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.