Thomas Jefferson, Scientist
Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, was probably our most accomplished man in public life as well as the most versatile. He was considered an expert in many areas: architecture, civil engineering, geography, mathematics, ethnology, anthropology, mechanics, and the sciences.
During his lifetime, he was an infallible oracle to half the population of the country and a dangerous demagogue to the other half, but was universally recognized as a man of scientific, just as for his political and literary attainments. Jefferson was so familiar with every subject discussed by ordinary people and talked so fluently and with such confidence, that he was considered a monument of learning by his fellow countrymen.
There is a story that on one occasion, while stopping at an inn, Jefferson spent the evening with an educated stranger from the North who was so charmed with his conversation and amazed at his learning that he inquired of the innkeeper who his companion might be.
When he spoke law, I thought he was a lawyer; when he talked about mechanics, I was sure he was an engineer; when he got into medicine, it was evident he was a physician; when he discussed theology, I was convinced he must be a clergyman; when he talked of literature, I made up my mind that I had run against a college professor who knew everything. (Curtis, 1901)
Jefferson’s greed for knowledge was insatiable, and he eagerly seized all means of obtaining it. It was his habit in discourse with all classes, the laborer as well as the man of science, to turn the conversation upon that subject with which his companion was best acquainted, whether it was farming, shoemaking, anatomy, astronomy, or fossils. Having drawn all the information his companion possessed, he noted it down in his memorandum book for future reference.
Because of his wide range of knowledge, he was ahead of his time in several lines of inquiry and in advance of contemporary scientists. Even so, Jefferson never failed to acknowledge that in science he was “an amateur”.
Though, this did not stop him from advancing propositions and solutions with equal audacity. He had an opinion on every subject. Jefferson was not always right in his ideas concerning science, and he wrote on many subjects on which he was not an expert.
In his own scientific work Jefferson was often inaccurate, impractical, and visionary; as a patron of science he was zealous, industrious, and benevolent. His inquisitive mind sought for the truth in every direction, but his fertile imagination suggested deductions that were sometimes absurd and often fantastic. (Curtis, 1902)
Combined this with the fact that he was without a sense of humor and rarely told a story and seldom enjoyed one, and that witticisms and jokes were wasted on him, one can understand why he believed: There was a large herd of mammoths wandering wild in the Mississippi Valley. That there was a mountain of pure salt eighty miles long and forty wide near the mouth of the Yellowstone River. And, that the Creek Indians were descendants of ancient Carthaginians.
Jefferson was always ready to accept new discoveries and adopt new theories, even when they might contradict his own beliefs. In the spirit of the Enlightenment, with its faith in human reason and science, he maintained an open receptive frame of mind to all discoveries and scientific speculation. He believed that science held the key to knowledge for society, and this outlook, combined with his reformist, humanitarian, and utilitarian proclivities, motivated much of his life and thought.
Jefferson visualized science as essentially utilitarian. His sight focused upon the benefits that science could provide humanity. His interest in inventions gives a key to his interest in science in general, which was the ultimate practical application of scientific discoveries for the good of man. All knowledge should prove to have some practical value.
Monticello, Jefferson’s home, was filled with examples of his scientific philosophy. An inventor and gadgeteer of great ingenuity, Jefferson’s practical innovations or improvements on others inventions included: the swivel chair, the polygraph, letter press, hemp break. pedometer, mouldboard plow, sulky, folding chair, dumb-waiter, double acting doors, a seven day clock, and a wind vane on the eastern portico of Monticello that enabled him to see which way the wind was blowing on a raining day without getting wet. The entry hall at Monticello was made by Jefferson into a museum to display his many scientific interests. The displays included fossils and specimens from the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
The scientific results of this expedition, under Jefferson’s detailed instructions, were far reaching. For two years and four months the expedition collected Indian vocabularies, flora, fauna and mineral specimens, made topographical maps, sought fossils, charted waterways and observed Indian cultures. Jefferson’s interest in the West was intense. He also commissioned Zebulon Pike’s expedition in 1806. The Lewis and Clark and Pike expeditions were the precursors of the United States Geological Survey and stands as one of the outstanding feats of Jefferson’s administration.
Throughout his governmental career Jefferson never lost an opportunity to promote scientific inquiry. His strict construction of the Constitution and narrow views upon the subject of state’s rights never prevented him from using the authority and money of the Federal Government for the advancement of science. He recommended to Congress a coast survey to accurately chart he coast of America. This project later evolved into the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey. His expert testimony before Congress, also led to the establishment of the Naval Observatory and the Hydrographic Office. Jefferson’s report to Congress on a plan of coinage and weights and measures based on the decimal system was expanded into the national Bureau of Standards.
