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Frontiersmen: Lewis, Clark, JFK

In 1803 the third president of the United States had a grand vision and a goal. With the acquisition of a vast swath of territory in the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson was intent on exploring the new land of the United States, mapping it and finding a route across the continent to the Pacific. Motivated by the desire to expand economic power and scientific knowledge, Jefferson also sought to ensure this land was conquered before the European powers laid claim to it. Jefferson enlisted Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to lead the mission into wilderness never before trodden by white men. Jefferson’s vision and leadership inspired Lewis and Clark to achieve one of history’s great feats of exploration in spite of daunting challenges. In turn, it was the character, integrity and leadership qualities of Lewis and Clark that built a deep reservoir of faith and trust among the men of the Corps of Discovery, which, as Anthony Brandt describes in this issue, proved crucial at the most pivotal juncture in the quest to conquer a new frontier.

One hundred and sixty years later, the 35th president of the United States had a grand vision and a goal. John F. Kennedy was motivated by the thirst for scientific knowledge and industrial advancement, and also the threat of a rival global power getting there first, when he made the bold promise to land men on the moon and return them safely to Earth. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things,” said Kennedy, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.” With those words, Kennedy inspired a generation to tackle the challenge of conquering space— and to take on more earthly issues such as peace, poverty and civil rights. As America marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, in this issue we reflect on the many challenges he faced in his 1,036 days in office, how he met those challenges and, even long after his death, how he inspired a nation to conquer new frontiers.


Originally published in the December 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.