Jefferson's Shadow

Jefferson's Shadow: The Story of His Science

Keith Thomson
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Jefferson's Shadow
    Book Description:

    In the voluminous literature on Thomas Jefferson, little has been written about his passionate interest in science. This new and original study of Jefferson presents him as a consummate intellectual whose view of science was central to both his public and his private life. Keith Thomson reintroduces us in this remarkable book to Jefferson's eighteenth-century world and reveals the extent to which Jefferson used science, thought about it, and contributed to it, becoming in his time a leading American scientific intellectual.

    With a storyteller's gift, Thomson shows us a new side of Jefferson. He answers an intriguing series of questions-How was Jefferson's view of the sciences reflected in his political philosophy and his vision of America's future? How did science intersect with his religion? Did he make any original contributions to scientific knowledge?-and illuminates the particulars of Jefferson's scientific endeavors. Thomson discusses Jefferson's theories that have withstood the test of time, his interest in the practical applications of science to societal problems, his leadership in the use of scientific methods in agriculture, and his contributions toward launching at least four sciences in America: geography, paleontology, climatology, and scientific archaeology. A set of delightful illustrations, including some of Jefferson's own sketches and inventions, completes this impressively researched book.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18740-3
    Subjects: History, History of Science & Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Author’s Note
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    John f. kennedy, hosting at the White House a dinner for Nobel Prize winners from the Americas in 1962, observed: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” It was a precisely crafted tease, discounting his guests and then raising them up, for to be compared with Jefferson, even en masse, was a compliment. And it was also a deft nationalistic touch, pointing out that the intellectual achievements of that one eighteenth-century man from Virginia...

  6. PART ONE The Young Jefferson
    • CHAPTER ONE Lost: One Large Moose
      (pp. 9-13)

      Somewhere in france, perhaps in Paris, it is possible—just barely possible—that there still exists a set of moose antlers that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States. They would now be nearly 250 years old, but antlers are made of hard stuff; unless burned in a fire, they should have survived. Where are they? They spanned some four to five feet. The moose they came from had been a very large one, and that was the whole reason they were sent to Paris in the first place.

      These antlers had once adorned the head...

    • CHAPTER TWO The Man Who Could Not Live Without Books
      (pp. 14-24)

      For eighteenth-century europeans, safe in the gilded (if drafty) halls of London and Paris and the celebrated university towns of Edinburgh and Freiberg and secure in their sense of superiority, the idea that Americans could be serious intellectuals was absurd. America was a land of farmers and Indians, forests and swamps, mosquitoes and bears. Even as late as 1820, Sydney Smith, an English littérateur and coiner of witty aphorisms, observed: “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? Or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue? What does the world...

    • CHAPTER THREE Schooling, Formal and Informal
      (pp. 25-37)

      Philosophy in its broadest sense—love of knowledge and inquiry into the basis of knowledge—was in Jefferson’s day infused with the living spirit of the Enlightenment. Jefferson and his contemporaries were the direct beneficiaries of recent intellectual achievements ranging from the discovery of basic laws of the universe to the establishment of the law of nations. This kind of philosophy was not only exciting but necessary and immediate, not at all arcane but practical. For men like Jefferson it became the foundation and guide in their private and public lives; they did not acquire knowledge simply for its own...

    • CHAPTER FOUR A Measured and Orderly World
      (pp. 38-48)

      Although jefferson loved the philosophical side of science, he remained constantly concerned with its practical application. No fact was too small to catch his attention; what others might find trivial, he turned into useful information. Scattered throughout his notebooks and letters are endless lists of facts and figures and dozens of little gemlike calculations, such as this one testing the efficiency of different kinds of wheelbarrows for hauling dirt. “Julius Shard fills the two-wheeled barrow in 3. minutes and carries it 30 yards in 1½ minutes more. Now this is four loads of the common barrow with one wheel. So...

  7. PART TWO Natural Science
    • CHAPTER FIVE Science and the Mastodon
      (pp. 51-61)

      On june 8, 1784, ezra stiles, president of Yale College, noted in his diary that Thomas Jefferson “is a most ingenuous Naturalist and Philosopher, a truly scientific and learned Man, and every way excellent. He visited the College Library and our Apparatus. Govr. Jefferson has seen many of the great Bones dug up on the Ohio. He has a thighboneThree Feet longand a Tooth weighingsixteen Pounds.”¹

      Along with measuring things and keeping tables of data, Jefferson loved fossils, especially those of the American mastodon, with its giant teeth, bones, and tusks. The mastodon was a giant American...

