Thursday, November 29, 2012

Ambrose's "Undaunted Courage"

This summer, I enjoyed another book from Stephen Ambrose. Undaunted Courage was a terrific read, especially as we were traveling out west this summer, through many of the lands he was describing. As is usual with Ambrose, it was an easy read, thorough but not dense, and a ton of interesting stuff to learn.

Some of the nuggets: 

It's noteworthy that Jefferson wanted the new land to be divided into new states, rather than colonies of the new country. I had never thought of that previously, but that was a novel decision. 

Likewise, I didn't know that it was Lewis who pushed and formally proposed a co-command with Clark-- and led the expedition in that manner, even though it was not officially approved by Congress. The idea was really good, given the men involved. But it was not intuitively obvious and met with resistance.

It's interesting that Jefferson feared (and generally argued against) a strong central government-- most notably, with the "separation of church and state". In such cases, he was not necessarily opposed to a given policy, but rather, the idea that it would be implemented at the federal (vs. state) level. With the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis/Clark expedition, Jefferson violated his norms to pursue larger goals. 

As in Band of Brothers, Ambrose depicts people who engage in a lot of immoral behavior, particularly in the realms of drinking and sexual ethics. (At one point, Ambrose notes that alcohol was the most important compensation on the trip!) We're often told that the old days, in America, were much more moral. But from the drinking and debauchery in post-colonial America (e.g., p. 15) to the antics in World War II of our young soldiers, it is difficult to imagine that as anything but a false remembrance of times past. 

Sexual immorality among the Indians was roughly equivalent, but often driven by different if not higher motives. Many of the tribes traded their wives freely-- and really interesting, they wanted their wives to sleep with the white men since they were seen as magical. These Indians believed that the magic could be communicated/spread through sex. Instead, it was venereal diseases that got spread! (On p. 303 he says there is a debate over whether syphilis started with the Indians or the Americans.) 

Ambrose notes what slavery did to the character of whites, particularly the children of slave-owners (p. 18-21). Speaking of bad public policy: Ambrose's treatment of the Whiskey Rebellion (p. 23-24) reminded me of King Solomon's unjust tax/spend policies, redistributing monies from one part of the country to another. It is an underemphasized part of American (economic) history-- that politicians often chose policy solutions which benefited one region over another. 

Ambrose makes an interesting point that government had to be limited in the old days (p. 39) given the limited technology and ability to communicate, given the vast amount of land in play. More broadly, he notes that "Since the birth of civilization, there had been almost no changes in commerce or transportation...the Americans of 1801 had more gadgets, better weapons, a superior knowledge of geography, and other advantages over the ancients, but they could not move goods or themselves or information by land or water any faster than had the Greeks and Romans." Wow!

Finally, I was amazed at Lewis' pre-expedition life-- and his really close, father/son-like relationship with Jefferson, as his right-hand man and fellow bachelor roommate in the White House. And I was shocked to learn about Lewis' sad post-expedition life. he was unable to discipline himself to put the journals in publishable form. And he repeatedly tried to commit suicide before succeeding just three years after his return. 

His suicide and especially his failure to get the journals published hurt his reputation and limited the now-amazing level of praise for their exploits (p. 526-531). It was nearly a century afterwards that scholars began to emphasize the importance of the famous expedition that we now take for granted, historically.


At November 30, 2012 at 8:48 PM , Blogger Bob said...



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