Can America Recover Its Pioneering Spirit?

lews_and_clark_statue_10-28-14-1 Lewis and Clark Statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by American Spirit /

Americans have good reason to be proud of our country's many achievements in science and technology. The U.S. is home to Silicon Valley, the technology capital of the world, and to 16 of the world’s top 20 scientific universities. Many of the essential devices we use every day such as the television, automobile, airplane, internet, personal computer and smartphone were invented by Americans.

The passion for scientific discovery in America goes all the way back to our nation’s founders, many of whom were deeply engrossed in the sciences as well as the politics of their day. In addition to authoring the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson was an excellent mathematician and a prolific inventor. Beginning in 1797, Jefferson served as president of the American Philosophical Society, the country's leading scientific institution.

When he became president of the United States a few years later, Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to explore the new Louisiana Territory and chart a route to the Pacific Ocean. Before the expedition embarked, Jefferson sent Lewis to Philadelphia for training in medicine and the natural sciences. The president was adamant that Lewis and Clark document every detail of their trip -- the people they met, the animals they encountered, the plants they found, and the geology they observed.

The explorers sent many specimens back east to Jefferson, including some live animals (such as a prairie dog and a few magpies). They became the first people to describe a number of plant and animal species for science, including the grizzly bear.

The curiosity of the founding generation of Americans -- including such figures as Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, and others -- shaped America profoundly. The spirit of discovery became one of the nation's defining characteristics as Americans rushed west into the frontier, then connected the continent through a busy network of steamships, railroads, and telegraphs. The belief that there was a better future ahead -- and that American ingenuity was the key to it all -- was an important cultural foundation on which many of the accomplishments we see today were built.