to the Pacific Coast and back again, May 14, 1804 to Sept. 23, 1806. I know that story pretty well. Her account of the adventure is competent. It is clear, however, that the journey interests her less than Lewis’s life before and after the expedition. Which of course begs a question: How did it come to pass that the great journey — one of the most fascinating, gripping, and monumental stories in the history of America — is now the ho hum part of studies of Lewis & Clark (including my own, I’m a little ashamed to say).

It soon became clear to me that Stroud has never spent time on the Lewis and Clark Trail. It is possible she has never been to the state of Montana because once Lewis and Clark leave Fort Mandan (here in North Dakota, approximately 35 miles from the New Enlightenment Radio Network barn), both her geography and her timeline become muddled. She has it snowing at the Great Falls around the Fourth of July (I’m sorry to say that can happen, but didn’t in this case), and the whole region between the Great Falls and the source of the Missouri River west of Dillon, Mont., is garbled in her account. That would seem to me unforgivable.

Particularly galling to me was Stroud’s account of Lewis’s discovery of what he took to be the source of “the mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri River.” Stroud projects her own bland attitude onto our hero. She writes, “they came across a spring that Lewis thought was the source of the Missouri River.” That’s it. This is like saying Columbus bumped into a continent that turned out to have some importance in history or that Neil Armstrong stepped off a ladder onto a minor satellite of his home planet. Stroud plays down one of the handful of supreme moments in the history of exploration, one of the supreme moments of Meriwether Lewis’s life, as if he were stopping by a water fountain in a country court house.

“It was quite a historic day,” Stroud writes. “On the other side of the mountain he found a creek of cold running water and announced to his journal, ‘here I first tasted the water of the great Columbia river.’ Not quite,” she writes. “It was actually Horseshoe Creek, whose waters flowing into the Lemhi, the Salmon and the Snake Rivers do eventually reach the Columbia.”

But she entirely misses Lewis’s point. He did not think he had found the Columbia per se. He immediately and rightly knew that he had crossed the continental divide and was now drinking from waters of some minor capillary creek that would eventually discharge its waters into the great Pacific Ocean. In other words, on Aug. 12, 1805, Lewis was able to walk in just a few steps from the Atlantic to the Pacific watershed. I’ve stood on Continental Divides many times. Anyone with an intact sense of wonder automatically thrills to such a moment.

Exasperated though I am, let me move on to the untimely death of Meriwether Lewis, as Patricia Stroud sees it. Here’s her argument in a nutshell:

  • One: Lewis was less depressed and deranged at the end of his life than most historians have argued. He was, for example, writing perfectly lucid letters, including one to President James Madison, just days before his death.
  • Two: Lewis could not have had a drinking problem because his enemy, the lieutenant governor of the Louisiana Territory, would surely have gossiped about that and included it in his long list of Lewis’s perceived faults if that were true. Actually, that’s quite a good argument.
  • Three: Lewis was a superb gunman. If he had wanted to blow out his brains that night he could not possibly have missed. By the way, this is an argument you hear over and over and over again in the murderist literature. I’m actually uncertain about this. I’ve been in countless airport men’s rooms and I can tell you that men, even great men, routinely miss the urinal that is less than a foot in front of them. If Lewis was drunk, or deranged, or ill with malaria, trying to position a pistol much longer than the kind we think about today, scared, deeply sad, confused, sitting in the dark in a place he had never been before, hovering between what Freud called the Eros and the Thanatos principle, between life-affirmation and life-denial, he might well have missed with the first shot.
  • Fourth: those who wrote about Lewis’s tragic death in the months and years after 1809 spent much of their time backfilling their historical memories with suicide predictors of the 20-20 hindsight sort, either to try to make sense of his suicide or to create a tidy narrative that would put some plausible closure on what to them was a bewildering mystery. There is probably considerable truth in this argument. We are all susceptible to the “we saw it coming” propensity in human narrative.

So who, then, killed Meriwether Lewis in Stroud’s final analysis?

She decides, without any significant evidence, that it was Gen. James Wilkinson or his agents. Wilkinson was a schnook, no doubt about that, a traitor and a double agent, corrupt right up to his eyebrows. We now know beyond doubt that he was a paid spy of the Spanish colonial empire all of his life, while at the same time he was the highest-ranking officer of the U.S. Army in the West. We know that Wilkinson encouraged the Spanish colonial authorities to send out what turned out to be four military intercept parties to arrest, or at least turn back, the Lewis and Clark Expedition as it traveled to the Pacific Ocean. So he is an easy mark.

Stroud’s argument is that Lewis was going to denounce Gen. Wilkinson when he got to Monticello and Washington, D.C., to bring the notorious traitor and larcenist down, and that perhaps he had papers in his trunks that proved Wilkinson’s guilt, including in the notorious Burr conspiracy.

