Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Joint Musings: Lions of the West, Chapter 1

Lions of the West
A couple of years ago, I started reading and learning more about Native Americans.  I fell in love with Sherman Alexie, bought a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, started reading some articles about the Indian experience, visited the National Museum of the American Indian in DC, and realized that so much of American history happened with Indians and whites together, whereas now the two are nearly separate.

A couple of months ago, Kari from Five Borough Books asked me to read Lions of the West:  Heroes and Villains of the Westward Expansion with her and participate in a blog discussion about the book.  I jumped at the chance, not only because I wanted to get even more in-depth on this historical era, but also because Kari is really pretty awesome.

Lions of the West presents short biographies of eight men who were integral to the process of America expanding west across the North American continent.  Kari and I chose to discuss each man in-dept over the course of a few weeks.  Below is our discussion of the first chapter that centered on Thomas Jefferson.  On Thursday, Kari will post our discussion of the second chapter, on Andrew Jackson.  We hope you enjoy the below discussion and that it piques your interest enough to delve more into American history and understand the complex relationships that existed, and continue to exist, between so many different cultures.

See our discussion of Chapter 2, Andrew Jackson, on Kari's blog here.

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson:  Seeing the Elephant

Aarti:  I realized after reading the chapters on Jefferson and Jackson that this book attempts a chronological progression in its story-telling.  So not only do we get one chapter biographies on eight men who were integral to America’s westward expansion, we also only get glimpses into their decisions at certain points in history- so not what Jefferson thought late in life, but only what he thought when he was funding expeditions west.  

Kari:  After reading the first two chapters and getting into the groove of Morgan’s format and style, I am realizing that these snippets on famous lives are just acting like teasers to their full biographies. I never thought I’d be interested in reading in much depth about these individuals, but I am started to get inspired to learn more about their lives, belief systems, and decisions. Both Jefferson and Jackson sound like contradictions. I don’t know if it’s Morgan painting them in a more positive light, just skimming off the surface without delving deep into the history of their actions, or if they really were as conflicted as these chapters make them sound. Either way, they sound like fascinating individuals whose lives are worth an in depth study.

Aarti:  So true!  I think this will be even more evident as we get further into the book because, quite frankly, Thomas Jefferson is the person I feel like I know best of everyone, and there were so many new facts presented that I never knew!

I was a little worried reading this chapter that Robert Morgan was not writing as an unbiased modern observer, but as someone who “caught the bug” of westward expansion himself.  He portrayed Jefferson as being almost naive in his reasons for wanting to spread west, innocent of any desire to harm the native people, but instead wanting to understand them.  But Morgan acknowledges in the same chapter that Jefferson said that the Indians were a threat to American expansion and that they’d either have to move or die, basically, for America to thrive.  So it was hard for me to really believe all Jefferson’s benign letters to explorers telling them that he just wanted to understand the Indian culture and know what they were like for no purpose other than intellectual curiosity- I have a feeling he was thinking ten steps down the road to imperialism already, but I can understand if you and everyone else thinks that I’m being too cynical.

Kari:  I never knew that Jefferson was such a naturalist! The perception I had of him following this chapter is that Jefferson’s main motivation for conquering the west was almost of personal interest in its natural wonders. 

Aarti:  In a bit of book kismet, I set aside The World Without Us to read Lions of the West, and The World Without Us talks a lot about Jefferson’s naturalist bent, too, particularly his obsession with mammoths- so cool to read about him in that way in two totally different books!

Kari:  And he wanted to conquer that land first simply because he didn’t want any other nation to have access to it before he did (especially the British, because he was of the Revolutionary era and really just hated the British). 

Aarti:  Yes, interesting that he didn’t want the British or the French (or the Russians or the Mexicans) to have it, but he didn’t seem worried that the Indian populations already out there would cause any problem.  I wonder if he was just so certain of westward expansion and the increasing population of the United States that he knew his country would win eventually?

Kari:  I wouldn’t say you’re wrong in your cynicism of Jefferson’s motives behind westward expansion and attitude towards the Indians--this is what I mean when I say an in depth biography of these people almost feels necessary after reading these brief intros! I, however, noticed more his obsession with finding fossils and plants and meticulously recording all of it--finding more a naturalist reasoning behind his westward movement than an imperialist one. Likewise, Morgan made certain to note Jefferson’s stance on Africans and Indians, and there certainly are contradictions there when you think about the other things you know about Jefferson (such as the fact that he was a slave-owner, despite condemning slavery in Notes on the State of Virginia...despite declaring his belief that they are an inferior race! Such contradictions in one man!) 

Aarti:  So much about our founding fathers is wrapped in paradox, and Jefferson more than most.  He fought for liberty for all but he owned slaves.  He thought that other races treated their women poorly, but he himself kept an African-American mistress for many years.  He emulated the French, but didn’t want them in America.  He was a brilliant and persuasive communicator, but an abysmally poor speaker (I didn’t know that until this book!  I would have thought Jefferson was an excellent speaker- so interesting that he was not).  There was hardly anything completely black and white about Jefferson, so obviously 50 pages on a very small sliver of his life can’t possibly do him justice- but I still wanted more nuance from this chapter.  What did you think?

Kari:  I think the part that made me view Jefferson without such cynicism is this passage:
“Like most enlightened men of his time, Jefferson believed that those who went among the Indians should seek to ‘civilize & instruct them,’ but he also realized that to do so Europeans must ‘adapt their measures to the existing notions & practices of those on whom they are to operate’...Had all Americans been as sensitive to this particular issue as Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis, our history might have been very different.” (pg 39) So while yes, his intent was to create a United States of white men, I think he at least recognized Indians as persons of intelligence with a valid unique culture. (He did, at least, recognize them as “tribes of nations” which I thought interesting).

Aarti:  And I think that’s what frustrates me about Morgan’s writing.  He is very open about presenting these men as complex and flawed people throughout his chapters, but then at the end of each chapter, he makes generalized statements about how these men did things for the good of the nation and are heroes, etc.  Which I understand on some level as they did drive history, but I still find it a bit of a cop-out to try to make an all-encompassing statement about a person like that, as though that is the takeaway he wants us to remember- the easy sound bite, not the complex person.


  1. It does sound as if Jefferson was very complex, and at times, contradictory. I wonder if his personal feelings were different than the ones that he chose to project to the outward world. Having read almost half of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, I view Jefferson with a little malignancy, because in that book, he seemed to be bent on domination, and I never saw that naturalist in him. This was a fascinating joint post today, and I am looking forward to following along as you guys read. Off now to find Keri's blog!

    1. Man, I read A People's History, and I don't remember that! See, this is my (sort of) fear with this book, that Morgan is painting everything/everyone in a prettier light than they deserve. I guess it's hard to judge historical figures as all good or all bad, and I know these chapters aren't intended to be a full biography. I was surprised, though, by how Morgan painted Jefferson as more of a naturalist than an imperialist. I mean, he may have been a naturalist, a side that we don't often hear about him, but I can't really believe he was completely innocent of imperialism. I do appreciate learning these lesser known facts, though they may be a bit misleading...

    2. Yes, Heather, that was really my concern, too, and Kari and I talked about it even more in the Jackson chapter, I think. I feel like Morgan chose the "moments" on which to focus each chapter really strategically to show the people in the best possible light and not really provide an objective view of what they did. I've just finished another book now, On the Origin of Tepees, that glances a bit on this topic and also presents Jefferson as pretty ruthlessly imperial and not caring much at all about the anthropological goldmine available to him on the continent, but much more just on spreading the European influence that he deemed better.

  2. I learned a few new things about jefferson, I can't say i like the man


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