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This Day In History: Thomas Jefferson Requested Funding From Congress For The Lewis & Clark Expedition

January 18, 2017

This day in history, January 18, 1803, Thomas Jefferson requested funding from Congress for the Lewis and Clark expedition. Jefferson was determined to explore the vast regions of the Far West and sent a confidential message to Congress asking for the funds to finance the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Jefferson had been trying to mount a western expedition of exploration since the 1790’s, and his determination to do so had only grown since becoming President in 1801. In the summer of 1802, Jefferson began actively preparing for the mission, recruiting his young personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to be its leader. Throughout 1802, Jefferson and Lewis discussed the proposed mission, telling no one even though Congress would have to approve the funds of what they were contemplating.

Jefferson directed Lewis to draw up an estimate of expenses. Based on his calculations of a party of one officer and 10 enlisted men, Lewis carefully added up the costs for provisions, weapons, gunpowder, scientific instruments, and a large boat and came to the final conclusion that it would cost $2,500. The number of men was deliberately kept small to avoid inspiring both congressional criticisms and Indian fears of invasion, and the largest item was $696, earmarked for gifts to Indians.

Following the advice of his secretary of the treasury, Albert Gallatin, Jefferson decided not to include the request in his general proposed annual budget, since it involved exploration outside of the nation’s own territory. Instead, on January 18, 1803, he sent a confidential secret message to Congress asking for the funds, making the argument that the proposed exploration would be an aid to American commerce. Jefferson noted that the Indians along the proposed route of exploration up the Missouri River “furnish a great supply of furs & pelts to the trade of another nation carried on in a high latitude.” If a route into this territory existed, “possibly with a single portage, from the Western ocean,” Jefferson suggested Americans might have a superior means of exploiting the fur trade.

Though carefully couched in diplomatic language, Jefferson’s message to Congress was clear: a U.S. expedition might be able to steal the fur trade from the British and find the long hoped-for Northwest passage to the Pacific. Despite some mild resistance from Federalists who never saw a reason for spending money on the West, Jefferson’s carefully worded request succeeded, and Congress approved the $2,500 appropriation by a sizable margin. It seemed trivial in comparison to the $9,375,000 they had approved a week earlier for the Louisiana Purchase, which brought much of the territory Jefferson was proposing to explore under American control. With financing now assured, Lewis began preparing for the expedition. Recruiting his old military friend, William Clark, to be his co-captain, the Corps of Discovery departed on their exploration of the uncharted regions in spring 1804.