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Jefferson proposes a Scientific expedition

From the moment the political separation of the United States from Great Britain was settled, Thomas Jefferson committed himself to organizing a scientific expedition to explore the Trans-Mississippi west. As early as 1785, he and fellow members of the American Philosophical Society discussed a plan to undertake the exploration of the Missouri River region, but these attempts fell prey to a variety of logistical problems, not the least of which was the political situation in the northwest. The Michaux subscription list is a remarkable remnant of one such attempt.

Although Britain had ceded formal political control of the American northwest (modern Ohio, Indian, Michigan, and Illinois) in 1783, the issue of American dominion was anything but secure. British forces lingered in their forts for years, and the tiny peacetime American army had neither the will nor the manpower to expel them. To the west and south lay Spanish Louisiana, which is 1793 was facing the destabilizing threat of radical Republican ideas imported from revolutionary France - its large enslaved population and many French inhabitants provided fertile ground for the radical concepts of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Finally, and most importantly, the Indian nations of the Ohio Valley waged a bitter resistance to the introgression of any colonial power, and were beginning to demonstrate the pan-Indian solidarity later championed by Tecumseh. After suffering a disastrous defeat to allied Ohio Indians in 1791, the U.S. army became virtually a non-factor for over two years, while American military and political leaders fretted over plots and conspiracies to deny their sovereignty.

And into this maelstrom of French, Spanish, English, American, and Indian contestation, a French botanist chose to go. The top half of the document consists of instructions Jefferson drafted for Michaux to guide him scientifically as he explored "the interior of North America from the Mississippi along the Missouri, and Westwardly to the Pacific ocean": the animals and plants, inhabitants, geography, and geology. To support the expedition, given the absence of federal support, he circulated a copy of these instructions among his friends -- including many APS members -- asking each to pledge some money. Jefferson opened the ante with $50, matched penny for penny by his rival Alexander Hamilton, and by Secretary of War Henry Knox. The magnanimous George Washington tendered an enormous sum, $100, while Robert Morris, the "financier of the American Revolution," offered $80. John Adams followed with a modest $20, as did James Madison, and others gave as their interests directed. The resulting subscription list is the only document known to have been signed by each of the first four Presidents of the United States.

The supporters of the expedition stood to benefit in several ways. Apart from the scientific benefits that might accrue, as Secretary of State, Jefferson had a keen interest in a detailed view of the political and economic potential of the region. Men like Robert Morris, who held substantial interests in western lands, stood to benefit personally. Sadly, though, the expedition foundered. Michaux was swept up in the political aspirations of Citizen Genêt, who hoped to wage a campaign against the Spanish in Louisiana, and the expedition died quickly. However the Michaux expedition was not a total failure. It contributed to Jefferson's evolving thought about western exploration and did nothing to damped his zeal. The plans he carefully drafted for Michaux formed the basis for the instructions he provided to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark ten years later.

The story of the Michaux subscription list, however, did not end with the failure of the expedition. The document was apparently bundled up by APS Librarian John Vaughan during the 1840s, set aside, and forgotten. It was not rediscovered until 1979, when a high school student employed by the Society to help clean the basement discovered a small wooden box containing a bundle of papers wrapped in old red tape. On top was Michaux. More recently, the Pew Foundation has provided a grant to help restore the Michaux subscription list, along with the three copies of the Declaration of Independence and the journals of Lewis and Clark.

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