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Jefferson's Shadow

Jefferson's Shadow

by Keith Thomson

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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


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.

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Yale University Press
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Jefferson's Shadow

The Story of His Science
By Keith Thomson

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2012 Keith Thomson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-18740-3

Chapter One

Lost: One Large Moose

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 of a moose living in the woods of Vermont. Jefferson, when American minister to France, went to great expense to have them imported to France. When last seen, they were part of the collections of the royal natural history museum, the Cabinet du Roi, in the Jardin des Plantes, having been sent there by Jefferson on October 1, 1787. But they are not there now. Perhaps they were lost, destroyed, or "borrowed" during the upheavals of the French Revolution. Were they ever formally added into the collections? Nobody knows.

The antlers arrived at Le Havre from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, via Southampton, England, in a large crate and were delivered to the Hôtel de Langeac, the rather grand house that Jefferson maintained on the Champs-Élysées. He kept them for only a few days. Although he had spent forty-five English pounds to obtain them, he gave them away almost immediately. Also in the crate were the bones and skin of another American moose, together with "the horns of the Caribou, the elk, the deer, the spiked horned buck, and the Roebuck of America." All were presented to the royal collections; all are now lost. In fact, the moose skin arrived with most of the fur missing and possibly was not worth keeping anyway.

Nothing about Jefferson's moose was quite what it seemed. The antlers did not belong to the same specimen as the skin and the skeleton, which had come from a gigantic moose standing seven feet high at the shoulder. Moose shed their antlers annually, and this one had been shot in the early spring, when the snows were still on the ground and moose were antler-less. So another set of antlers was put into the shipment—still big, but something of a disappointment to Jefferson.

Though sent to the royal collections, the gift was not meant for the king. It was intended for the Comte de Buon, superintendent of the royal collections and the greatest natural historian of the age. Nor was it simply a scientific gift. The whole assemblage, accompanied by a letter written in full courtly style, was a not-so-subtle scientific slap in the face, a challenge to Buon's formidable authority. To use a word with (appropriately) French associations, the gift was an act of American chauvinism. Science was being used, not for the first time and certainly not for the last, as a political weapon.

Jefferson had been trying for a year to get various American friends to find, kill, and send to him a notable specimen of a moose. Finally, his old friend General John Sullivan, a Revolutionary War hero and now president (that is, governor) of New Hampshire, took up the challenge. Sullivan arranged for a troop of soldiers to trek west into Vermont to cull the biggest moose they could find. It was slow work; a road had to be hacked through the snowy forest to get the specimen out. It was prepared according to Jefferson's precise, but inexpert, directions. As Sullivan reported, once the moose had been dressed in the field, "the remaining flesh began to be in a state of putrefaction. Every Engine was set at work to preserve the Bones and Cleanse them from the remaining flesh, and to preserve the skins with the hair on, with the hoofs on and Bones of Legs and thighs in the skin without putrefaction, and the Jobb was both Expensive and Dicult, and such as was never before attempted, in this Quarter. But it was at Last Accomplished exactly agreable to Your Directions, except that the bones of the head are not Left in the skin agreably to your Directions, as it was not possible to preserve them in that Connection, but the head of the skin being whole and well dresst it may be Drawn on at pleasure."

Jefferson was no taxidermist, and if he was a little surprised by the sorry state of the specimens when they arrived, he was even more surprised by the size of the bill. By most measures, forty-five English pounds was the equivalent in modern terms to several thousand dollars. At that time, one could buy (and we know Jefferson did) a pair of silver-mounted pistols for one pound, eighteen pence, and a microscope from Dolland's in London for five pounds, five shillings.

Matters were not improved when the shipment was badly delayed; actually, it was left behind on the dock at Portsmouth in March. This contributed to the decay of the specimens, but when the crate arrived at his house, Jefferson eagerly opened it and laid out the contents, showing them o to every visitor, many of whom may have been surprised to see that such a long-anticipated shipment contained a bunch of odoriferous bones. Then, on the cool, rainy last day of September 1787, everything was repacked and sent o to the Jardin de Plantes, where, Jefferson hoped, Buon would have them "sowed up and stuffed" for display in the museum.

