The Jefferson Conspiracies

Historians have long argued over the circumstances surrounding the death of Meriwether Lewis in 1809. The death of Lewis, the great explorer of the American West, the governor of Louisiana Territory, and protege of Jefferson, had been ruled a suicide. Jefferson himself had accepted the ruling, strengthening it by adding his own belief that Lewis was mentally unstable and an alcoholic. Although contemporary evidence was either inconclusive or leaned toward murder, the willingness of Jefferson, who knew Lewis better than anyone else, to call it a suicide was always a major stumbling block for any murder theory.

In this overlong book, full of excessive detail and repetition, Chandler accuses James Wilkinson, senior general in the United States Army and a documented traitor, of masterminding Lewis’ murder. Jefferson is charged with being an accessory after the fact through his support of the suicide finding, which squelched any possibility of a murder investigation. All the evidence presented by Chandler is circumstantial. His cases for calling Lewis’ death murder and the involvement of Wilkinson in that murder are both strong. Nevertheless, Chandler’s proof for Jefferson’s involvement is extremely weak. Particularly annoying is Chandler’s unsubstantiated charge that Jefferson suppressed an investigation into Lewis’ death. Jefferson might have asked others to suppress an investigation, but when Lewis died Jefferson was a former president.

For readers who know little about the dark underside of American political history during the years between the American Revolution and the War of 1812, this book is a good introduction. Unfortunately, it adds little to readers’ understanding of that era.