That all might be true, though I doubt it. By 1809, everyone knew that Wilkinson was a bad man and a traitor, even former President Jefferson, so it is unlikely that Wilkinson would have regarded Lewis as a special threat. If Lewis had denounced Wilkinson in official circles in Washington, D.C., it would not have been the first or the last time, and Wilkinson was one of the great “survivors” in the history of American chicanery.

But it is possible that Wilkinson wanted Lewis dead. Fingering Wilkinson is a bit like blaming Barack Obama for everything that went wrong in the world between 2008 and 2016, or blaming all the ills of the Soviet Union on Joseph Stalin. Easy, vague, and not very convincing.

That’s the problem, my friends. It’s easier to try to poke holes in the suicide theory — after all there were no witnesses and Lewis was a superb marksman — than to create even a minimally plausible case for murder, or to identify possible murderers. Nominees have included highway robbers; the owner of the inn, Robert Grinder; Lewis’s free black servant, Pernia; his traveling companion, James Neely; even secret agents working on behalf of Thomas Jefferson himself.

My friend John Guice of Mississippi — one of the leading murderists —once wrote a long essay (of 32 pages) outlining the 40 specific problems with the suicide theory. His essay, which was entitled “Why Not Homicide?” summarized all the usual arguments (though he never mentions Gen. James Wilkinson), plus some gems such as: the phase of the moon and the local weather on that fatal night, and the chinking of the cabin in which Lewis slumped after the shooting. Only on the last page of his essay does Guice turn from his heroic attempt to undermine the suicide story to his own theory of who, then, murdered Meriwether Lewis. And this is what he concludes: I don’t know, someone, maybe a highway robber. OK, well that settles it!

I do not wish to conclude that Patricia Stroud’s “Bitterroot” is a bad book. There are many things to admire in it, particularly her account of the year before Lewis undertook his great journey and the year after he completed it. I made pages of notes and wrote voluminously, often furiously, in the margins.

But she has not solved the mystery and truly not even advanced our understanding of the last days of this great, though flawed, American hero. And in the course of her 371 pages, she gives our friend Jefferson a good deal of thumping — which, as you know, is one of the easiest and laziest habits of the historiography of our time.

CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch —The Price of Power

Jefferson famously wrote, “No man will ever carry out of the Presidency the reputation which carried him into it.”

  • Think of the diminishment of the presidents even of my own lifetime. Lyndon Johnson had been so consumed by the War in Vietnam that he withdrew from the 1968 presidential race. Johnson loved and lusted for power as much as anyone who has ever been president of the United States. But by the time he made his announcement, at the end of March 1968, he no longer dared to leave the White House because of the protests that followed him everywhere he went. Imagine hearing the chants: “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”

He was a broken man — his whole dream of his life shattered — by the time he limped away in January 1969, after watching a man he regarded as a thug and a travesty of American values, Richard Nixon, inaugurated in his place. LBJ died quietly in 1973, far away from the arena, a haunted and fragile remnant of his larger-than-life persona.

  • Richard Nixon became so embroiled in the criminal presidency that we summarize under the term “Watergate,” that by the last weeks of his uncompleted second term, he actually told the people around him that he wanted to die, that he had gone to sleep the night before hoping that he would never wake up. Whatever you think of Richard Nixon, one of the most intelligent, thoughtful, geopolitically savvy individuals ever to serve as president, it’s hard to know this — the depth of his unalloyed misery in August 1974 — without feeling some compassion for the man. Richard Nixon: the president who wanted to die rather than face the humiliation of resignation.
  • Jimmy Carter came into the presidency in 1977 with his goofy smile, his cornpone innocence and virtue, his folksy small town values, his vow never to lie to the American people, his promise to heal the nation. Carter wound up being a failed one-term president, partly because he was a micromanager, even controlling the calendar for the White House tennis court; partly because he dared to tell the American people the truth, that something was deteriorating in the American spirit and partly because of the impotence of being president when the Islamic terrorists decided to humiliate America for 444 straight days during the Iran-hostage crisis, which among other things birthed the late night cable television talk show.

If you look at the before and after photographs of American presidents — all that vitality, including dark hair, health, and optimism — when they take the oath of office, and then the grayed-out, sunken-eyed, exit photos of mostly good men whose lives have been damaged by their time as president, whose lives have literally been shortened by the presidency, you wonder why anyone would want to reach that pinnacle of American life. When he was elected vice president in 1796, Jefferson said, in relief, “The second office of this government is honorable and easy, the first is but a splendid misery.”

  • As I speak these words, former president George Herbert Walker Bush hovers near death. He cannot live much longer. Like many deeply devoted spouses, he loosened his grip on life when his beloved wife, Barbara, died in April. Bush may have been fortunate to have been retired from the presidency after a single term. It is possible that it lengthened his life.

