Democracy in America

Today is the anniversary of the first recorded democratic election west of the Mississippi. It was held in what’s now the town of Elk Point, South Dakota, by the members of the Corps of Discovery (a.k.a., the Lewis and Clark expedition), as they made their journey west. Two days earlier, one of the members of the expedition, Sergeant Charles Floyd, died from what was probably acute appendicitis, looking out over the Missouri River near what is now Sioux City, Iowa.

Today, there’s a large obelisk, high up on the bluff, commemorating Sgt. Floyd. He was the only member of the Corps of Discovery to die during the journey, and that monument was the first national memorial to be officially designated by Congress.

The Sergeant Floyd Memorial, Sioux City, IA (Wikimedia Commons)

Sgt. Floyd’s death meant that a new officer was needed to take his place. Lewis and Clark could have just used their authority as the commanders of the expedition to appoint Floyd’s successor. It was, after all, a military expedition in its formal structure. But they, and the men of the Corps of Discovery, were so taken by the prospect of democracy for forming their young country, that they decided to hold a vote. And so, on August 22, 1804, Patrick Gass, a carpenter, was elected to take Sgt. Floyd’s place. Gass would fare much better than his predecessor, returning safely home and living to the ripe old age of 98!

By a fortunate chance, I was travelling through Iowa and South Dakota in the summer of 2020, and pulled off to explore the historical marker at Elk Point, on the very day that was the anniversary of the vote, having visited Sergeant Floyd’s monument earlier than morning. (I made much better time on the interstate highway than Lewis and Clark did rafting up the Missouri!) Given all the unrest in the country that summer, and the contentious election looming that fall, it was quite a profound experience, which led to a lot of reflection.

On the one hand, we might say that the election of Sergeant Gass in 1804 was a really small thing. The members of the expedition talked it over, and then cast some ballots to decide who would get a promotion. Big deal. But from another point of view, the very smallness is the point. There at the “Elk Sign Camp,” the members of the Corps of Discovery were practicing democracy. They were developing the habits of democratic citizens, and in doing so, they were making themselves into the kind of people who can live together well in a democracy. There in that small, relatively safe setting, where not too much was directly riding on the outcome, they were cultivating the skills and patterns that they knew they would need in the rough and tumble of forming a new nation.

Today, let’s remember Sgt. Charles Floyd, Sgt. Patrick Gass, and their companions. And let’s reflect on how we might best honor the legacy they’ve given us. What would it mean to have their faith in the power of democracy? What would to mean for us to earn it?

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