    • CHAPTER SIX The Natural History of Virginia and America
      (pp. 62-73)

      The america that jefferson described inNotes on the State of Virginiawas a place of real and promised riches. In the words of his friend Charles Thomson, “This Country opens to the philosophic view an extensive, rich and unexplored field. It abounds in roots, plants, trees and minerals, to the virtues and uses of which we are yet strangers. What the soil is capable of producing can only be guessed at and known by experiment. Reasoning from Analogy we may suppose that all the rich productions of Asia may in time be transplanted hither. Agriculture is in its infancy....

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Mountains and Shells
      (pp. 74-85)

      In 1769 the scientific world was agog at the possibilities presented by a transit of Venus. Venus would pass directly in front of the sun’s disk, and sightings taken from different points on the earth’s surface would, by triangulation, allow astronomers to produce an estimate of the distance between the earth and sun and to help refine the dimensions of the whole solar system. Captain James Cook sailed to Tahiti on HMSEndeavourto observe the event. It could also be seen across the continent of North America, and as a dramatic demonstration of the new laws of cosmology derived...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT On Fossils and Extinction
      (pp. 86-98)

      Whennotes on the state of Virginiawas written, Jefferson had not actually seen a live elephant. The first one, an Asian elephant, was brought to America in 1796, and the next year Jefferson paid five cents to see it on display on Market Street, Philadelphia. Nonetheless, in a genuinely innovative contribution to American paleontology, he had concluded that the Siberian mammoth and the American mastodon were species of the elephant family adapted for cold climates and that the African and the Asian elephants were quite different species adapted for heat. In an early exercise in biogeography, he even defined...

  8. PART THREE They, the People
    • CHAPTER NINE Europe and the Peoples of America
      (pp. 101-117)

      “Let us now examine why the reptiles and insects are so large, the quadrupeds so small, and the men so cold, in the New World.” These few words, written in 1761, capture the arrogance of Buffon’s attitude toward the Americas. Of all Buffon’s writings on nature, none seems to have been more provocative or more biased by philosophical and hypothetical considerations than his view of the native peoples of the Americas.

      Jefferson’s anger at Buffon’s dismissal of Native Americans is shown by the fact that he copied Buffon’s remarks intoNotes on the State of Virginiafor his readers to...

    • CHAPTER TEN Natural History, Slavery, and Race
      (pp. 118-133)

      Thomas jefferson’s attitudes toward African Americans and the institution of slavery have always excited and inflamed the passions of historians, reformers, and the general mass of decent people. In a typically infuriating set of contradictions, Jefferson detested slavery, but despite his impassioned condemnation of slavery inNotes on the State of Virginiaand hisAutobiography,he owned and used slaves. He did not free his own slaves (at least the majority of them). He adamantly rejected the notion of a general emancipation and, equally conspicuously, failed to find effective alternatives. And still, all his life, he condemned slavery and warned...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN The Color of Their Skin
      (pp. 134-142)

      Jefferson consistently wrote that the physical, intellectual, and even moral differences between the black and white races were fixed in nature and were, as a result, irreconcilable. He did not agree with the view, common among European authors, that color was environmental in origin and therefore modifiable. And nowhere in his discussion of blacks as blacks did Jefferson refer to what was obvious to many—that the differences between the races readily became blurred. That fact was more than obvious from the growing number of Virginians of mixed parentage and a range of physical attributes. Many of his male Virginian...

  9. PART FOUR Useful Knowledge
    • CHAPTER TWELVE The Paris Years
      (pp. 145-164)

      “It was in france, where he resided nearly seven years, and until the revolution had made some progress, that his disposition to theory, and his skepticism in religion, morals, and government, acquired full strength and vigor.”¹ Taken out of context, this statement might almost be seen, today at least, as a compliment to Jefferson; coming from a contemporary Federalist opponent in an election race, it was meant nastily, as a condemnation. But it was true. In his Paris years, intellectually, once he had settled in, Jefferson was in his element. Paris—at least its upper crust—offered a heady mix...

    • CHAPTER THIRTEEN The Practical Scientist
      (pp. 165-176)

      Once back home in virginia, Jefferson was able to turn the inventiveness of European science to his own use. Today, when the words “Jefferson” and “science” are brought together, the response of most people is to conjure up the man who was famous for his inspired attention to every kind of mechanical device and technological innovation. That is the Jefferson familiar to the general public; his mechanical genius is demonstrated, with justifiable pride, in tours of his magnificent home, Monticello. Unfortunately, it has to be recorded that the number of devices that Jefferson actuallyinventedis very small; he borrowed...

