Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

PHILANTHROPIC ENTERPRISE: The Imperial Contradictions of Republican Political Economy in Philadelphia during the Era of Lewis and Clark

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

PHILANTHROPIC ENTERPRISE: The Imperial Contradictions of Republican Political Economy in Philadelphia during the Era of Lewis and Clark

Article excerpt

Upon the Citizens of Pennsylvania is turned, the attention of Europe, observing, whether we know how to use, as well as how to acquire, Empire; whether we are to be admired, or despised; in fine, whether, left as we are to ourselves, upon this fair and solemn trial, before the Nations of the Earth, the cause of Republican Liberty shall be justified by its effects, or shall be condemned as the introducer of more Calamities than it removes.

GEORGE LOGAN, Lancaster, March 14, 1800

I am persuaded no constitution was ever before as well calculated as ours for extensive empire and self-government.

JEFFERSON to JAMES MADISON, April 27, 1809

FIFTY YEARS AGO Bernard DeVoto's Course of Empire called attention to the dual significance of the Lewis and Clark expedition as a marker of the emergence of the United States onto the global stages of both major scientific discovery and empire-building. Since DeVoto's work, the many important scientific accomplishments of the expedition have been detailed and clarified by scholars such as Paul Cutright and those who, under the leadership of Donald Jackson and Gary Moulton, completed the new thirteen-volume edition of the Lewis and Clark journals. Scholarship is only now beginning to address, however, critical aspects of the cultural history of the expedition as part of the imperial development of the United States, most notably in the work of James Ronda and in Thomas Slaughter's recent book Exploring Lewis and Clark. As Ronda has eloquently stated at the conclusion of Finding the West: Explorations with Lewis and Clark, "the Lewis and Clark homecoming was not the end of the journey" but instead marked "the beginning of a headlong rush to empire that remade (and continues to remake) the landscape we see every day. . . . Coming to terms with Lewis, Clark, and all those touched by their journey compels us to face our own troubled past and our uncertain present. When we describe the Corps of Discovery we are considering our own history and our own moment in time."1

In Empire, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt have provocatively argued that the imperial constitution of the early American republic, which matured "throughout the history of the United States," has now emerged "on a global scale in its fully realized form."2 Whether or not we accept this interpretation of the history of the present, recent developments and the essays gathered together here demonstrate how vital analysis of the Lewis and Clark enterprise remains as an index of critical historical work on the emergence of the United States onto the global stage of scientific discovery and empire-building.

As Ronda noted on the eve of our contemporary bicentennial celebrations of the Lewis and Clark expedition, "unlike us, Jefferson, his captains, and their contemporaries were not so certain about the expedition and what it had accomplished." The supporters of Lewis and Clark were instead burdened by a sense of the failure of the expedition because it had not achieved either one of its two major objectives. The expedition did not discover Jefferson's projected "direct and practicable water communication across the continent for the purposes of commerce." Nor were its leaders and supporters able to achieve timely publication of its scientific accomplishments for the benefit of other natural scientists of the era. Proper understanding of the historical fate of the Lewis and Clark enterprise after 1806 therefore requires that even as we commemorate the bicentennial significance of its achievements, we also examine the specific contexts of its failures.3

Early national projects of republican enterprise such as that of Lewis and Clark were often riven by disagreements over how conflicts between private and public interest should be mediated. In order to understand the historical contexts of failures of republican enterprise, we need a deeper understanding of the ways particular enterprises were undermined by the inability of their agents to openly acknowledge, and equitably reconcile, competing public and private interests. …

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