Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose

I wanted to read more about the Louisiana Purchase, which was the defining event of Thomas Jefferson’s first four year in office upon completion of Dumas Malone’s fourth book, Jefferson the President: First Term 1801-1805 (review here).  Malone’s book spent a good deal of time discussing the politics behind the purchase, but I wanted to read more about the exploration of the new territory.  I selected Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose.  The book reviews the journey of Lewis and Clark through the new portion of America, which was still a mystery to an overwhelming majority of the citizens of the country.

Stephen Ambrose was a very popular historian and the writer of multiple books on American History.  He wrote two famous biographies on Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.  I enjoyed his book Citizen Soldiers relating the stories of the soldiers involved in the fighting from Normandy to the end of the war.  While in the Army, Band of Brothers, was required reading for all the officers in my unit because of how it shared the bond of men in war.  I know many of the people reading this blog have heard about Ambrose’s plagiarism and factual errors in at least two books.  I am aware of them, but I feel like this well-read book by a formerly popular author deserves to be included on a list of books about American Presidents.

I added this book to my reading list for a few reasons.  The first is a desire to take a quick break from Malone and his epic six-volume biography on Jefferson.  I am enjoying his books, but they had become slightly dry after couple thousand pages.  A second was after the time spent in the military and my love of outdoors, I was drawn to a real-life adventure story.  Could there be a more exciting exploration conducted by Americans?  These men were walking through virgin forests and unspoiled nature in the early 19th century.  A final reason was because the third American president was a driving force behind the purchase of the new land.  Ambrose mentions Jefferson frequently throughout the book and, as mentioned prior, Malone spent a good portion of his fourth book on the Louisiana Purchase.

Ambrose begins his book with a review of the early life of Meriwether Lewis.  The young man was born in Albemarle County, Virginia.  He was a planter, soldier and eventually trusted secretary to Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson could not have made a better selection to conduct a journey through the heart of America looking for a waterway to the Pacific.  The President desired a scientific review of the new territory and friendship with the Native Americans the men would meet along the way.  He also wanted to discover an all water route from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.

Ambrose takes many of his notes from the official diary of Lewis and Clark, which are published and easily accessible for a person desiring their firsthand account.  Since there is a major portion of time missing in their journals, Ambrose uses the records of other explorers on the expedition.  The reader gains a very accurate accounting of the exciting journey the men took.

As with all of Ambrose’s works I have read, the book is very easy to read and fast paced.  I thoroughly enjoyed his writing throughout the book.  Ambrose as a writer is not caught up in trying to sound academic, but more like a grandfather spinning a yarn to his grandkids.  The expedition of Lewis and Clark is an awesome subject that spanned the better part of a decade.  I believe it remains one of the least appreciated feats in American history, overshadowed by other major events, such as major wars or the Great Depression.  A student of American history needs to learn more about the impact of the Louisiana Purchase to better understand the impact of Thomas Jefferson on today’s America.  The effort directed by Jefferson transformed the United States into a power that spanned half a continent.  He added this territory to enhance the greatness of his country and protect it from European empires.  Undaunted Courage is not a biography of Thomas Jefferson, but in my opinion it fits in bigger scope of my project to learn more about the men who were President and the history of the country I love.

Overall Rating- 4 Stars

## I do not endorse the actions taken by Stephen Ambrose during his career as a writer.  I view him in the same way as Joseph Ellis- read and enjoy the books these men wrote, but always remember the allegations made against them.

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Jefferson the President: First Term 1801-1805 by Dumas Malone

Jefferson the President: First Term by Dumas Malone is the fourth of six books about the third American President.  The book was published in 1970 by the University of Virginia Press and spans Jefferson’s first four years as President of the United States.

Malone starts with the transition from Adams to Jefferson and the difficulties of the change from a Federalist regime to a Republican leader in charge of the Executive Branch of government.  Adams, disgruntled over his loss in the 1800 election, left before his successor was inaugurated as president.  If you are interested in reading more about this election, I recommend Adams vs Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 by John Ferling (review here).  Jefferson was upset by numerous midnight nominations made by Adams in the judiciary which eventually led to multiple judges being impeached in Jefferson’s first term.  Malone discusses Jefferson’s difficulties with the judiciary in multiple chapters during this book.  The famous Marbury vs. Madison court case was decided midway through Jefferson’s first four years in office.

A major portion of the book covered the Louisiana Purchase which defined Jefferson’s presidency in many ways.  Malone conducted a deep dive into the politics of the age, the twisted route that led to the United States doubling in size.  No detail was left undiscovered by the author as he wrote nearly 140 pages on the purchase.  The Louisiana Purchase was engineered in many ways by Jefferson and his desire to ensure the navigation of the Mississippi River, control of New Orleans, and the strengthening of his country.  Jefferson deviated from his usual strict adherence to the Constitution with the purchase of this new territory.

Malone covered different aspects of Jefferson, the man, within this book.  The writer addresses the Sally Hemings affair in the middle of the book.  Malone, at the time, was not convinced that the alleged affair between Jefferson and his slave took place.  The denial of Malone is understandable for two separate reasons.  The first is the advances in DNA evidence of the last 40 years that the researcher did not have access to while writing the book.  The second reason Malone was unconvinced was due to the man who started the slander of Jefferson during his first term.  James Callander was a disagreeable character who began rumor mongering in the early 19th century against more people than just Jefferson.  Based on the nefariousness of Callander’s character, who began the rumor of Jefferson relationship with Hemings, one could easily be persuaded to discount the validity of the affair.

Jefferson the President missed the mark for me as a biography of Thomas Jefferson.  Malone did not write the book as a biography, but as a history book on the period that covered 1801-1805.  Even though Malone brought the Hemings affair into the story, along with Jefferson the scientist, and Jefferson’s view on freedom of religion, the book did not read as a biography.  The book reminded me of some of the less exciting texts I read in college.  I do not think less of Jefferson as a president, but was not thrilled by Malone’s recounting of his first term.  Malone covered the events of the day, but added more detail than was necessary.

Overall Rating- 3 Stars