Presidential term: March 4, 1801 – March 4, 1809
The third President of our country was Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, and of the Act of Religious Freedom in Virginia. A good and honest man, the “Sage of Monticello” always kept the resolution made at the age of twenty-six, when elected a burgess: “Never to engage while in public office in any kind of enterprise for the improvement of my fortune, nor to wear any other character than that of farmer.”
It was Jefferson who suggested our national motto, “E pluribus unum” [one composed of many], but, though one of the most learned and accomplished of all our Presidents, he was very plain and unassuming. Indeed, the story goes that at the time of his inauguration (1801), he rode alone to the Capitol, tied his horse to a picket fence, went in, took his oath as President, made a fifteen-minute speech, and rode off again as quietly as he had come.
This pleased the plain people, who showed their approval by sending the President a huge cheese, weighing more than a thousand pounds. It reached him on New Year’s day, and was placed in the East Room in the White House, where all the callers could read the inscription: “The greatest cheese in America, for the greatest man in America.”
As Jefferson never would hold stately receptions like those of Washington and Adams, and insisted upon doing everything simply, expenses were greatly reduced, and part of the national debt was paid. Jefferson’s election, however, had not been a quiet one, for both he and Aaron Burr received the same number of electoral votes. As there was then no way of telling which was elected President and which Vice President under these circumstances, the election was left to the House of Representatives, which chose Jefferson. But, to prevent any such doubt in the future, a new clause, or amendment, was added to the Constitution. This says that the electors shall cast separate votes for President and for Vice President.
Many interesting events took place under Jefferson’s rule. For instance, our country doubled its size in a very strange way. At the end of the French and Indian wars, France had given New Orleans and all her land west of the Mississippi to Spain. The Spaniards, after owning Louisiana, as this great colony was called, for thirty-seven years, made a secret treaty giving it back to France. As it was very important that the Americans should be able to sail as much as they pleased up and down the Mississippi, and sell their produce in New Orleans, Jefferson thought it might be well to buy that city. He therefore sent a man to France to see if it could be done.
Now, it happened just at this time that Napoleon needed money to make war against his enemies the British. Besides, he could not spare any of his troops to occupy Louisiana, and he feared that the British would secure it. He therefore suddenly proposed to sell all Louisiana for the sum of fifteen million dollars, or about two and a half cents an acre; and the offer was accepted.
Napoleon, on signing the papers, gleefully remarked that he had now given England a rival, which, he added, “will sooner or later humble her pride.” At first, Jefferson thought that under the Constitution our government had no right to acquire so much land; but, seeing what a fine bargain it was, he stretched his authority “until it cracked,” to secure all Louisiana. Congress agreed with him, and the fifteen millions were duly paid.
In those days, no one knew anything about most of the country on the west side of the Mississippi, where only a few hunters and trappers had gone. Indeed, people so little suspected how quickly it would be settled that, at the time of the purchase, in 1803, some Americans said we would probably not send a settler across the Mississippi for a hundred years!
But Jefferson had long wished to have this part of our country explored, and even before the purchase was completed, he urged Congress to send out an exploring party under his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, and William Clark. Congress consented, so these two men and their followers left St. Louis, then a mere village (1804), and went up the Missouri to the “Gate of the Rocky Mountains.” They passed through what is now called Yellow-stone Park, saw the many natural curiosities there, and tried to make friends with the Indians wherever they went. With much trouble, they crossed the mountains, where they carved their names upon a high rock. Then, although their supply of food was very scanty, they journeyed bravely on, until they reached the Columbia River.
Floating down this stream, the forty-six men composing the expedition reached the Pacific Ocean, in 1805. It is said they were thus the first white men who crossed our country to the Pacific since Cabeza de Vaca had done so, more than two and a half centuries before. But the Columbia River had already been visited by an American in 1792, for Captain Gray had then sailed into its mouth, giving it the name borne by his ship. It seems that this seaman went there to get furs, intending to exchange them for tea in China, and to bring the latter cargo back to Boston. It was because the valley of the Columbia was first explored by Gray, Lewis, and Clark, who were all three loyal Americans, that it was later claimed by the United States when Great Britain tried to take it.
After spending the winter at the mouth of the Columbia, where he and his men lived principally upon elk and salmon, Lewis and Clark made their way over the Rockies to St. Louis, which they reached after an absence of two years and four months. During that time they had learned a great deal about the geography of the western part of our country, and the report they made showed President and Congress what a rich and beautiful country it really is.
Still, at that time people knew very little about any but the eastern part, and even the source of the Mississippi had never been visited. Hoping to find out where it was, Congress sent Zebulon Pike to look for it. He traced a stream, which he wrongly took for the beginning of the “Father of Waters,” in a hard journey of more than eight months. Then, in 1806, he started on a new expedition up the Missouri. Crossing to the Arkansas River, he saw the peak now bearing his name, and in looking for the Red River came to the Rio Grande.
This proved a long, painful, and heroic journey. The snow lay upon the ground several feet deep; the explorers often lacked food, and, losing their way in the trackless mountains, they would have perished of cold and hunger, had it not been for the instinct of their horses and mules. Even when Pike and his party reached the Rio Grande, their troubles were not over, for they fell into the hands of the Spaniards. Taken as spies to Santa Fe, they proved that it was all a mistake, and, being set free, returned home.
Pike, Lewis, and Clark spoke so warmly of the fine hunting grounds they had seen that John Jacob Astor, a fur trader in New York, decided to found a trading post on the Pacific. He therefore sent out a party, which crossed the continent and built a fort called Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia River. The adventures of this party were described by Washington Irving, an American author. He gives a charming account of the long journey across the plains, of the buffalo hunting, and of many encounters with the Indians, besides telling us about the life at Astoria, the first American settlement on the Pacific coast.