At just under 94, he is already the longest living former president, edging ahead, for what it is worth, of Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, both of whom lived to 93. Jimmy Carter is also 93, will be 94 in October, and it seems likely he will outlast them all. Carter has already written 37 books, which means that if he lives a few more years, he will top the writingest president Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote 40 books depending on how you count.

  • Bill Clinton was one of the smartest, best-read, overtly brilliant individuals ever to become president of the United States — remember when he could instantly name and characterize the heads of virtually every country, including piddling ones, of the world? — but he gave his place in history to his penis.

I remember seeing him on C-SPAN, sitting glumly while someone else spoke, when the controversy was at its height. He looked so profoundly self-disappointed — that all he had wanted all of his life was to be president, had lived for nothing else, really, and then he had squandered it all for a series of pathetic dalliances with interns — that I’m sure there were moments when even Bill Clinton wished he were dead. He got through it and the American people stuck with him — a booming tech economy did not hurt — and wound up being one of the better former presidents, although the word peculation will haunt him through history almost as much as priapism.

  • Ronald Reagan is every conservative’s favorite president. Many would erase someone from Mount Rushmore and replace it with Reagan’s chiseled Hollywooden visage there, but he governed far closer to the middle than his admirers like to admit, and by the time his second term was well under way, he was beginning to suffer from encroaching Alzheimer’s disease, a bit like one of those Soviet premiers of the 1970s and ’80s who used to be propped up for photo ops.

The Iran-Contra scandal was worse in many respects than Watergate and for it President Reagan probably should have been impeached — waging secret wars against the explicit forbidding of Congress — are we a republic or a monarchy? — but the country didn’t have the heart to do it and so Reagan, who was really just a tired old befuddled man by the time he flew away to California, was permitted to serve out his second term.

He was, probably, too old to be president. His mental deterioration is very sad. He and Nancy Reagan handled it with candor and dignity, but we need to remember that the White House is not a senior care facility. We need our presidents to be alert, fully functioning, and on top of the profound responsibilities of the job.

  1. George W. Bush was a kind of smart aleck going in, all that shucking and shrugging and smirking, but 9-11 and his wars in Iraq and Afghanistan transformed him visibly, matured him, humbled him, deepened him. He has been a truly discrete and dignified former president, and his willingness to express his soul through painting, even though he is not even as talented, say, as Winston Churchill, is wholly admirable, I believe.
  • And then, of course, there is Donald Trump. I will only make the following predictions. I do not believe he will serve out his term. He promised to drain the swamp, but his presidency — his sons, his son-in-law, his cronies, his violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, his personal attorney, his grifting Cabinet officers, particularly Scott Pruitt — have turned the executive branch into a kleptocracy. If 40 percent of the American people can still believe that he is a welcome breath of fresh air, then it’s on us, not him. The old adage that in our democracy we get what we deserve sounds pretty ominous right now. But it seems so true, alas.

Finally, a word or two about Thomas Jefferson. His first term was mostly splendid — culminating in the Louisiana Purchase and the authorization of the Lewis and Clark Expedition — but in his second term, America was nearly crushed between the two great European powers, France and Britain, locked in an existential world struggle for survival, and nothing that Jefferson could do, nothing he could imagine, could protect America from a series of national humiliations. The embargo acts failed to accomplish what Jefferson and Madison had in mind for them — that economic coercion would bring Britain and France to their senses — and meanwhile those coercive acts offended the farmers and merchants of the United States to the point of open rebellion.

Jefferson, who came into the presidency at the age of 57 wondering if he were too old for the responsibilities and challenges ahead, felt physically, intellectually, and spiritually exhausted by the time he left office in March 1809. In fact, he had essentially abdicated the presidency in the last half year of his second term, making his handpicked successor Madison the de facto president of the United States, months before his inauguration.

Fortunately, Jefferson found healing and renewal at his beloved Monticello — particularly in the presence of his fabulous, beloved daughter, Martha, and he lived 17 more years. And talk about great former presidents, Jefferson still had in him — exhaustion notwithstanding — one more magnificent achievement, mightier perhaps than any other person who has ever been president of the United States, by which I mean: the University of Virginia at Charlottesville.

Nobody else can match that. Period.

CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — So Far Ahead Of Her Time

One of Joseph Ellis’ contributions to the historiography of the revolutionary era is that he proves that when Abigail Adams wrote her famous, “remember the ladies” letter to her husband, John, in the spring of 1776, she meant it. She was being playful — it was another episode in the never-ending, good-humored “war” between the sexes — and yet she was perfectly serious, too, as her letters to others, including Mercy Otis Warren, indicate. Here’s what Abigail Adams actually wrote in the famous letter:

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”

If you didn’t know the context, you would not necessarily see these words as playful. Abigail is playing the language of the revolution right back at her husband. If the Revolution is about freedom and equality, she argues, if you are really saying that human beings have an inherent right to life, liberty, property and self-government, which humans, precisely, do you have in mind? Or rather, which are you willfully choosing to exclude from your glittering and seemingly-universal formula of liberty?

