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Stephen Ambrose on Lewis and Clark

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
February 27, 2023 3:00 am

Stephen Ambrose on Lewis and Clark

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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February 27, 2023 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Stephen Ambrose shares some stories from his #1 New York Times bestseller, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West.

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Go to hillsdale.edu to sign up for their free and terrific online courses. Stephen Ambrose was one of America's leading biographers and historians. Ambrose passed in 2002 but his epic storytelling can now be heard here at our American Stories thanks to those who run his estate.

Here's Ambrose to share some stories from his number one New York Times bestseller, Undaunted Courage, Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the opening of the American West. The Lewis and Clark expedition began in the White House on January 18th 1803 when President Thomas Jefferson sent a special secret message to Congress requesting an appropriation of $2,500 for an exploration west of the Mississippi River. There was a little bit of cost overrun but that goes with the territory. Isn't that right Senator?

That just goes with the territory. You know it's going to be cost overrun. Lewis and his co-commander William Clark discovered hundreds of new plants and animal species and saw and described sites that no man had ever seen. Much of what they saw has been altered in the past two centuries but pristine sites on the trail can still be seen and appreciated.

Some of these localities are privately owned. Others have been protected by law. Our assurance to our grandchildren and their grandchildren that Americans will always be able to see some part of the Lewis and Clark expedition that they saw. It's our national epic, our odyssey. The journals of Lewis and Clark are our national poem. It was our greatest feat of exploration. Thanks to Lewis and Clark we unified the continent, created a country that is democratic and that stretches from sea to shining sea and we began the process of unifying the American people. The core of discovery included Frenchmen, Welshmen, Irishmen, Englishmen, Scandinavians, an African-American slave, a teenage Indian woman, and her son. These people came from all across the United States and they formed a team. Lewis was the first man ever to go from tidewater to tidewater.

No one else had ever done that. He left Washington D.C. and went to Astoria, Oregon. In the process he traveled through Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon and he brought us all together. He was the first American citizen to stand on the Continental Divide. He explored the Louisiana Purchase which extended only to the Continental Divide. The Louisiana Purchase was all that land drained by the Missouri and Mississippi River.

Lewis got to the headwaters and looked down on the drains of the Columbia River and thus added that great northwestern empire of Oregon, Idaho, and Washington to the United States. It was a federal project. The leaders were captains in the United States Army.

The core of discovery consisted of a platoon of sergeants, corporals, and privates. Congress appropriated the funds for supply. Jefferson never spent federal money more wisely or better than when he made the Louisiana Purchase.

The United States Congress never did better than it would have voted the funds to support the expedition. In the 19th century, our best brains went to work on discovery and description of nature. Lewis and Clark, Charles Darwin, so many others. In the 20th century, we put our best minds to work on making better weapons.

The drive was to conquer nature. Henry Ford who put the world on wheels. The Wright brothers who put us up in the air. And then on the weapons, many, many, many, but Enrico Fermi and J. Robert Oppenheimer who gave us the culmination of the drive to conquer nature in the atomic bomb.

Nowadays, Bill Gates and so many others. When I was a kid, everybody over 50 years old, maybe even over 40 years old, remembers this in this country. The phrase, that's history, was the worst put down you could give. Well, that's history. Who the hell cares? That happened.

Forget it. Well, we've turned to history in this country. I've been a history teacher all of my life. I've been a history teacher all of my life.

And I've seen this go up and down. At the time of the Vietnam War, it was awfully hard to get students interested in history. Thomas Jefferson, he was a slave holder. George Washington, he was a slave holder. The United States in World War II, well, we dropped the atomic bomb and that was a big mistake and so on.

They didn't want to know anything about American history. And it's not only our older folks, but it is the kids. They want to know where did we come from? Who are we? How did it happen that we became the richest and the freest nation that ever was? It happened because of men like Jefferson and Washington and all of our other heroes.

And we need to make sure that our kids are aware of that. Indeed, and that is what so much of what we do is about. It's why we love these history stories. Where did we come from?

How did it all happen? And my goodness, there's no bigger and better adventure story than the Lewis and Clark story and a great federally funded project. And without the federal funds, this would not have happened.

