Undaunted Courage Themes
by Stephen E. Ambrose

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Undaunted Courage Themes

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

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Exploration and Expansion
The ideas of exploration and expansion form the core of Undaunted Courage—and the Lewis and Clark expedition. In 1790, the United States stretched only as far as the east bank of the Mississippi River. Though western lands were virtually unknown, they drew the interest of many Americans for several different reasons. At the opening of the nineteenth century, a pioneering spirit remained an integral part of the American character. Also, many people wanted to settle and farm their own land, but available lots were limited by increasing eastern populations. Further, a spirit of nationalism was growing, and many Americans came to believe that the United States should spread across the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The Louisiana Purchase legally opened up vast quantities of land to American settlers, despite the fact that American Indians considered this western territory their own. As a result of the Lewis and Clark expedition and the journey of Zebulon Pike—who explored the upper Mississippi Valley—more Americans became interested in expanding settlements onto these lands. In this sense, Lewis was a true empire builder.

Ethnic Groups and Racism
Undaunted Courage provides important insight into the prevailing feeling of superiority that most nineteenth-century white Americans felt over non-whites. Despite these sentiments, politicians like Jefferson hoped to bring American Indians into mainstream society. Jefferson’s reasoning was not completely altruistic, however. He knew that whites would push west into American Indian lands; his only options, as he saw them, were to ‘‘civilize’’ Indians or to remove them to reservations. Jefferson’s American Indian policy relied on eventual Indian assimilation into white society. He believed that Indians could be transformed into responsible American citizens. They would renounce their lifestyle and instead become farmers or traders.

As Jefferson’s advance Indian agent, Lewis supported these plans. He subjected each tribe to his speech about Jefferson, their new ‘‘Great White Father.’’ He told the Indians that they must respect the power of the United States and work in its proposed commercial network. He ordered the Indians to make peace with other tribes and did not understand when they disobeyed. Throughout the trip, Lewis rarely regarded the Indians as individual people. For instance, he insisted on naming a primary chief, even when one did not actually exist.

Undaunted Courage also shows attitudes toward African Americans. Early in the book, Ambrose quotes from Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia: ‘‘The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of...the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.’’ Although Jefferson—a slaveholder—wished to see slavery abolished, he did not want this to happen in his lifetime because he believed his generation was not ready for such a major step. Lewis, also a slaveholder, did not believe that African Americans could ever become American citizens.

Such racism is clearly demonstrated throughout the book, but nowhere as...

(The entire section is 771 words.)