The Scientific Jefferson

I don’t know if it’s because I was recently watching John Adams, the HBO miniseries, or because with all the political news I have observed our nations capitol buildings with some regularity, but whatever the case, I have discovered a recent, and profound interest in our nations founding fathers. Last month I read Newt Gingrich’s excellent “Rediscovering God in America” and this month I am reading Walter Isaacson’s “Benjamin Franklin; An American Life.” In between I stumbled across “The Scientific Jefferson” by Martin Clagett. This book, published last year by the University of Virgina Press details Jefferson’s serious advancements in the world of science.

I can’t speak for everyone but I think most people when thinking of the founding fathers thinkĀ  only of their political, or perhaps social, accomplishments. Everyone knows about the Declaration of Independance and the Constitution, but few people realize the vast ways in which our founding fathers shaped this country even before the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson, our third president accoplished much in his political life, and as President he presided over the Louisiana Purchase and westward expansion, but long before this Jefferson was an eclectic mind whose intellectual pursuits were almost always fruitful, if not for himself than for the nation he helped build.

Clagett’s book is divided into five sections, each dealing with a specific branch of science Jefferson pioneered. In the late eighteenth century Jefferson was confronted with a profound arrogance and misconception about America while visiting France. The French historian “The Compte de Buffon” argued that the American soil was not fit for agriculture, and that the Indian tribes inhabiting America were feeble minded, ethnic degenerates. Jefferson felt differently, and decided to publish his findings in his Notes on the State of Virginia. His earliest claims involved American agriculture where Jefferson was surprisingly, well rounded. Jefferson used considerable fortune to purchase Italian grains, and animals, particularly the Marino Ram, and long-grains rice. Jefferson illegaly smuggled many such goods into the U.S. thereby increasing the supply of quality grain and wool, while also proving that European exports could thrive here in America. Jefferson invented the “mould-board” plow, a device that used a hinged-blade that allowed for up to four-times the conventional plow rate.

Jefferson also funded early scientific expeditions, including those of Lewis and Clark, to discover much about the land west of New England, and the native tribes that inhabited them. At one time Jefferson traced exact etymology of some three-hundred tribes, with direct French and English translations of key words. Jefferson’s studies not only proved that the native americans were more than “mindless savages” but his scientific research would prove useful in discovering and pioneering the west.

Other Jefferson achievements include spreading Edward Jenner’s small-pox vaccine to rural New England, inventing the modern cryptograph (which was used by the Navy up through WW2), modernizing New England architectural designs with his theories on space and light, and developing the earliest forms of American paleontology and archaeology (Jefferson even created the first “strafing techniques” still used by archaeologists today.)

Without Jefferson’s scientific achievements not only would Americans have suffered, but Jefferson himself would never have become the impactful leader and statesmen in later years. Perhaps Jeffersons final, and most lasting achievement was The University of Virginia himself, where Jefferson built a remarkable library and taught all the critical arts and sciences necessary to early Americans. Jefferson designed much of the building and it is one of the few achievements he wanted listed on his tombstone. It is fitting that a man that never used his ingenuity for monetary gain, wanted his legacy to be that of the knowledge he left behind.

When we think of the founding fathers we should consider more than their poltical legacies. The earliest American minds did more than just create a country; they filled that country with the most remarkable achievements known to man. They left a legacy beyond mere words. Men like Jefferson gave Americans a great world to live in, long before they had a country to call their own.


Jack B.

1 Response to “The Scientific Jefferson”

  1. 1 Jenn
    February 9, 2010 at 4:49 am

    Really insightful and I never knew about Jefferson’ achievements. Thank you for sharing!

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