The name Thomas Jefferson brings to mind some of his greatest achievements: Author of the Declaration of Independence, third President of the United States, and Founder of the University of Virginia. But there’s another side to America’s Renaissance man that, though less well known, is just as praiseworthy. In his new book Jefferson’s Shadow: The Story of His Science, Keith Thomson sheds light on Jefferson’s lifelong passion for science, a fact that has been often overlooked by historians. Jefferson produced laudable findings in archæology, paleontology, climatology, and geography, all of which helped legitimize the study of American natural history in the face of European prejudice. While Benjamin Franklin is generally considered America’s first scientific philosopher, Thomson argues that Jefferson was America’s second.
In the 18th century, the boundary between the observational sciences of natural history and the theoretical sciences of natural philosophy was much more fluid. As such, Jefferson and other scientific intellectuals were exposed to research from both branches of inquiry. A lifelong bookworm, Jefferson read everything, from Newton’s new mechanics and Aristotle’s logic to St. Thomas Aquinas’s natural law and Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo’s history of the West Indies. Behind all this scientific education was lawyer’s mind; as a result, Jefferson documented everything he learned. Scattered through his notebooks and letters are endless lists of facts, drawings, and calculations. Ever fascinated by measuring devices, Jefferson kept a thermometer in his pocket wherever he went and kept records of daily temperatures for over fifty years.
Not only did Jefferson distinguish himself in the scientific field, he also represented and championed the emergence of an American intelligentsia. Many18th-century Europeans did not believe that America could produce serious intellectuals apart from the eccentric but well-respected Benjamin Franklin. And this prejudice against America’s potential is clearly manifested in George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon’s iconic encyclopedic work L’Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particulière. This publication was seen as an authoritative text of the natural history of the world, but Buffon—who had never visited the Americas—claimed that America was a cold, desolate wasteland, incapable of sustaining habitable life. Jefferson responds to Buffon’s claims in his book, Notes on the State of Virginia, which is widely seen today as one of the most influential publications in our national literature. He provides compelling arguments based on his research (including his own) and his gift for rhetorical argument to disprove Buffon’s overgeneralized claims. For the young Jefferson to successfully take on the leading natural historian bolstered the nascent America’s credibility in the in the intellectual world.
As President, Jefferson commissioned the Lewis and Clark expedition to Pacific Coast as both a commercial and scientific endeavor. He insisted that the explorers document all the unfamiliar species and plants they encountered, a habit that clearly stems from Jefferson’s own personal practice. The expedition’s findings introduced many new species and plants to the eastern United States and Europe. As a result, Jefferson’s efforts helped establish America as a leader in the scientific investigation of its national geography and natural history.
Through his writings, one sees that his mind was teeming in forward-thinking ideas that did not garner attention until decades later by other researchers. On the topic of Native Americans, Jefferson refuted Buffon’s claim that they are savages and defended their advanced civilizations like an anthropologist, no doubt using original research from his running list of new Native American vocabulary and languages that he discovered during his travels. He hypothesized that the diversity of Native American languages helped different communities each retain their distinct identities, an idea that would be put forward later by Charles Darwin as an “isolation mechanism.” Jeffersons also theorized that people of similar skin color are more likely to mate, reinforcing the differences between people of different skin colors; Darwin would come to similar conclusions about “mate choice and sexual selection” almost a hundred years later.
Despite Jefferson’s interest and accomplishments in the study of natural history and philosophy, he struggled to reconcile scientific ideas with religion. Jefferson was passionate about studying fossils, especially those of the American mastodon. But Thomson argues that Jefferson did not use the term “fossil” in his writings because it conflicted with his religious beliefs; the word implies an endorsement of the extinction theory, and God could not have made the mistake of creating species that could go die off. Thus, even though Jefferson was one of the first writers of American paleontology, he rejected the field’s basic premises of fossils and extinction.
Through Thomson’s written account of Jefferson’s life, photos, and original sketches, we can appreciate Thomas Jefferson’s lifelong love affair with science and how it contributed to his success a leading intellect in the emerging nation of American scholars.
Keith Thomson will deliver his final two lectures—as part of the 2012 Terry Lectures—on December 3 and 4, 2012 at the Whitney Humanities Center (55 Wall Street) at 4:15pm.