Historical Highlights

President Thomas Jefferson’s Secret Letter to Congress

January 18, 1803
President Thomas Jefferson’s Secret Letter to Congress Oil on canvas, EverGreene Studios, 1993, Image courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol In the early 1990s, EverGreene Painting Studios completed their work in the Westernward Expansion section of the U.S. Capitol’s Cox Corridors. Explorers Lewis and Clark are featured prominently in a scene depicting the Louisiana Territory.
On this date, President Thomas Jefferson sent a secret letter to Congress that requested financing for a transcontinental exploration that became the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804–1806. In the letter, Jefferson asked for $2,500, obliquely describing the expedition as being “for the purpose of extending the external commerce of the United States.” The appropriation would be “understood and considered by the Executive as giving the legislative sanction, would cover the undertaking from notice, and prevent the obstructions which interested individuals might…prepare in its way.” Jefferson outlined a route and suggested that “an intelligent officer, with ten or twelve chosen men…might explore the whole line, even to the Western Ocean, have conferences with the natives on the subject of commercial intercourse… and return with the information acquired, in the course of two summers.” During the deliberations on the act, the House imposed an “injunction of secrecy” upon itself in order to discuss the issue in complete confidence. Seeking to maintain confidentiality, Congress referred to it as an “act for extending the external commerce of the United States” in published accounts. The House and Senate subsequently passed the act on February 22, 1803. Eight months after approving the funds for the Lewis and Clark expedition, Jefferson finalized the Louisiana Purchase treaty on October 31, 1803.

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