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As Long as We Remember...

February 24, 2004

Jefferson Visits Frederick

Joe Volz

President Thomas Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis came to Frederick last week.

They were invited by local history buffs to discuss the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific. Many thought that 200 years ago when Jefferson sent Lewis and his military buddy, William Clark, off to discover the rest of America that it was a fool's errand. A waste of money.

But last Friday, when the tall redheaded Jefferson and the undistinguished Lewis showed up at Frederick Community College, they made the risky expedition seem like a most worthwhile endeavor.

In fact, Mr. Jefferson seemed mildly exasperated at my questions about the fiscal necessity of the adventure. I asked him how much it was going to cost. Lewis answered that he had been given an unlimited line of credit for the trip, which ended up taking almost four years.

My suggestion that the money could better be spent improving the road system from the nation's capital-Jefferson called it the federal city-to Fredericktown annoyed Jefferson who accused me of being a Federalist, the party of his arch enemies. Jefferson also scoffed when he found out I was a Fredericktown resident. He told me to take up my concerns with Congress and the local officials.

Clark and Lewis, who spent a few hours here planning the expedition that was launched from Pittsburgh, were to travel 8,000 miles. It was an unusual band called the Corp of Volunteers for Northwest Discovery. The two Virginians brought with them Clark's slave, a teenage Indian girl (Jefferson called her an aborigine), and a support group, including a dog.

Now, 200 years later, up to 30 million Americans are expected to celebrate that mission. That's six times the population of the young United States when Lewis and Clark set out.

The two young Army officers were themselves almost as interesting as the expedition. Lewis, suffering from what we now call bipolar disorder, shot himself to death a few years after the expedition ended. Clark, ahead of his time in some ways, allowed his slave to vote on expedition decisions but kept him in slavery once returning to St. Louis.

But the other night, as Jefferson and Lewis talked about the upcoming mission, you couldn't help but admire their foresight, their willingness to venture into the unknown. Lewis, formerly Jefferson's secretary, said the President would have loved to have come along but his duties kept him in Washington.

Lewis and Clark planned their expedition in the hopes of finding a river passage to the Pacific. They didn't succeed there but they did get to Oregon, much of the way over land. It is amazing to consider how little they knew about the West. In fact, our astronauts knew much more about the moon before they landed on it in 1969 than Lewis and Clark knew about the America west of the Mississippi..

Jefferson and Lewis, for example, could not believe that there could be any mountains in our West higher than the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Bob Barker who has been playing Jefferson for a generation, mainly at Colonial Williamsburg, is so caught up in the act that he actually lives on Williamsburg's main street, Duke of Gloucester Street, in a house furnished with Jefferson memorabilia.

Barker seems to know just about everything Jefferson said or wrote and is able to figure out what Jefferson's response to questions might have been. I encountered Jefferson a few years back at Chowning's Tavern in Williamsburg and, being in a cantankerous mood, asked him if he ever had sex with his slave, Sally Hemmings. Hemmings' descendants are convinced that DNA proves he did, but Jefferson descendents say it only shows that some member of the Jefferson family did.

Anyhow, Jefferson was ready for me. Looking at me sternly, as if he thought I was a boob of the highest order, no doubt writing for a Federalist paper, he said, "Sir, gentlemen do not ask questions like that and gentlemen do not answer such questions."

Now, if only Bill Clinton had thought of that answer. But having seen both Presidents in action, I am prepared to testify that William Jefferson Clinton is no Thomas Jefferson.

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