And what a good use of money. Jefferson buying all of that land, buying it for a song, one of the greatest investments this country's ever made in property. When we come back, more of Stephen Ambrose on his book on Daunted Courage here on Our American Stories. Lee Habib here, the host of Our American Stories. Every day on this show, we're bringing inspiring stories from across this great country, stories from our big cities and small towns.

But we truly can't do the show without you. Our stories are free to listen to, but they're not free to make. If you love what you hear, go to our americanstories.com and click the donate button. Give a little, give a lot.

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Here again is Ambrose. This is a man spending eight, 10, 12 hours a day all alone with the journals of Lewis and Clark editing. He wrote almost to the day 150 years after the expedition began. He wrote this on April 15, 1953. He wrote, it is generally agreed that the journals are an American classic and certainly they are by far the most interesting as well as the most important original narrative of North American exploration. Nevertheless, few people have read them.

That was disconcertingly true in 1953 and it was Bernard Devoto who changed that. As Devoto says, the journals of Lewis and Clark are one of our national literary treasures. Their exploration of the western two-thirds of the continent was our epic voyage. Their account of the expedition is our epic poem. Sitting at the campfire after an exhausting day using a quill pin that had to be dipped into the inkwell every other word, balancing those leather-covered journals on their knees, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark managed to write with prose, that is distinguished for its verve, sharp imagery, immediacy, and tension as they describe the events of the day as well as the land and its people and its flora and fauna. Devoto recognized something that I have learned and he practiced it and I have copied him and that is that reading the journals of Lewis and Clark puts you in the canoe with them and trekking over the Lolo Trail and wintering over in North Dakota and at the mouth of the Columbia and all that is in between. You see the country through their eyes. It unfolds before you.

The lower Missouri, the great bend of the river, the junction with the Yellowstone, the white cliffs, and the Missouri River plain, the river of the White Cliffs and the Missouri River breaks, the Great Falls, Three Forks, Lemhi Pass, the Columbia Gorge, and on to the Pacific. And they do this, they take us with them with a vividness that is enhanced because you see with the fresh eyes of the first literate men to see such sights. Throughout, surprise is achieved better than in most novels and nearly all history books. What they experienced we cannot because there is no unexplored continent left.

No matter where we go, we know about the country in advance because we have seen pictures, we have studied the maps, we have read about it. But it's one of the glories of the Lewis and Clark journals that we can visit their campgrounds and see what they saw. It is accessible in a way that Columbus's voyage or Admiral Byrd's flights over the poles or the experience of the other great explorers are not.

In the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon, large structures of the Lewis and Clark Trail are nearly pristine. For Devoto, there was no greater joy than sitting around the fire of a Lewis and Clark campsite after a day of hiking in their footsteps or canoeing in their awake, reading aloud from their journals the captain's accounts of what had happened to them on the day they were there on that spot, and getting the circle around the fire to lean forward just a bit so as to not miss a single word. As Devoto notes, the charm of the writing is increased by their run on sentences. They were as good at this style as William Faulkner or Gertrude Stein, and of course by their spelling.

They lived in a pre-dictionary age when freedom of spelling was the rule. Captain Clark had 26 different ways to spell the word sue, not one of them correctly. The combination of puzzling out what the word is and the run-on sentences can be a bit daunting at first, but when you stick with it you get the reward. Soon enough learning how to catch their rhythm and pace so that you can almost hear them speaking to you, aided by the spellings which are as close as the captain's can get to how they said those words, and by the pace of the action as the captain's move along from danger to near disaster to challenges overcome to moments of triumph. Most of all, that marvelous moment when they reached the coast and William Clark wrote his immortal line, ocean in view, oh the joy.

These entire sentences brought together by a strong verb at the end. Beyond the immediacy of the writing, the captain's never ever flash forward or flashback, which is the best way to write history. Beyond this immediacy, an attribute that helps make the journals so gripping to Devoto and all of us who have come to these journals through Devoto, is their range and breadth. This includes the colorful cast of characters and the variety of subjects covered as well as the high drama. Sacagawea, the teenage Indian mother and her infant son, Pont, York, the slave, John Coulter, the discoverer of Yellowstone Park and our first mountain man, and all the other enlisted men, and George Dreyer, the hunter and interpreter, Sergeant Floyd, the only man to die, and the 28 enlisted men. Each one gets caught in a snapshot taken by the captain's and preserved in the journals. Snapshots of this little incident or that anecdote that brings the characters to life, providing portraits and personality clues. The Indian characters are utterly fascinating.