Historians have tended to think Abigail’s famous pronouncement was more playful than pointed because of the mock-outrage of her husband John’s response. He called his wife “saucy.”  He said he and his revolutionary colleagues would fight rather than submit to what he called “the despotism of the petticoat.” and he dismissed her petition: “as for your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh.”

Perhaps it was a nervous laugh. Maybe he was just lame. Maybe John Adams just didn’t get it. As Thomas Jefferson was about to learn, once you throw open the doors to revolution, you cannot control everything that gets stirred up. With his usual bludgeoning wit, Great Britain’s Samuel Johnson skewered the hypocrisy of men like Jefferson: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” How do you write that all men are created equal and buy and sell them for farm profit?

Ellis praises Abigail for what he calls “her recognition that the very arguments her husband was hurling at Parliament and the British ministry had latent implications that undermined all coercive or nonvoluntary systems of arbitrary power.” He speaks of “the Pandora’s box that John and his colleagues in the Continental Congress had opened.” Particularly Jefferson, of course, the author of the famous preamble to the Declaration of Independence. The lesson seems to be: beware of employing universalist rhetoric. Some folks will conclude that you actually meant it to have universal application.

Although Abigail Adams could be sharp-tongued (just ask Thomas Jefferson), she was seldom tart with her husband John, whom she loved deeply, passionately, and perpetually, in spite of her awareness that he was a rotund, bald, toothless man with what he called a quiveration in his hands, in spite of the fact that she knew John Adams was vain, boastful, pompous, thin-skinned and beset with insecurities and personal demons. Managing John’s volatilities was a significant part of Abigail’s life work. She knew he was under tremendous pressure in the spring of 1776, and she did not want to be as angry-assertive as the famous feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.

Still, she saw that there was no legitimate reason to exclude women from the revolutionary formula being bandied about by her famous husband and his male pals. She knew that the law of logical consistency meant that any attempt to deny women equal rights was arbitrary, the triumph of power over justice, and she reminded John Adams that demanding rights against those who would arbitrarily curtail or cancel them was, wasn’t it, the very principle of the American Revolution?

Did John Adams squirm or wince or sigh heavily when he read his wife’s spirited letter? We want to hope that he rejoiced to have such a wife, someone who would stretch him, challenge him, tease him, push him, lure him and at times even rebuke him. In other words, you want to hope that John Adams understood that public equality couldn’t thrive on a foundation of private inequality. You hope that he understood that human rights begin at home.

Adams’ response to Abigail’s remember the ladies letter was pretty lame, but at least it wasn’t as lame as Jefferson’s would have been. Adams had the good sense to disarm the discourse with humor — trembling over the despotism of the petticoat and all of that. Jefferson would have written one of his earnest dissertations about the God of Nature and natural gender specialization, arguing that the benign creator had designed women for the sacred duties of the nursery. Blah blah blah, Mr. Jefferson.

Still, it was Jefferson and no one else who launched those magnificent revolutionary words. As usual, he tried to pierce through the immediate issue — independence from Britain — to the universal principle, and as usual he nailed it. Nobody has ever understood this genius of Jefferson as well as the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.

In a letter written in 1859, Lincoln wrote, “All honor to Jefferson — to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”

Do you see what Lincoln is saying? Under “concrete pressure” to write a “merely revolutionary document,” Jefferson wrote “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times,” and what he wrote will forever serve as “a rebuke and a stumbling block” to even the first hint, the “harbingers of reappearing tyranny.”

In other words, under incredible pressure and on the fly in June 1776, Jefferson wrote sentences in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence that represent, better than anything else ever written, the eternal universal standard of human rights. The fact that those very sentences now convict Jefferson of being a relatively bad exemplar of his own perfectly stated principles is perhaps too bad for Jefferson the man, but they illustrate Jefferson the magnificent revolutionary genius, and they have helped to liberate hundreds of millions of people worldwide, perhaps billions, which seems to me infinitely more important than Jefferson’s personal and behavioral limitations.

In other words, Jefferson did, in some sense, remember the ladies.

CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — Have You Looked Around, Mr. Jefferson?

John Adams believed three things that drive an utopian like Jefferson nuts. First, he believed that aristocracy will always be with us in one form or another. In Europe, this works by hereditary emoluments and privileges. The Duke of Northumberland is always the father of the next Duke of Northumberland and the son of the last one, downhill forever through history, together with vast estates, whole sections of London, and thousands of retainers.

In the United States, with its constitutional prohibition on titles of nobility, you perhaps cannot be called the Duke of Something-or-Other, but you can be a Rockefeller, a Mellon, a Carnegie, a Kennedy, a Bush, or for that matter a Kardashian, a Vanderbilt or a Clooney.

