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The True Geography of Our Country

The True Geography of Our Country: Jefferson’s Cartographic Vision

Joel Kovarsky
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 200
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  • Book Info
    The True Geography of Our Country
    Book Description:

    A philosopher, architect, astronomer, and polymath, Thomas Jefferson lived at a time when geography was considered the "mother of all sciences." Although he published only a single printed map, Jefferson was also regarded as a geographer, owing to his interest in and use of geographic and cartographic materials during his many careers-attorney, farmer, sometime surveyor, and regional and national politician-and in his twilight years at Monticello. For roughly twenty-five years he was involved in almost all elements of the urban planning of Washington, D.C., and his surveying skills were reflected in his architectural drawings, including those of the iconic grounds of the University of Virginia. He understood maps not only as valuable for planning but as essential for future land claims and development, exploration and navigation, and continental commercial enterprise.

    InThe True Geography of Our Country: Jefferson's Cartographic Vision,Joel Kovarsky charts the importance of geography and maps as foundational for Jefferson's lifelong pursuits. Although the world had already seen the Age of Exploration and the great sea voyages of Captain James Cook, Jefferson lived in a time when geography was of primary importance, prefiguring the rapid specializations of the mid- to late-nineteenth-century world. In this illustrated exploration of Jefferson's passion for geography-including his role in planning the route followed and regions explored by Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery, as well as other expeditions into the vast expanse of the Louisiana Purchase-Kovarsky reveals how geographical knowledge was essential to the manifold interests of the Sage of Monticello.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3559-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-ix)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. x-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    (pp. 1-8)

    A visitor walking into the expansive entrance hall at Jefferson’s Monticello is immediately struck by the range of visual displays: the great clock; the busts of Alexander Hamilton, Michel-Étienne Turgot, and Voltaire; the paintings depicting John Adams, Amerigo Vespucci, and a young Native American chieftain; and numerous other artifacts native to North America. Along with these treasures, a remarkable and unique cartographic display is intended to impress and instruct, comprising wall maps of continental Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America (including the United States); a later variant of the Fry-Jefferson map of Virginia (coauthored by his father); a reduced version...

    (pp. 9-29)

    The story of colonial America and the early republic is one of geography and empire, land and landscape, and control and measurement.¹ This geographical focus fostered the importance and popularity of training in the arts of surveying, which was one of the most common forms of vocational study in eighteenth-century North America.² The intense emphasis on the parceling of land in colonial Virginia derived directly from British customs and ongoing interests in the region.³

    The landed gentry and their sons could not rely on ready availability of skilled professional help, prompting their need for some familiarity with existing surveying methods....

    (pp. 30-49)

    Jefferson’sNotes on the State of Virginia,like much of his writing and political thinking, has been both criticized and praised.¹ It has been by turns denigrated and lauded as perhaps the most important scientific and political book written by a native U.S. citizen before 1785.² This work, a subject of discussion in nearly every major biography of Jefferson,³ is also a regional geographical treatise, one of the earliest published pertaining to a portion of the fledgling nation by an American author. It is certainly the earliest major textual chorography, written by one of its most prominent citizens, of the...

    (pp. 50-54)

    Jefferson’s commitment to books, and hence to education and learning, is legendary.¹ His “Great Library,” the basis for the reconstitution of the Library of Congress after it had been torched by British troops in 1814 , was a product of decades of sustained and painstaking effort. As he recollected in a letter to a contemporary:

    You know my collection, its condition and extent. I have been fifty years making it, and have spared no pains, opportunity or expense, to make it what it is. While residing in Paris [as minister to France], I devoted every afternoon I was disengaged, for...

    (pp. 55-85)

    Thomas Jefferson’s Grand Tour of Europe was not mirrored by personal travels to the western reaches of the North American continent. There is little indication he was motivated to journey to those as yet poorly explored landscapes. Yet despite the fact that he never ventured west of the town of Staunton, Virginia—nestled on the western edge of the Shenandoah Valley—he is still considered one of the great expedition planners of his day. This short list also includes England’s great naturalist, Sir Joseph Banks, who traveled with Captain James Cook on his first voyage, and Sir Alexander Mackenzie, the...

    (pp. 86-110)

    Jefferson was a late but prolific participant in the centuries-old, transatlantic Republic of Letters.¹ The output of this scholarly group of correspondents spanned the Renaissance through the European Enlightenment. The geographical range of Jefferson’s correspondents was remarkable. Equally impressive and important were his wide-ranging references to geographic and cartographic information, including such related fields of discussion as agriculture, astronomy, exploration, meteorology, natural history, and politics.

    On 30 July 1795, Christoph Daniel Ebeling, a prominent German scholar of America, geographer, and professor and teacher of Alexander von Humboldt, sent a letter introducing himself to Thomas Jefferson:

    Your worthy Country men Mr....

    (pp. 111-129)

    Jefferson can be tied to nearly every general discussion about the continental expansion of the early republic.¹ The notion of Manifest Destiny was popularized in the mid-nineteenth century, although the roots of the conflicted concept go back centuries. The extant literature is extensive, and a number of overviews are available.² In the pages that follow, I will briefly discuss five major antecedents of the concept, how they link to Jefferson’s political career, and particularly how they relate to his knowledge and use of geography and cartography. These key progenitors are the Bible, the Right of Discovery, Natural Law, the Louisiana...

    (pp. 130-142)

    Jefferson’s view of geography was expansive and intersected with his diverse scientific interests, including agronomy, anthropology, archaeology, astronomy, botany, chorography, ethnology, geology, horology, linguistics, meteorology, paleontology, topography, and zoology.¹

    Those interests frequently overlapped within his writings—as can be seen in the excerpts in this chapter—and coincided with the early notion of geography as the “mother of all sciences.” That generalization ceased to be convincing as academic specializations increased during the latter part of the nineteenth century.² Unquestionably, geography—and, in particular, physical geography—was part of a classic education and an important subject for Jefferson in both secondary...

    (pp. 143-144)

    Jefferson’s legal and political careers were permeated with concepts of territory: regional, national, and continental. He was intimately involved in land dispute resolution and territorial acquisition and measurement, and figures prominently in most discussions of the early expansion of the United States. Evidence of his chorographic (descriptions or depictions of particular regions), geographic, and cartographic interests and knowledge can be found throughout his adult life. They were manifest in his extensive writings, in his remarkable libraries, in his early legal career. They suffuse the planning and execution of the building of Washington, D.C.; the acquisition and exploration of the Louisiana...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 145-166)
    (pp. 167-178)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 179-186)