As Secretary of State, Jefferson was also the head of the Patent Office. He laid the cornerstone of our patent system and patent laws. He is considered to be the father of the Patent Office. He took pride in this duty and personal consideration to every application for a patent that was filed between 1790 and 1793.
Jefferson, an inventor himself never applied for a patent, which was consistent in his belief in the natural right of all mankind to share useful improvements without restrain.
He felt that inventions cannot in nature be a subject of property and that the promiscuous granting of patents was not only against the theory of popular government, but would be pernicious in its consequences. (Curtis, 1901)
The majority of patent applications during his tenure were rejected. Only 67 were granted, among them a patent to Eli Whitney for the cotton gin.
Jefferson’s enthusiasm, especially during his term as President, was a most important factor in bringing before the people the value of science. His interest in paleontology helped to make it a respectable pursuit and he was largely responsible for bringing together the materials for its advancement.
One of the first glimpses of Jefferson’s interest in fossils can be found in his Notes on the State of Virginia. It is his most impressive scientific achievement, in which he recorded his observations on flora, fauna, mountains, rivers, climate, population, laws, politics, economics, agriculture, manufacturing, ethics, religion, customs and Indians of his native state. Had he not gained fame as a statesman, he would still be remembered as a scientist, if for no other reason than the scientific elements found in Notes. Notes was the first comprehensive treatise to be published on any section of the United States. It was the precursor to reports now issued by the government.
Notes grew out of a questionnaire relayed in 1780 to Jefferson from the Marquis de Barbe-Marbois, Secretary of the French Legation in America. The French, having entered the war on the side of America, sought information regarding the geography, climate, people, resources and customs of their new ally. The request came near the end of Jefferson’s rather unsuccessful term as war governor of Virginia. When the request came he seriously considered resigning the governorship to devote himself to the project.
Jefferson had planned Notes to be essentially a statistical survey of Virginia; instead, it grew to be a fascinating and enlightening commentary on many aspects of American life and history. In the work Jefferson passes from simple descriptions to scientific explanations and then to a vivid and eloquent literary portrayal of his homeland.
Jefferson had a longtime interest in Native Americans. He explored Indian mounds and had compiled an extensive comparative study of Indian vocabularies. Unfortunately, this work was lost. When he left Washington after his presidential term, the study was packed and shipped by boat. The boatman took it for granted that the ex-President was returning from office with untold wealth and supposing by the weight of the trunk that it contained silver or gold broke into it. The study was scattered to the winds. His work though, has earned him, by some, the title as one of America’s first anthropologists.
In Notes Jefferson writes at length on his native state’s agriculture. This was not unusual for Jefferson since he felt that America had been designed by the Creator to be an agricultural country. He believed that the United States would be populated by educated, yeomen farmers throughout its history. Because of this, agriculture was among his greatest scientific interests, besides his own economy being dependent upon the revenues generated by his farms.
Throughout his life Jefferson experimented in agriculture with studies in crop rotation, soil cultivation, animal breeding, pest control, agricultural implements and improvement of seeds. Jefferson stated: “The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add an useful plant to its culture.” (Bennett, 1944) He imported plants and trees from abroad and tried growing olives, oranges, almonds and French grapes at Monticello. So eager was he to improve the agriculture of his country that when Minister of France he broke the law by personally smuggling rice from Italy. This small store of seeds became the basis for the South Carolina rice industry.
Also, as Minister to France, 1784-89, he observed European developments in science, industry, agriculture and education. An Englishman wrote of him: ‘he was always on the lookout for new ideas to send home” (Bennett, 1944). While in Europe he endeavored to discover the secrets of the French perfume industry, hoping to import the art to America. He was the first American to report on James Watt’s steam engine. He introduced to America the threshing machine. While in Paris he studied balloon ascensions and wrote several papers on was he called the “aeronautical art”. During this time he kept four colleges in the United States advised of all new inventions and discoveries.
Jefferson undertook these extra duties because he felt that science was the most certain means of advancing social progress and human happiness. Science, to Jefferson, was an extension, a tool, to help bring about his enlightened political philosophy and a way in which to lead his life. He, personally, saw himself not as Thomas Jefferson the lawyer or farmer or statesman, but as Thomas Jefferson the scientist. He wrote upon his retirement: “Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight” (Benson, 1971).
Bennett, Hugh H. (1941). Thomas Jefferson: Soil Conservationist. United States Department of Agriculture.
Benson, G. Randolph. (1971). Thomas Jefferson as Social Scientist. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press. Cranbury, NJ.
Curtis, William Eleroy. (1901). The True Thomas Jefferson. A.W. Elson & Co., Philadelphia.