Camaweet of the Shoshones, Big White of the Mandans, Comoal of the Clatsops, Black Buffalo of the Sioux, Old Toby of the Shoshones, Broken Arm of the Nez Perce. The captain's recorded their conversations, always done in the sign language, their customs, their dress, their economy, their politics, and their individual quirks. By themselves, the captain's passages on the Native Americans they encountered, some of them like the Shoshones and Nez Perce who had never before seen a white man, these are an invaluable contribution to our literature and to our ethnography. The principal characters are, of course, the captain's.

They fascinated Devoto, as they do all of us. On virtually every page, the captain's reveal a bit more of their personalities. Lewis gets angry and snaps at one of the men. Clark sees Charbonneau strike his wife, Sacagawea, and I upbraided him severely. The Sioux challenge the expedition and Clark feels himself grow warm with indignation and determination not to be bullied. Lewis sees the Rocky Mountains in his overjoyed.

These and countless other vignettes make the captain's appealing and approachable to the point that you feel they are old friends. They complimented each other on the expedition. Lewis was the better botanist, Clark the better boatman. Lewis the better zoologist, Clark the better cartographer. And they compliment each other as writers. Clark could be lyrical, but as Devoto points out, more often he was a stick to the point, no wasted words kind of a writer.

Lewis was more introspective, more likely to share his worries and hopes. The single word that stands out in these journals is sharing. Through them you cross the continent by canoe, by horseback, by foot with Lewis and Clark as your guides. You are with them when they discover a new animal, a new plant, a new fish, a new Indian tribe.

Another feature, whatever your hobby or interest, there is something in there for you. For birdwatchers, you get the first description ever written of dozens of new species. The first attempt to ever put down on paper what the song of the Western meadowlark sounds like. For hunters, you're present for the greatest hunting experience anyone ever had.

Better even than the Indians because the men of the expedition had rifles. When Lewis at the Great Falls wrote that he had just seen the biggest buffalo herd he had ever seen, that meant it was likely the biggest herd any white man ever saw. And you're listening to Stephen Ambrose talking about the remarkable memoirs of Lewis and Clark as he called it their epic poem. And indeed, it is America's epic poem. It is the Odyssey. It is our Odyssey. More of this remarkable story, the story of Lewis and Clark told by the best there is in the business.

Stephen Ambrose here on Our American Stories. I love the freshness of spring. It means fun events like spring break and graduation and some new clothes to make those occasions extra special. My go-to Lulu's. Lulu's has quality on-trend items that feel as good as they look. There are so many styles to choose from for graduation and Lulu's has everything I need for spring break. Create an account at Lulus.com and use code LulusFan20 to save 20% off your first order.

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Now, I gush and I know it, but you think I gush. Where do you read Devoto's introduction to the journals of Lewis and Clark? Now, why was it that for all of these years, 150 years after the expedition, the American people who knew the outlines of the story had not read the journals?

That's a story in itself. For 100 years after they were written, the journals remained unpublished. The only account available of the expedition was a paraphrase. This was Meriwether Lewis' fault. After returning to Washington in November 1806, he promised Thomas Jefferson, almost a father to him, and William Clark, the best friend a man ever had, that he would get to work to prepare the journals for a printer. But then he suffered from what has to be described as the all-time case of writer's block. He just didn't get anything done.

He always found a way to put off the work. A fortune was awaiting him with publication, so high was the interest in the United States and in Europe about his discoveries. But when he died of his own hand in 1809, Meriwether Lewis had not prepared a single line for the printer, and he had actually lied to both Jefferson and Clark about it, assuring them that he was getting on with the work. With Lewis' death, Clark asked Jefferson to prepare the journals for publication, and surely he was the ideal man to do it. But Jefferson demurred.

He had retired and was devoting his time to Monticello and the University of Virginia. Clark felt diffident about his own skills and sought an editor for the work. Eventually, he found Nicholas Biddle of Philadelphia, who agreed to take on the task.