Adams understood that this kind of aristocracy — in which certain families somehow accumulated vast amounts of property and power — is simply a fact of life. You can rail against it until you go hoarse in the throat, but the only sensible thing to do is to get used to it and try to turn their enormous power toward philanthropic ends, the Rockefeller Foundation or the Pew Memorial Trust.

You have to keep a tight vigilance on these families, Adams believed. He thought, though we don’t, that the best place for them with the United States Senate.

The second of Adams’ foundational beliefs was that you can never build a republic in which everyone is equal. You can try, you can reshuffle all the property and divvy it up equally among the whole population. But it won’t work. Give it a few years in a free and equalitarian society, and you’ll find that a handful of individuals once again own most of the country and most of the wealth, that a large mass of people in a middling condition will exist, all wanting more, and then there will be a significant class of poor people who either barely keep their heads above water or wind up being wards of the state or the parish or some other entity.

After all of this redistribution in the name of social equality, the new rich may not be precisely the same as the old rich, though probably they will, but the new rich will hold most of the wealth and they will forget their beginnings and lord it over everyone else. They will expect, and they will get, special privileges in the society. They will mark off playgrounds for themselves that regular people cannot afford — because they lack the money, are not admitted to the exclusive clubs, don’t wear the proper clothing, don’t speak with the correct English accent.

The third and perhaps most important of Adams’ fundamental principles is that the central human impulse is not to sympathy or justice or generosity or love of truth. It’s not to gratitude or benevolence or philanthropy. In Adam’s world, the central human impulse, the dynamo right at the center of your personality, is a rage for distinction.

You want to be the captain of the football team, or at least the captain of the chess club. You want to be the greatest warrior in Afghanistan or at least the best in your neighborhood at the video game “Call of Duty.” You want to be the prettiest girl in your graduating class or at least the prettiest at your 30th reunion. You want to be tallest guy on the team, highest scorer on the team, the only one on the team named to the All-Academic All-Stars. You want to be the youngest full partner of the law firm or youngest tenured professor in southeast central Arkansas state college, or the richest man in Broken Bow, Neb., or the guy at the sports bar who knows the most NFL trivia or — even better — the one who met Michael Jordan at a celebrity golf tournament at Tahoe. Class president or class clown. The one who got into Harvard or the one who was expelled for turning loose twenty rattlesnakes at the homecoming dance.

Whatever it takes to have distinction, preferably a unique distinction. I actually knew a guy in high school who, at beer parties, would eventually be talked into going outside and trying to urinate over the top of the garage. I’m not joking. He occasionally could accomplish this tremendous feat of sheer human athleticism and will, and we celebrated him for it, as if he had cracked the DNA code or run the three-minute mile. So far as I know that was all that he could do — his sole distinction in life — and, of course, it was not for all markets, not for church suppers or a one man Broadway show. And, if you think about the nature of the male prostate gland, he’s probably lucky now if he can pee over the lip of his toilet, but at all-class reunions people (by which I mean men who never grew up) gather around him, even now, as if he were the Joe Namath of competitive peeing.

John Adams said this was the central human impulse — this rage for distinction. Think about this in your own life. Where is your distinction from the herd — now numbering 340 million rival human beings in America alone? What do you have or do that marks you as remarkable, or perhaps unique? Is it your pineapple upside-down cake, or the size of your … hot tub? Is it the time share you have at Cabo? Is it the quality of your tube-type stereo system?

John Adams says you may not be willing to admit it (though you probably are all too willing to admit it), but there is something, some talent, some access, some achievement, some birthright or purchase that gives you a sense of competitive advantage, whether you can roll your eyes all the back into your head or flop your ears to play the national anthem in Morse code. Somewhere in your story, says John Adams, you hang your competitive hat on that distinction.

These Adams propositions — that aristocrats will always be with us, that equality is a lovely fairy tale and that the rage for distinction is at the center of all human endeavor — were designed to confound dreamers like Thomas Jefferson. For Jefferson believed that we could at the very least replace the pseudo-Aristocracy (individuals born into wealth and privilege) with what he called Natural Aristocracy, and we would call meritocracy.

Jefferson believed that we could distribute the fruits of life more equitably than in any previous civilization in the history of the world, and we could perpetuate that essential equality by enlightened redistributive laws (equal inheritance to all children, for example), and, of course, by buying a “Louisiana Purchase” now and then. And he believed that the central human impulses were actually those of sympathy, benevolence, generosity and friendship.

To which John Adams would say, “Have you looked around lately, Mr. Jefferson?” Or as he actually did say once, “No doubt you was fast asleep in philosophical tranquility,” Mr. Jefferson, while the American expression of the French Revolution roiled through the streets of Philadelphia in 1793.