Buon and his associates, Louis Jean Marie Daubenton and Bernard Germain Étienne de La Ville-sur-Illon, Comte de Lacépède had been forewarned that the gift was coming. Buon himself, however, was ill and still had not returned from his summer retreat. Lacépède opened the crate, now somewhat battered and foul-smelling, with a mix of curiosity and foreboding. Would Buon, sometimes a difficult man to work with, be delighted with the contents or furious? He would be well aware of exactly why Jefferson had sent it.

The writings of Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buon (1707–1788), were famous around the world. A lot of his work, like his theory about the origin of the earth (which he theorized was as much as seventy-five thousand years old), was controversial, but his encyclopedic masterpiece, Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particulière, begun in 1749 and still unfinished in 1787, was already enshrined as the standard reference work on natural history in Europe and America. It eventually grew to forty-four profusely illustrated quarto volumes describing the natural history of the whole known world. The moose was Jefferson's challenge to the Frenchman's authority, so clearly established in that book. Such a challenge would not have been possible unless Jefferson had been confident of his skill and knowledge as a scientist.

In the ninth volume (1761) of the encyclopedia, Buon had written a long essay comparing the animals and peoples of the New and Old Worlds —we would call it a biogeography of the Americas. Never modest about his opinions, he categorically stated that America was a dismal and inhospitable place where the indigenous life was sparse and weak compared with that of the Old World. Everything in the New World was smaller, he said, and he also claimed that the people of the New World were inferior in every way to those of the Old. The New World had no large mammals and no civilized people, only an abundance of snakes and noxious insects and a few puny savages. The Americas were too cold and damp to be suitable for any kind of healthy or abundant life.

One titillating sentence of Buon's had raised eyebrows in America and produced knowing smiles in Europe; Buon had written that "the savage of the new world ... is feeble, and has small organs of generation; he has neither hair nor beard, and no ardour whatever for his female."

When copies of the relevant volume of Buon's Histoire Naturelle reached North American shores, most people were too busy with day-to-day survival, not to mention the ongoing difficulties of being under the thumb of King George, to pay much attention to the offending passages. Most people, that is, but not Thomas Jefferson. It was clear to him right away that the Frenchman's calumnies could easily be rebutted scientifically. Jefferson knew that Buon had never visited America; all his information was based on hearsay. His ideas seemed to reflect a political agenda as much as a zoological one, although his work was not notable for other politically based opinions or, indeed, for many other opinions based on so little factual evidence.

Once the American War of Independence had ended, it was obvious that the French slurs on the American homeland had to be answered before they produced serious political and economic consequences for the fledgling debt-ridden nation. On arriving in Paris in 1784, Jefferson arranged an introduction to Buon and presented him with a copy of his brand-new book Notes on the State of Virginia, in which he answered Buon's charges point by point. He also presented Buon with the skin of an American cougar. Buon was courteous and invited Jefferson to dinner. But he was not to be persuaded by arguments or tables of data. Nor was he impressed by the cougar. Jefferson thought Buon had been in error by describing the cougar as the same as the animal known as the puma. Buon (correctly as it happened) stuck to his ground.

In matters like this, Jefferson was somewhat like a bulldog; once he sank his teeth into something, he did not let go. He decided to give Buon incontrovertible evidence of the majesty and superiority of American wildlife by arranging to have the biggest possible moose sent to Paris. Nothing in Europe was as big and imposing as an American moose. The moose alone would demonstrate the vigor of America. Even better, in his own book, Buon had made the mistake of confusing the moose ("l'orignal") with the reindeer ("le renne"); a reindeer, Jefferson scornfully noted, was an entirely different species and so much smaller that one could pass under the belly of a moose.

Buon was not used to being contradicted. And he may have been surprised that Jefferson was so thoroughly versed in science, although the presence in the French capital of Benjamin Franklin, whom Buon admired, should have signaled to him that North America was not simply the province of rough farmers, part-time soldiers, and small-town lawyers. Buon would certainly have been surprised that a relatively unknown political figure from Virginia had dared to challenge his views on any scientific subject, let alone that field in which he considered himself expert. But Jefferson took on Europe's foremost living scientist and, he thought, beat him by dint of having data instead of opinions. In either case, win or lose, with Notes he established himself as someone who could make original contributions to science. He had become Thomas Jefferson, man of science.