Biddle was in the happy position of having married the wealthiest woman in America, so he could well afford to take a couple of years off and work on this most interesting project. In 1815, Biddle published a narrative account of the expedition, based on the journals and completely true to the original, but still a paraphrase of the captain's writings. It was not until 1904 that a complete edition of the journals, as written by the captains, appeared. It was edited by Ruben Gold Thwaites of the Wisconsin State Historical Society and published by Dodd Mead and Company in eight volumes. For the first time, the world got to see what the captains had written. But eight volumes is a staggering sight to any reader other than a Lewis and Clark scholar.

It was not until 1953, a century and a half after they were written, that the journals became available to the public. That year, Houghton Mifflin Company brought out Bernard Devoto's one-volume Condensation of the Journals of Lewis and Clark. Since that year, it has been continuously in print and read by hundreds of thousands. The success of this edition, supported by Bernard Devoto, is well-earned because he did a superb piece of work. Devoto was one of the literary lions of his day, at the top rank among all American writers as an essayist, a novelist, a curmudgeon, a pundit, a reviewer, an editor, a Mark Twain scholar, and so much more. He was beloved by a remarkable range of fellow authors. Wallace Stegner was a friend and fan who wrote Devoto's biography and edited an edition of his letters. Catherine Drinker Bowen, Edith Mireles, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Wallace Stegner combined to do a volume of tribute to Devoto shortly after his death. For any writer of history or Americana, that is as great a tribute as could be imagined. Born in Ogden in 1897, he came east of Boston where he spoke for his native west through his column, The Easy Chair for Harper's Magazine.

He had been a soldier in World War I. During World War II, he devoted himself almost completely to the history of the west. His trilogy, The Year of Decision, 1846, across the wide Missouri and the course of empire is magnificent in its sweep and scope and is still read today. I was an undergraduate when Devoto was turning out this great trilogy and I can remember the eager anticipation that we had when we knew another book was coming from the typewriter of Bernard Devoto. Devoto's account of early 19th century America and its westward movement is triumphant, full of hubris and genuine accomplishment, bold, forward-looking, dynamic, on the march. Devoto's work has a moral certainty to it that was appropriate to the generation that had overcome the Depression, defeated Hitler, defeated Mussolini, defeated Tojo, held back the communist Chinese in Korea, held back the Soviet Union along the banks of the Elbe River. In Devoto's long narrative of the Lewis and Clark expedition and the course of empire, he uses words that come spring directly out of that World War II experience. For example, the captains never appease any potential enemies. They know better.

They face them down. After completing the narrative of the course of empire, Devoto turned his attention full time to editing the journals. It is his great work. He opens with a disclaimer. This condensation of the Lewis and Clark journals cannot be used instead of the original edition for the purposes of scholarship. He has that one right, but he was even more right when he added, it has been edited for the general reader. In the journals as published by Dodd Mead, the original eight volumes, editor Ruben Gold Thwaites included everything the captains wrote, much of which was repetitious. Clark often copied Lewis' journal. Much of the original journal is too detailed for anyone other than a professional naturalist.

Long descriptions of birds, plants, animals. What you get from Devoto is the heart of the story without sacrificing any of the narrative or very much of the natural history. Bernard Devoto was no cloistered scholar. He got out on the trail. He canoed in the wake of Lewis and Clark. He walked in their footsteps over the Lolo Trail. He followed them on horseback through Idaho. He traveled where the captains did, saw what they saw, to some degree experienced what they had experienced. One of his favorite sights was on the Lolo Trail in Idaho, just over the Continental Divide at Lolo Pass along today's US Highway 12. There is a magnificent grove of gigantic cedars standing beside the fast flowing and incredibly beautiful Loxha River. There Devoto liked to pick his tent and read the journals and think about the captains. And there his ashes were scattered. The site today is marked by the state of Idaho as the Bernard Devoto Grove.

And it is maintained as it was when Lewis and Clark came through. This is an altogether fitting tribute to this great American. Thank you. And you've been listening to Stephen Ambrose saluting another historian, and that man is Bernard Devoto, without whose work undaunted courage would not have been possible. Taking what only research scholars could have poured through and poured through it himself, lived the trail himself and ended up writing, well, the book that would prompt Ambrose's undaunted courage. Stephen Ambrose on Lewis and Clark and also on a great historian, Bernard Devoto.

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