Saturday, April 2, 2016

Sobering Lessons from Meriwether Lewis and the Lewis and Clark Expedition of Discovery

I just finished Stephen E. Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West.

I don’t believe I’ve read anything about the Louisiana Purchase or the Lewis and Clark expedition since grade school. (Which of course was only a couple years after Lewis and Clark returned from their trip.)

Anyhow, I was amazed by the sheer heroism of this expedition, undertaken because of Thomas Jefferson’s vision to find an overland route to the Pacific Ocean.

Meriwether Lewis was a Renaissance man. Son and step-son of military men, he was an Army officer personally selected by Thomas Jefferson as his own right-hand man. Lewis was like a son to the President.

Jefferson brought Lewis into the White House as his personal assistant for two years. Lewis was already widely traveled, an accomplished outdoorsman, marksman, hunter, and Army officer. But the President personally tutored him. Then as the expedition began to take shape, Jefferson arranged for Lewis to be given a crash course in map making, surveying, botany, mathematics, anatomy, and medicine by the leading scientists of the day.

Starting in May of 1804, Lewis led a troupe of 30 men, plus one woman (Sacagawea) over the entire span of the United States. Along the way they built boats, faced down grizzlies, survived blizzards, attempted peace treaties with multiple Indian tribes, all the while making maps and doing scientific research.

During this Expedition of Discovery, as it was called, Lewis discovered and described 178 new plants and 122 species and subspecies of animals. Lewis served as the expedition's visionary leader, indomitable driving force, and, incredibly, doctor. (He delivered Sacagawea’s baby.)

When the expedition returned in September of 1806,  Lewis and Clark were national heroes. Theirs was the first transcontinental expedition to the Pacific Ocean.

They received financial rewards, public acclaim, and career advancement. Thomas Jefferson appointed Meriwether Lewis as Governor of the Louisiana Territory in 1807. 

But Lewis’ post-expedition life began to spiral downward. He desperately wanted to marry, but failed to find the right woman. Though he was a tremendous explorer and leader, he was a terrible politician and administrator. He got into financial difficulty and struggled with depression. He self-medicated with alcohol and laudanum.

In 1809 on a trip to Washington D.C. he took his own life. He was only 35 years old.

I didn’t know, or didn’t remember, how Meriwether Lewis’ story ended. And I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what to make of it. A few observations:
  • Accomplishment cannot bring contentment. It’s hard to imagine a nobler accomplishment than the Lewis and Clark Expedition, or a more gifted leader than Meriwether Lewis. But even his great heart longed for more. What happens if you meet all your goals, but still feel empty inside?
  • Alcohol and drugs are deadly traps that have been ensnaring even the best and brightest for centuries. They contributed to the untimely death of one of America’s greatest men.
  • Finishing well in this long race of life is harder than winning early. And if you die without Christ, worldly success means nothing. I don’t know if Meriwether Lewis was a Christian, but if he was, the evidence of his faith seems very slim.
May God help each of us. Satisfaction doesn't lie in even our best efforts, and only Jesus can carry us to our true home at journey’s end.