Yes, I would like to be the greatest Thomas Jefferson scholar. I would like to be the Muse of the Little Missouri River Valley in the Badlands of North Dakota. I would like to write the best book ever written about Lewis and Clark. I would like to be “the” North Dakota, for what little that may be worth to you who live in better states. And though my days of garage peeing contests are long over, I would like now to be able to get through the night without having to get up to pee. There’s my rage for distinction, indeed.

CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — Abigail Adams: Awesome And A Little Frightening

My daughter and I were wandering about the J.P. Morgan Library in New York City last week, vaguely looking for whatever they had about Edward S. Curtis, the Seattle photographer who took those incredible black-and-white images of Native Americans at the turn of the 20th century.

Photograph by Edward S. Curtis, c. 1908. "Mandan man wrapped in buffalo robe standing on cliff overlooking the Missouri River." (From Wikimedia Commons.)
Photograph by Edward S. Curtis, c. 1908. “Mandan man wrapped in buffalo robe standing on cliff overlooking the Missouri River.” (From Wikimedia Commons.)

We saw a range of amazing things in two hours — one of the Morgan’s three copies of the Gutenberg Bible, a manuscript page from Goethe’s “Faust” in Goethe’s hand, a first edition of one of the most influential books ever written, Rousseau’s “Essay Concerning the Inequality of Mankind,” a life mask of George Washington and the Enlightenment’s greatest sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon’s greatest sculpture, his bust of Benjamin Franklin.

We oohed and ahhed and gasped and nodded and whispered our sense of wonder that one of the richest men of his time chose not to buy gold faucets and giant inlaid bathtubs, but instead gave a portion of his vast fortune to the acquisition of some of the greatest rare books, art treasures, and manuscripts in the world.

My daughter, Catherine, hissed me over to a little glass case. And there was displayed a letter by Abigail Adams to Thomas Jefferson, dated May 20th, 1804. This was the letter of condolence that Mrs. Adams wrote to her old friend, now enemy, Jefferson, after she learned from the newspapers that his younger daughter, Maria, had died at Monticello a month previously.

Because my daughter did not know the story, I had the joy of explaining the importance of the letter to her. When Maria sailed from Virginia to Europe in 1787 to join her father and her older sister, Martha, the ship stopped first in England, where Abigail and John Adams took the 9-year-old child under their wing before sending her on to Paris.

At the time, Abigail was rather pointedly annoyed that Jefferson did not come himself to Britain to get his daughter, who, after all, had crossed the entire Atlantic more or less alone — and Jefferson apparently was too busy to cross the English Channel to collect her in person.

Maria had been chaperoned on that immense voyage by none other than 14-year-old Sally Hemings, although in his defense, it must be said that Jefferson had asked that the chaperon be an elderly black woman who had survived a bout of smallpox and was therefore immune. When Abigail met Sally Hemings in London, some little red flag popped in her sharp soul, and she recommended that Jefferson send Sally back to Virginia on the return voyage. But no.

Now, 17 years later, Maria Jefferson Eppes was dead, at the age of 25, and Mrs. Adams knew that Jefferson was overcome with grief.

So she broke a self-imposed silence. She no longer trusted Jefferson. She no longer liked Jefferson. She blamed him for some of the newspaper attacks that had been made on her husband in the lead up to the 1800 presidential election. She saw Jefferson as an unprincipled demagogue, an ambitious, unscrupulous, duplicitous politician who loved power more than he loved virtue and certainly more than he loved his old friend, John Adams, whom he had unfairly displaced from the presidency.

Abigail did not unload on Jefferson in this famous letter. She provided a few carefully veiled hints of her dark feelings about Jefferson and admitted that nothing but Maria’s untimely death could have moved her to write a letter to a man she now detested.

At the end of the letter, just to dick with the Deist Jefferson, if I may use that colorful but accurate term, she urged Jefferson to take comfort “from that only source calculated to heal the wounded heart — a firm belief in the Being: perfections and attributes of God.” And to top it all off, she ended the letter by calling herself one “who once took pleasure in subscribing Herself your Friend.” Ouch.

What a letter! Nobody talked to Thomas Jefferson that way! And there it was, the original, in Abigail’s clear penmanship, under glass, at the J.P. Morgan Library.

Now if Jefferson had had an ounce of good sense, he would have written a brief, polite reply thanking Mrs. Adams for her sympathy. But that’s not what he did. In his reply on June 13, 1804, Jefferson stupidly brought up a grudge he still nursed about President Adams’ conduct during the last weeks of his one-term presidency.

“I can say with truth that one act of Mr. Adams’s life, and one only,” he wrote, “ever gave me a moment’s personal displeasure. I did consider his last appointments to office as personally unkind.” He complained to Mrs. Adams that John’s appointment of judicial officers after the election results were known — the so-called “midnight appointments” — gave permanent government offices to men who were sworn enemies to the “second American revolution” Jefferson had in mind.

