Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis, 23 February 1801

To Meriwether Lewis

Washington Feb. 23. 1801.

Dear Sir

The appointment to the Presidency of the US. has rendered it necessary for me to have a private secretary, and in selecting one I have thought it important to respect not only his capacity to aid in the private concerns of the houshold, but also to contribute to the mass of information which it is interesting for the administration to acquire. your knolege of the Western country, of the army and of all it’s interests & relations has rendered it desireable for public as well as private purposes that you should be engaged in that office. in point of profit it has little to offer: the salary being only 500. D. which would scarcely be more than an equivalent for your pay & rations, which you would be obliged to relinquish while withdrawn from active service, but retaining your rank & right to rise. but it would be an easier office, would make you know & be known to characters of influence in the affairs of our country, and give you the advantage of their […] you would of course save also the expence of subsistence & lodging as you would be one of my family. if these or any other views which your own reflections may suggest should present the office of my private secretary as worthy of acceptance you will make me happy in accepting it. it has been sollicited by several, who will have no answer till I hear from you. should you accept, it would be necessary that you should wind up whatever affairs you are engaged in as expeditiously as your own & the public interest will admit, & repair to this place: and that immediately on reciept of this you inform me by letter of your determinations. it would also be necessary that you wait on Genl Wilkinson & obtain his approbation, & his aid in making such arrangements as may render your absence as little injurious to the service as may be. I write to him on this subject.

Accept assurances of the esteem of Dear Sir Your friend & servt.

Th: Jefferson

PrC (DLC); at foot of text: “Lt. Meriwether Lewis”; blurred; endorsed by TJ in ink on verso. Enclosed in TJ to Tarleton Bates, printed at 28 Feb.

Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) was a native of Albemarle County. When he was five his father, William Lewis, died, and the boy spent some time in Georgia following the remarriage of his mother, Lucy Meriwether Lewis. As a youth he attended Latin school in Albemarle County. He inherited his father’s plantation, “Locust Hill,” but volunteered for military service during the Whiskey Rebellion and obtained an ensign’s commission in the regular army in 1795. Serving at various frontier posts, he was also in Charlottesville, 1798–99, on recruiting service. He became a lieutenant in March 1799 and a captain late in 1800. He was the president’s private secretary from 1801 to 1803, when TJ named him to lead—with William Clark, Lewis’s choice as cocommander—the expedition that traversed the continent to the Pacific Ocean. Named governor of the territory of Upper Louisiana, Lewis took up residence in St. Louis in 1808. His death in Tennessee while en route to Washington was considered a suicide: in a biographical sketch, TJ wrote that he had perceived “depressions of mind” in Lewis, that other members of that branch of Lewis’s family had been subject to similar “hypocondriac affections,” and that Lewis reportedly showed symptoms of a mental “paroxysm” at the time of his death. Some writers have suggested, however, that Lewis’s death by gunshot may not have been by his own hand. Writing later of the selection of Lewis for the western expedition, TJ credited him with “a firmness & perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from it’s direction.” He was, TJ declared, “of courage undaunted” (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York and Oxford, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ; TJ to Paul Allen, 18 Aug. 1813, MS in DNT, also printed in Allen’s History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark, to the Sources of the Missouri, Thence Across the Rocky Mountains and Down the River Columbia to the Pacific Ocean, 2 vols. [Philadelphia, 1814], l:vii–xxiii).

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