Undaunted Courage, a review

Written by Tim Dunkin on . Posted in Books

Publisher's note:  Tim Dunkin does a great job discussing this book, 'Undaunted Courage.'  I have to agree with his assessment that we have lost the pioneer spirit that once drove this great nation, and replaced it with the latest cultural titillation and distractive nonsense. Personally, I can't wait to read it myself.

Tim Dunkin:  Within the hearts of those of us who love liberty, there is a pioneer and an explorer seeking an outlet.  Which of us hasn’t dreamed of some new frontier to discover?

Because of the circumstances of our nation’s history and geography, this drive has been central to the American character.  It’s why we went west.  It’s why we went to the moon. It’s why we talk of going to Mars.  It’s why much of our fiction envisions the exploration of the stars.  

Even today, as we live our generally dull lives commuting to work, sitting behind a desk, and commuting home, pursuing our routine day in and day out, we dream of being able to go beyond the boundaries of civilized life and explore and subdue the wild unknown.

In his work 'Undaunted Courage,' historian Stephen Ambrose tells us the story of a party of men led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark who were able to live the dream.  

For the reader who is looking for a fast-paced adventure with explosive action on every page, this book will not be for you.  The author spends several chapters before he even gets to the onset of the expedition itself.  Indeed, the work at first seems as if it will be more a biography of Meriwether Lewis (who occupies the focal point of attention throughout most of the book) than anything else.  However, if the reader has the fortitude to abide, what follows is a thorough exposition, based upon copious documentation, of every aspect of the exploratory trip to the Pacific.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes gripping, sometimes tedious, its faithfulness to the sources mirrors what the real act of exploration must have been like – short periods of intense excitement punctuating much longer periods of hunting, rowing, carrying things, and such.  In other words – realism.  In my opinion, this is much better than the expectation of constant stimulation that has been inculcated in modern America’s consumers of popular entertainment.

One of the things the author takes pains to inform the reader is that this expedition from start to finish was a huge gamble.  Thomas Jefferson, despite the stereotype of constitutional scrupulousness, went out on a limb politically, both in the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase and in spending public monies to prepare and send the expedition.  He had to sell his contemporaries – who had not yet acquired the habit of us moderns of spending copious amounts of money that we do not possess – on funding the expedition by appealing both to scientific interest and to political instinct.  Most specifically, it was argued that America must reach the Northwest – what is now Washington, Oregon, and Idaho – before any of the other great powers did.  Doing so, of course, generated its own risks by placing our fledgling nation into direct geopolitical competition with Britain and Russia, both of whom had claims in the area.  Already under fire from his Federalist opposition, the failure of the Lewis and Clark expedition would have destroyed him politically and allowed his name to be tarnished for posterity.

The connecting thread throughout the narration of the expedition is “risk.”  Whether it was engaging in tricky diplomacy to avoid starting a war and getting scalped by finicky Sioux or making the decision to cross the treacherous Bitterroot Mountains during the start of winter, Lewis, Clark, and their men were completely on their own without any possibility of support from back home – their decisions were often matters of life or death for themselves.  In many cases, Lewis, Clark, and their men had to rely on personal strength and perseverance – giving up meant death, weakness in the face of danger meant death, laziness meant death.

This is not to say, however, that the territory they were exploring was completely uncharted and unknown.  Obviously, there were tribes of Native Americans who inhabited the entire region, and these tribes are discussed and recorded most generously.  Likewise – much to the relief of the ever-present cadre of chattering class political correctness enforcers – Sacagawea received her due; the story does not neglect her in a zeal to glorify the dreaded dead white males.  Further, there were white traders and trappers – mostly French, some British – who had penetrated into some of the region explored by the mission.  Nevertheless, the distance traveled, the hardships endured, and the particular path explored all combine to make the Lewis and Clark expedition one of the riskiest ventures ever conducted.  

One of the unintended consequences of the study of history is that it creates a tendency to compare “back then” with “right now.”  When making this comparison from the history provided in Undaunted Courage, I must admit that 21st century America comes off rather poorly.

Every people’s national epic contains an element of a Heroic Age.  The Greeks looked back to the heroes who fought at Troy; the Romans in the Republic consciously sought to model themselves off of heroes like Numa Pompilius, Horatius, and Quinctius Cincinnatus; the Chinese of later years looked back to the Golden Age of the Zhou.  Ours is no different.  We need look only to the esteem, and indeed near mythology, that we have developed around our Founders and their near contemporaries.  In the minds of those who come later, men of an earlier age were just a little better, a little stronger, a little tougher, and a little more rugged than those who live in soft and decadent times.

As much as I’d like to say that this is just fable-spinning, the fact of the matter is that this is generally true.  It certainly is for us Americans.  

Let’s face it – America is full of citified metrosexuals.  We’re also risk averse to the extreme. What can you say about a nation in which manufacturers include instructions with socks (how can you mess up using a sock?) to avoid possible product liability lawsuits?  We love our cushy lifestyles and we don’t want to do anything to upend them.  This explains why we tolerate the regulatory burden placed upon us by the welfare/nanny state.  Government is there to “protect” us from all the risks inherent in modern life.  

Connected with this, I believe, is the fact that our nation no longer dreams big dreams and then puts them into action.  America doesn’t “build big” anymore, and if we tried, the effort would only end up being tied up with litigation and bureaucracy.  Can you imagine the United States of America sending out an expedition comparable in magnitude and risk to the Lewis and Clark Expedition nowadays?  No way.  The environmental impact analysis alone would stall the project for five years.  As it stands right now, we’re certainly not going to be sending a manned mission to Mars.  That achievement will have to be earned by a nation more rustic, yet vigorous, than our own.

But what about the American Right, specifically?  In the political realm, these exact same criticisms apply to conservatives and liberty lovers.  Most on our side won’t even stand up to the Republicans who continually sell us down the river.  We just saw Republicans in Washington D.C. help to pass another budget-busting, debt-lading, stop-gap spending bill that will limp us through until October.  The Republican Party sells conservatives down the river every chance it gets, yet conservatives keep insisting they “have” to vote Republican because next year’s is “the mostest importantest election EVAH!”  This is yet another example of our risk-aversity. We’ve seen that there really is no difference between how most Republicans and the Democrats act when they get inside the beltway, yet we can’t find the backbone to give the GOP the ol’ heave-ho and gather around a replacement Party.  If conservatives can’t even stand up to RINOs, how do you think they’re going to be able to stand up to hardball-playing left-wing Democrats?

Undaunted Courage is more than just a good story and interesting history.  It really should be a wakeup call for conservatives and liberty-lovers to recapture the spirit of our ancestors who lived in that Heroic Age in which it was understood that “the greater the risk, the greater the reward.”  

Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, by Stephen E. Ambrose, 4 stars out of 5.  

Simon and Schuster: 521 pages: $17.00 (US), $24.00 (Can)