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Character Sketches

Character Sketches
Chapter 11: The Triumphs and Travails of Jeffersonian Republic, 1800 - 1812


Thomas Jefferson (1743 - 1826)

Jefferson was, after Washington and Franklin, the most celebrated of the Founding Fathers, and the one who most completely combined intellectual genius in many fields with practical political skill.

In his youth Jefferson was a lighthearted socialite, horseman, and violinist, but he became more serious and philosophical after an unhappy love affair, and especially after the death of his young wife in 1782.

A poor public speaker, Jefferson nevertheless excelled at legislative and political work behind the scenes. His literary skill led Franklin, Adams, and the other members of the drafting committee to assign him to write the Declaration of Independence. His original version included an attack on slavery, but this was removed.

Soft-spoken and informal in manner, Jefferson liked to receive visitors at Monticello or the White House in slippers and casual clothes and drape himself across furniture as he spoke. The charge that he fathered children by one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, grew out of contemporary rumors and was published by a hostile journalist in 1802. Although Jeffersons paternity was accepted as fact within the black Hemings clan, Jeffersons admirers contended over the years that Jeffersons nephew was the father. In the late 1990s, DNA tests of Jeffersons acknowledged white descendants and descandants of Hemings confirmed the very high likelihood that Jefferson did have a liaison with Hemings. On his tombstone Jefferson listed his three great achievements as being the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and the founder of the University of Virginia.

Quote: A government regulating itself by what is just and wise for the many, uninfluenced by the local and selfish interests of the few who direct their affairs, has not been seen, perhaps, on earth. . . . Still, I believe it does exist here in a greater degree than anywhere else, and for its growth and continuance I offer sincere prayers. (Letter to John Adams, 1813)

REFERENCES: Noble Cunningham, In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson (1987); Joseph Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (1997).


Meriwether Lewis (1774 - 1809)

Lewis was Jeffersons private secretary and leader of the expedition that explored the Louisiana Purchase territory.

He grew up as Jeffersons neighbor and friend. As Jeffersons presidential secretary, he supervised White House social life as well as official correspondence.

Jefferson and Lewis had planned an expedition to the west coast even before the Louisiana Purchase. William Clark was the geographer and manager of the expedition, while the better-educated Lewis carried out the scientific and cultural side of the mission. On the return trip from Oregon, Lewis was accidentally wounded by one of his men, who mistook him for a deer.

Shortly after being made governor of Louisiana, Lewis was shot to death in a remote Tennessee inn. Some people claimed he was murdered, but Jefferson said Lewis was subject to frequent bouts of depression and believed he had committed suicide.

Quote: We were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man has not trodden; the good or evil it had in store for us was an experiment yet to determine.Entertaining, as I do, the most confident hope of succeeding in a voyage which has formed a project of mine for the last ten years, I could but esteem this moment of departure as among the most happy of my life. (Journal, Fort Mandan, 1805)

REFERENCE: Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage (1996).


Sacajawea (1787?1812?)

Sacajawea was the Shoshone Indian who served as translator and negotiator on the Lewis and Clark expedition.

The daughter of a chief, she was married, along with another Indian woman, to Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian voyageur who lived with the Indians. Charbonneau became an interpreter for Lewis and Clark at Fort Mandan in Dakota, and Sacajawea joined the expedition even though she had given birth two months before to a son, John Baptiste.

Contrary to legend, Sacajawea did little guiding, but she did translate. When the expedition reached her own people along the Snake River, she was overjoyed and learned that her brother had become chief.

Clark became attached to her son and offered to raise him. After initially refusing, she and Charbonneau joined Clark in St. Louis, left their son with him, and returned to Dakota.

Controversy surrounds whether Sacajawea died shortly thereafter at Fort Mandan or lived to old age on the Wind River reservation in Wyoming. Because she was taken up as a heroine by American suffragists, there are more monuments to her than to any other American woman.

REFERENCE: Ella Clark and Margot Edmonds, Sacajawea of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1979).


Henry Clay (1777 - 1852)

Clay was a Kentucky congressman and senator who, along with Webster and Calhoun, dominated congressional politics in the early nineteenth century. Beginning his career as a spokesman for the new West, he spent most of it as a Border State moderate trying to mediate between North and South.

Clay moved from Virginia to Lexington, Kentucky, in 1797 and became the states most renowned criminal lawyer. Although initially sympathetic to Aaron Burrs schemes, he was eventually convinced by Jefferson of Burrs treasonous intentions.

Eloquent and impetuous, Clay displayed a hot western temper. His lifelong feud with Jackson began when he criticized Jacksons invasion of Florida in 1819. He maneuvered during his whole political life for the presidency but never attained it. His statement I would rather be right than be President can be taken with a grain of salt, since he frequently modified positions for political advantage, notably in the presidential campaign of 1844.

Like other westerners of the time, he loved horse racing, cards, liquor, and duelingthough he finally gave up the last practice.

Quote: An honorable cause is attainable by an efficient war. . . . In such a cause, with the aid of Providence, we must come out crowned with success. But if we fail, let us fail like men, lash ourselves to our gallant tars, and expire together in one common struggle, fighting for Free Trade and Seamens Rights. (Congressional speech, 1811)

REFERENCE: Robert Remini, Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union (1991).


Tecumseh (1768 - 1813)

Tecumseh was a Shawnee warrior who organized a major Indian confederacy against the United States just before the War of 1812.

His father, a Shawnee chief, was killed in battle with whites in 1774. Between 1805 and 1810 Tecumseh worked to organize his own people and also became well known among the Potawatomies and Kickapoos in Ohio and Indiana.

He was at first subordinate to his brother Tenskwatawacommonly called the Propheta Shawnee shaman, or medicine man, who preached a revival of traditional Indian religion. In 1810 - 1811 Tecumseh expanded his influence across the whole Northwest, persuading each of the tribes not to sell land to whites without the consent of all.

Ignoring Tecumsehs advice, his brother launched a premature battle against General Harrison at Tippecanoe and was killed. Tecumseh and his remaining warriors joined the British side in the War of 1812, but Tecumseh, too, was killed at the battle of the Thames, ending the last Indian attempt at a united front against white advance.

Quote: The Great Spiritgave this great island to his red children. He placed the whites on the other side of the big water. They were not content with their own, but came to take ours from us. They have driven us from the sea to the lakes. We can go no farther. They have taken upon themselves to say this tract belongs to the Miami, this to the Delawares, and so on. But the Great Spirit intended it to be the common property of all the tribes, nor can it be sold without the consent of all. (Speech, 1810)

REFERENCE: R. David Edmunds, Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership (1984).



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