  10. PART FIVE The National Stage
    • CHAPTER FOURTEEN Climate and Geography
      (pp. 179-194)

      On july 1, 1776, the thirty-three-year-old Jefferson had many weighty issues on his mind, but it was on that date, in Philadelphia, that he began to keep the diary of temperature and other weather details that he maintained on a daily basis for nearly fifty years. (The ever-competitive John Adams would no doubt have delighted in the longer record of a near-contemporary New Englander, Edmund Augustus Holyoke, of Salem, Massachusetts, who kept a similar record for seventy-five years.)¹ Among other things, Jefferson recorded that on July 4 the weather in Philadelphia was very pleasant, with a temperature of only 76...

    • CHAPTER FIFTEEN Redeeming the Wilderness
      (pp. 195-215)

      Shortly after retiring from the presidency, Jefferson was the victim of theft. He had long been yearning to retire to his beloved Monticello to continue the remaking of the house and to build a new one at his Poplar Forest plantation in Bedford County. Also beckoning were numerous intellectual projects, such as planning the University of Virginia and digesting the results of the transcontinental Lewis and Clark expedition.

      InNotes on the State of Virginia,Jefferson had mused on the origins of the American Indian peoples and their diversification into so many tribes, each with its own language. He suggested...

    • CHAPTER SIXTEEN The Unknown West
      (pp. 216-226)

      With the posting to paris, six weeks spent traveling in southern England, the three-month tour of France and Italy, the six-week tour of Holland and the Rhineland, and the monthlong northern tour of the United States, Thomas Jefferson was a well-traveled man, especially for someone who craved (or claimed to crave) the solitude of life at home. His most important voyage of discovery, which began the process of cementing together the modern geographic vision of the country, was conducted vicariously. The journey of the Corps of Discovery, made between 1803 and 1806 under the leadership of Meriwether Lewis and William...

  11. PART SIX Philosophical Issues
    • CHAPTER SEVENTEEN “His Theories I Cannot Admire”
      (pp. 229-238)

      During jefferson’s second year in Paris, his friend Francis Hopkinson wrote from Philadelphia about the remarkable case of a certain Dr. Moyse, a blind Scottish chemist and “a Philosopher by Profession.” “He arrived I believe about a Year ago at Boston and has come from thence to this City, giving public Lectures in Natural philosophy all the way. He spent the beginning of this Winter at New York, where he became very popular and a great favourite of the Ladies in particular who crowded to his Lectures, and happy was she who [could] get him to dine or drink Tea...

    • CHAPTER EIGHTEEN Philosophers Unwelcome
      (pp. 239-251)

      When thomas paine, a populist hero during revolutionary times, intended to return to the United States from France after twenty-five years away, an anonymous writer inPort Foliofulminated, “What! Invite to the United States that lying, drunken, brutal infidel.”¹ There, in a nutshell, was a view of contemporary continental philosophers typical of those who saw Jefferson and his allies as embracing every foreign, radical, and godless threat.

      For Jefferson’s Federalist opponents, the more abstract elements of natural philosophy were not only a waste of time, they were dangerous. The origins of their suspicion lay partly in religion and partly...

    • CHAPTER NINETEEN Transcendental Truths
      (pp. 252-258)

      Jefferson was convinced of the power of natural philosophy, through reason, experiment, and observation, to produce new necessary truths that transcended time, place, and fashion. The kind of natural philosophy that he loved was at its height in the mid to late eighteenth century. After that, it was gradually transformed by division into the separate subjects of modern science and partially eclipsed by technology, at which point it lost connection to philosophy itself. At its peak, natural philosophy, and particularly Newtonian mechanics, was used to illuminate a whole range of nonscientific subjects. The preservation of consistency and stability through the...

  12. EPILOGUE. Measuring the Shadow
    (pp. 259-264)

    As part of the measure of a complex and elusive man, we may try to sum up the balance sheet of Thomas Jefferson’s science. Although he was fascinated by science, we cannot say that he was a scientist in the modern sense; he did not make a living through science, nor did he maintain a scientific laboratory. Nonetheless, he made original contributions to science, and they were highly significant, as was the role that science played in his general thinking.

    Daniel Boorstin long ago showed that Jefferson’s Enlightenment Age philosophy of nature and man did not survive the onslaught of...

  13. Appendix: Jefferson’s Letter on Climate to Jean Baptiste Le Roy
    (pp. 265-270)
    Th. Jefferson
  14. Notes
    (pp. 271-304)
  15. Index
    (pp. 305-321)