All you can say to this is “Oh boy.”

When Abigail Adams replied, on July 1, 1804, she ripped him a new one, as we like to say in our vulgar era. First she gave Jefferson a little lesson in U.S. Constitution 101: Until the end of a person’s administration, she explained, he has not only a right but a constitutional duty to fill federal vacancies. Think about this. This is Abigail Adams lecturing the great Jefferson about the clear meaning of the U.S. Constitution.

And she was only getting warmed up. Now that Jefferson had made the mistake of opening old wounds, Abigail vented “her” two grievances. First, when Jefferson canceled as many of the midnight appointments as he legally could, one of those appointments was for Abigail’s son, John Quincy Adams. Jefferson later protested that he was unaware that J.Q. Adams was one of those on the chopping block, and Abigail seems to have believed him. But her larger wrath involved Jefferson’s encouragement, including financial encouragement, of the muckraking hack writer James Callender, who had published all sorts of ugly, unfair and untrue attacks on the life, career and character of John Adams, including calling him a hermaphrodite wholly unfit for high office.

Mrs. Adams made it clear that she knew Jefferson had sponsored Callender and egged him on, had given him relatively large dollops of cash and that he done nothing to curb the ruffian’s verbal excesses.

Barely able to modulate her wrath and bitterness, she wrote, “this Sir I considered as a personal injury — this was the sword that cut asunder the Gordian knot, which could not be untied by all the efforts of party Spirit, by rivalship, by Jealousy or any other malignant fiend.”

And just to make sure Jefferson knew how bitter and angry she was, Abigail decided to remind him that she was well aware that Callender had later turned on him and broken the Sally Hemings story to the world:

“The serpent you cherished and warmed, bit the hand that nourished him, and gave you sufficient specimens of his talents, his gratitude, his justice, and his truth.”

There’s more to the story, but I will leave it there. The correspondence sputtered on for a few more exchanges until Abigail essentially told Jefferson to go jump in a lake. Jefferson attempted to explain and exonerate himself about Callender, but we know that he was lying, and she knew he was lying, and he knew that she knew he was lying.

Jefferson wrote 26,000 letters altogether and received even more in the course of his amazing life. I can say this with categorical confidence. Nobody else ever dared to write to Jefferson in this way, nobody else assailed him so directly and with such laser-like aggression. And nobody who wrote to him in even milder rebuke could expect to remain his friend.

Somehow Abigail Adams and Jefferson got through this moment of volcanic tension, though it was 10 years before either of them dared write to the other again.

There is something breathtaking about Abigail Adams. She is one of the few people who ever made Thomas Jefferson wince. He would not have wanted to be married to such a woman. It’s remarkable that he even wanted to know a woman so outspoken, direct, and unrelenting in her righteousness.

John Adams was unaware of this epistolary exchange at the time, in the spring and summer of 1804. When he read the exchange years later, he did some wincing, too.

To see the letter that touched off that wild correspondence, with my fabulous daughter, at the Morgan Library, was one of those moments I will never forget.

I hope two things. First, that she models herself (to a considerable extent) on Abigail Adams. Second, that I never receive from her a letter of such extraordinary disenchantment.

CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — Exploration Legacy Is Not Over Yet

As perhaps you know, I’m now the editor of the quarterly journal of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, “We Proceeded On.” That’s one of the refrains of William Clark’s journal of the 28-month expedition that was the brainchild of the great Jefferson. Whatever else was true, virtually every day (there were 1,123 of them), Clark announced that “we proceeded on” — from St. Louis to the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

The journal comes out four times per year. My fourth issue will appear in about a month. I’m so excited about it that I want to tell you what we have discovered, and I want to urge you to become members of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and in so doing subscribe to the journal, which we Lewis and Clark obsessives call WPO, we proceeded on.

Lewis and Clark were explorers, which meant that they regarded themselves as the first white people to see whole swaths of the American West. Lewis, in particular, wanted to be first — first to see the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers; first to view the Great Falls of the Missouri, which Lewis regarded as second only to Niagara Falls in sublimity; and maybe greater, first to bestride the source of what he called “the mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri River.” They were traveling through what Lewis called a landscape “2,000 miles in width upon which the foot of civilized man has never trodden.”

The word “discovery” is now pretty suspect. One person’s new discovery is another’s ancient homeland. Lewis and Clark were not traveling in a vacuum, no matter what they wanted us to believe. They depended on Native American informants, Native American guides (and I don’t mean Sacagawea), and Native American maps drawn with sticks and mud on the ground, or with charcoal on animal skins, and occasionally on paper.

Cartographers have identified at least 10 places in the journals where the captains talk about the maps that their Indian hosts produced to help them figure out the lay of the land and to know which tributaries and mountain ranges stood in their path to the Pacific.

