The President's Secretary, Meriwether Lewis

"A Personal Acquaintance"

When the contentious election of 1800 was ended and Thomas Jefferson prepared to assume the office of President of the United States, he knew whom he wanted as his private secretary. Within days of the final balloting Jefferson posted a letter to General James Wilkinson, commanding general of the U.S. Army, and under the same cover one to, "Lieut. Meriwether Lewis, not knowing where he may be." Jefferson gave two reasons for seeking the young Lewis: first his knowledge of the western country and the army and secondly, "A personal acquaintance with him, owing from his being of my neighborhood."

Engraving of Meriwether Lewis by Charles Fevret de Saint-MéminIndeed Meriwether Lewis and the extensive Lewis and Meriwether families were from Jefferson's "neighborhood" in the central Piedmont region of Virginia. Meriwether Lewis was born on his father's farm, Locust Hill, located approximately ten miles in a westerly direction from Monticello on August 18, 1774. His father, William Lewis, and mother, Lucy Meriwether, were second cousins, and by naming their eldest son for his mother's family, they signaled his association with two very prominent families of central Virginia. Both families were well known to Jefferson. Two of Jefferson's siblings had married into a line of the Lewis family, and Nicholas Lewis, Meriwether's uncle and guardian, became a close friend who adeptly managed all of Jefferson's affairs during his four years of diplomatic service in Paris.

Familiarity and trust were apparent on both sides. Meriwether Lewis accepted Jefferson's offer immediately and "with pleasure," even though the letter contained no job outline but only assurances that it would be an "easier office" than army life, plus he could retain his rank and right for promotion in the army. Jefferson offered also that the position, "would make you know & be known to characters of influence in the affairs of our country, and give you the advantage of their wisdom." More than one guest recorded the presence of the young secretary at presidential dinner parties and another observer noted that at Sunday services the seat next to the President's was always left for his private secretary. Social and official duties must have given Lewis the promised opportunities to know, be known and gather knowledge. But the exchange of knowledge flowed in two directions.

"A Knowledge of the Western Country"

In addition to trusted familial connections, Meriwether Lewis had another qualification which interested Jefferson, "a knowledge of the Western country, of the army & it's situation." Today, Meriwether Lewis' name is irrevocably linked to that of William Clark and the western exploratory expedition that traveled to the Pacific Ocean and back. It is easy to assume that western exploration was Jefferson's motive in hiring someone with "a knowledge of the Western country," but Jefferson goes on to stipulate a knowledge of "the army & it's situation" as well. In 1801 the country had survived a shift of political power from the Federalist to the Republican Party through the electoral process, but the campaign had been extremely bitter. The new Republican administration was committed to reducing the standing army, and


Image of Lewis's Key to His Coded Notes on Officers in the United States Army, courtesy The Library of Congress

Jefferson needed to know which officers were superior, which inferior, and in light of the recent election, which would be likely to support or oppose the current administration. The roster of all commissioned officers, dated July 24, 1801, that was supplied the President has curious symbols beside each officer's name. Historians have identified an accompanying key that gives a meaning to each symbol as in the hand of Meriwether Lewis. From this it has been concluded that one of Lewis' first duties was to assist Jefferson in determining competent and incompetent officers and in some instances their political leanings as well.  

So whether Jefferson sought out Meriwether Lewis to meet the immediate need of evaluating the officer corps or for more ambitious exploratory undertakings in the future--- or even both, Lewis retained Jefferson's confidence during his two years as secretary. In selecting a leader for what he called an "exploring party" and that history would record as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Jefferson wrote of his former secretary, "I could have no hesitation in confiding the enterprise to him."

Gaye Wilson
Monticello Research Department
January, 2001

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