Robert Morgan is keenly aware that there are many ways to interpret the westward expansion of the United States of America. He concedes that much of it was tragic, yet, he recognizes the poetry of the westward vision of Thomas Jefferson and others who advocated for exploration and settlement of the West. In telling this complex story, Morgan follows Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words: “There is properly no history; only biography.”
In his fascinating, magnificent Lions of the West, Morgan, the author of such powerful fiction as Gap Creek and the acclaimed bestseller Boone: A Biography, gives us a fresh view of 10 men who, depending on one’s perspective, were heroes, villains or both. Besides Jefferson, the others are Andrew Jackson, David Crockett, James K. Polk, Sam Houston, John Chapman (aka “Johnny Appleseed”), Winfield Scott, Kit Carson, John Quincy Adams and Nicholas Trist. Drawing on his careful research and his exceptional gifts as a storyteller, Morgan writes with an enviable clarity that makes personalities, issues and events come alive on the page.
Thomas Jefferson, more than any other leader or thinker of his time, understood that the future of the nation would come from the westward movement—a view not shared by the Federalists, who felt that bringing in the Western territories would degrade the quality of the young nation. Morgan notes that settling the West diverted the country’s attention from the enduring and tragic dilemma of slavery. Jefferson, a prominent slave owner, idealistically reflected that if slavery were diffused over a greater area, perhaps it would die a natural death.
Morgan deftly interweaves the stories of his primary subjects as they interacted with one another and with others who played key roles in claiming the West. Old Hickory, as Andrew Jackson was called, was a mentor to James K. Polk, known as Young Hickory, a consummate politician. Obsessed with secrecy, considered duplicitous and spiteful, Polk saw westward expansion as a measure of the country’s greatness. By declaring war on Mexico in 1846, he would not only change the shape and size of the U.S., but “he would change the powers and responsibilities of the executive branch forever.” Another person close to Jackson was Sam Houston, the only man in American history to be governor of two states as well as president of another country, of whom Morgan writes, “Probably no major leader in American history ever veered more dramatically between extremes of failure and humiliation and victory and glory.”
One of the most compelling portraits is of the little-known Nicholas Trist, who married Jefferson’s granddaughter, Virginia Randolph, and served as private secretary to Jefferson, Jackson and James Madison. Intelligent and well educated, he was considered a failure at most things he attempted and is not remembered for the one great undisputed achievement of his life: He single-handedly negotiated the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which ended the war with Mexico and gave the nation a third of the land that makes up the contiguous United States. Negotiating the treaty in the midst of war was difficult, but Trist earned the trust of the Mexican negotiators. His problems came instead from his own government. President Polk, for political reasons, had set the mission up for failure from the beginning and then officially recalled Trist just as the treaty was almost completed. But Trist decided to stay on and complete his work.
This authoritative and enlightening book engages the reader from the first page and holds our attention until the last.