A couple of years ago, a graduate student named Christopher Steinke, then at the University of New Mexico, discovered one of those maps. It was stored in the archives of the Bibliotheque nationale de France in Paris. Steinke was not a Lewis and Clark scholar. He was searching for North American indigenous maps at the Bibliotheque nationale when he stumbled upon one by an Arikara man named Piaheto or Arketarnarshar or Too Né. He wrote an article about it, with more emphasis on indigenous than on Lewis and Clark, in the outstanding William and Mary Quarterly.

As you know, every year I lead a cultural tour on the Lewis and Clark Trail in Montana and Idaho. We canoe through the White Cliffs section of the Missouri River east of Fort Benton, Mont., for three days, and then — after a hotel room and hot showers — we spend another three days hiking up on the Lolo Trail, the most pristine part of the entire national Lewis and Clark Trail. One of my favorite young guides, an archaeologist named Kevin O’Briant, told me at a place called Eagle Camp that he wanted me to see a map he had come across.

I was stunned. The map was made by Too Né, who traveled with the expedition for a few weeks in the autumn of 1804 in what’s now North Dakota. He went upriver with Lewis and Clark to try to make peace with the Mandan Indians, with whom the Arikara had been at war. He tried to inform Clark of some of the important landmarks, including sacred places, on that stretch of the Missouri River between today’s North Dakota and South Dakota border and the earthlodge villages at the mouth of the Knife River in central North Dakota.

In his journal Clark said he was indifferent to the geographic, historical and sacred information Too Né was explaining to him through an interpreter. But the discovery of the map shows that Clark was listening more closely than he let on, and Too Né’s information did actually find its way into Clark’s journal.

All of this is spectacular news. It’s one of the most important discoveries in Lewis and Clark studies for a generation, since folks in Louisville, Ky., found a packet of 51 William Clark letters in an attic in the late 1980s. It may be more important because it sheds important light on the expedition’s dependence on Native American maps, on the previously neglected role of Too Né as a Native American guide, interpreter and diplomat and on the significance of the expedition’s encounter with the Arikara in northern South Dakota.

When Kevin showed me the map, I immediately decided to dedicate a full issue of “We Proceeded On” to the Too Né map. I asked Kevin to write the lead article. He has written a wonderful essay about the ways in which Native American maps read the land differently from Euro-American Enlightenment maps. We’re publishing the map in a pull-out centerfold. I call it Lewis and Clark porn.

I asked the two leading Lewis and Clark cartographers, both eminent individuals, Herman Viola and John Logan Allen, to assess the map. Before fulfilling my request, they made me send them wonderful huge laminated copies of the map. Their assessments are amazingly generous and insightful.

I interviewed Chris Steinke, the discoverer of the map. I found Jefferson’s letter of condolence to the Arikara — Too Né visited the Great Redheaded Father in Washington, D.C., and unfortunately died there on April 6, 1806. And I found a multipage description of Too Né in the nation’s capital by a painter, man of letters, playwright and actor William Dunlap. And I wrote an essay about the ways Too Né’s map tracks with Clark’s journal from Oct. 8 to Nov. 10, 1804.

This will be one of the most important issues of “We Proceeded On” in a very long time, perhaps forever. I even got an artist friend of mine, Katrina Case-Soper, to paint a courtroom-like watercolor of Too Né in the Washington boarding house where he stayed in the weeks before his death.

You can sense how excited I am about this and how proud I am to serve as editor for this critically important moment in the long history of Lewis and Clark studies. I hope you will subscribe to WPO starting immediately. Just go to the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage website. Their headquarters is in Great Falls, Mont. You will find more information about all of this on our website.

A couple of weeks ago I made a pilgrimage to one of the sacred places on Too Né’s map. It’s called Medicine Rock, located near the Cannonball River in southwestern North Dakota. It’s a lonely outcropping in the middle of the middle of nowhere. Virtually no non-Indian North Dakotans know that Medicine Rock exists.

It was a windy, cold, gray, winter day on the northern Great Plains, with ground blizzarding on the narrow two-lane roads, followed by gravel roads, followed by a two-trail path in the middle of an immense grassland. I had to walk a mile into a stiff wind, wind chill about 10 below zero, to get to the sacred place. And there, in this nondescript bit of sandstone in the infinite expanse of the Great Plains, where a protective chain link fence surrounds the perimeter of the Medicine Rock site, I found prayer bundles — thumb-sized plugs of tobacco wrapped in bright cotton handkerchiefs — tied to the fence.

Think about this. It’s the second decade of the 21st century, and I got to the site partly by using the Google earth app on my smartphone. We need these  reminders that there are still sacred places all around us and that the white history of America, particularly the Great Plains, is very recent.

Robert Frost was right. “The land was ours before we were the land’s.”