Chapter Two

The Man Who Could Not Live Without Books

Old Master had abundance of books; sometimes would have twenty of 'em down on the floor at once—read fust one, then tother. —Isaac Jefferson

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 yet owe to American physicians or surgeons? What new substances have their chemists discovered? Or what old ones have they advanced? What new constellations have been discovered by the telescopes of Americans? Who drinks out of American glasses? Or eats from American plates? Or wears American coats or gowns? or sleeps in American blankets? Finally, under which of the old tyrannical governments of Europe is every sixth man a slave, whom his fellow-creatures may buy and sell and torture?"

One exception to this blanket condemnation of America and Americans was Benjamin Franklin, who was admired by the British and adored by the French and to whom the Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote, "America has sent us many good things, Gold, Silver, Sugar, Tobacco, Indigo, etc. But you are the first philosopher, and indeed the first Great Man of Letters, for whom we are beholden to her."

If Franklin was America's first scientific philosopher, then Jefferson was the second. The author of A Summary View of the Rights of British America, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the Declaration of Independence, and Notes on the State of Virginia could justifiably claim to be what the French called a philosophe or savant—a philosopher and man of wide learning. And that was precisely how Jefferson was seen by the man who later introduced him to Buon in Paris—another French nobleman, François Jean de Beauvoir, Chevalier de Chastellux. Chastellux had been third in command of the French forces at the Battle of Yorktown, the decisive battle that ended the American War of Independence in 1781. Although he had entered the army at age thirteen, Chastellux eventually became a considerable literary figure in Paris. He stayed on in the United States after the war and visited Jefferson at Monticello in 1782 during a tour of the country. Expecting to meet a politician, he found a philosopher: "A man, not yet forty, tall, and with a mild and pleasing countenance, but whose mind and attainments could serve in lieu of all outward graces; an American, who, without ever having quitted his own country, is Musician, Draftsman, Surveyor, Astronomer, Natural Philosopher, Jurist, and Statesman; a Senator of America, who sat for two years in that famous Congress which brought about the Revolution ... a Governor of Virginia ... and finally as Philosopher ... a gentle and amiable man, charming wife, charming children whose education is his special care, a house to embellish, extensive estates to improve, the arts and sciences to cultivate." During his stay at Monticello, when talk went on late into the night, "sometimes natural philosophy was the subject of our conversation, and at still others, politics or the arts, for no object had escaped Mr. Jefferson; and it seems indeed as though, ever since his youth, he had placed his mind, like his house, on a lofty height, whence he might contemplate the whole universe." Chastellux's surprise that Jefferson had become so accomplished without ever having been to Europe is disingenuously charming. But in some ways he was right. Much of the America that he toured was primitive. The roads were appalling. Since the larger towns and cities were spread out along the Eastern Seaboard, the easiest travel was by water. In the South, there was little industry; the majority of the people were subsistence farmers who had to import basic necessities of life.

In fact, rural America was very much like rural France. What America lacked was a glittering capital like Paris (population around 600,000) or London (possibly as many as 1,000,000 people) and their attendant slums. Philadelphia, with a population of 25,000 to 40,000 in 1776, is often claimed to be the second-largest city in the English-speaking world, but it was smaller than Edinburgh, Scotland (60,000).

It was certainly possible in those days, as it is now, to live a useful life (in America or Europe) without pondering the meaning of things or knowing what the notable minds of the past and the present had discovered or opined. But Jefferson read widely and thought deeply about the nature and causes of everything—from Newton's new mechanics, Aristotle's logic, and St. Thomas Aquinas's natural law to the foundations of modern political systems, religion, language, the condition of humanity, and the glories of nature. To Chastellux's initial surprise (and perhaps to the later dismay of Buon), Jefferson belonged to a whole class of Americans among whom education was paramount, learning was expected, the arts flourished and the sciences thrived.


Excerpted from Jefferson's Shadow by Keith Thomson Copyright © 2012 by Keith Thomson. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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