At a dinner for American Nobel laureates, President John E Kennedy remarked that he was with “the most extraordinary collection of talent” ever assembled at the White House, “with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” This widely circulated anecdote testifies to the reputation of Jefferson as the American Renaissance man par excellence, a reputation that Bedini’s book seeks to enhance by calling the attention of scholars to Jefferson’s achievements in science and technology. The previous neglect of his scientific contributions may have been the result of his status as an amateur, and it is certainly true that he engaged in science as a pastime rather than as a profession, but he was an amateur in the original French sense of the term: He was a lover and enthusiast of the sciences. Toward the end of his illustrious life he stated: “Science is my passion, politics my duty.”
In the past two hundred years Jefferson has stimulated the production of writings notable for their immensity and variety but, surprisingly, the subject that he most loved has been largely ignored. Scholars have extensively analyzed him as a lawyer, architect, politician, and diplomat, but they have only cursorily treated his zealous pursuit of scientific knowledge. This vast literature about Jefferson has been accumulating for so long that even revisionist works have further revisers and reconstructions have their deconstructionists. Because of the many revelations about his private and public lives, the idealized picture of Jefferson as the humanistic revolutionary and statesman has been tarnished. On the other hand, as Silvio A. Bedini’s work makes clear, Jefferson did have a genuine talent for science, and Bedini’s purpose is to reinstate him as the political father of American science.
Bedini claims that his book is not a biography, but this must be taken with a grain of salt, since his work contains all the biographical trappings, from his chapter on Jefferson’s family history through the chapters that chronologically trace the main elements of Jefferson’s career to those detailing his retirement and death. It is more accurate to say that Bedini has written a biography that seeks to remedy previous scholars’ disregard of Jefferson’s important achievements in science.
Jefferson was an enlightened man in an unenlightened world. Reared in a primitive environment, he became attached, mainly through his reading, to the ideals of the European Enlightenment, especially the belief that humanity can achieve progress only by applying scientific knowledge to human artifacts and activities. On his father’s plantation, Shadwell, near the Virginian frontier, he absorbed from his sylvan surroundings a deep love of nature. Gradually, science would provide him with a key to the mysteries of this natural world, but because of the immaturity of American civilization, he had to struggle to obtain this knowledge. Despite his isolation from city and culture, he came to believe that science was the way to truth and the basis for democracy. Science could lead to truth because careful observation and experiment were the basic ways that truth could be found. Science was the foundation for democracy because it flourished only in a climate of free inquiry and was consequently an ally of political freedom.
Jefferson’s early education in science came from his father, a farmer and surveyor, who satisfied his young son’s curiosity about how the natural world and various farm machines worked. His father also taught him how he could bring order to the wilderness through surveying instruments (the provenance of his fascination with scientific devices). Unfortunately, his father, who had helped to shape his son’s scientific identity, died, at age fifty, in 1757. Thomas Jefferson, who was only fourteen, found himself the nominal owner of a large plantation with many slaves (he became the legal owner when he turned twenty-one).
Under the guidance of his guardians, who sent him to skilled tutors and teachers, Jefferson acquired facility in Latin and Greek, and in 1760 he began attending the College of William and Mary, the South’s only institution of higher learning. There he enjoyed the study of mathematics and obtained his first formal knowledge of science. He was particularly impressed by how the systematic sciences brought understanding to his random knowledge of the natural world. While at this college (which had a staff of six professors and 115 students), Jefferson decided to become a lawyer. Yet the evidence that Bedini presents reveals that Jefferson found his three years of legal studies and seven years of legal practice burdensome and boring. Would not his inquisitive mind have found greater fulfillment in science? Law, it appears, was a practical choice: It would permit him to make a good living in a growing frontier community. Still, this pragmatic rationale is unsatisfying, and Jefferson’s choice of vocation remains a mystery. A consequence of his choice quickly becomes obvious:
Science would be his obsessive avocation, pursued with great relish.
Jefferson seems to have absorbed great strength from the land, and he loved working it and building on it. He enjoyed experimenting with ways to improve agriculture; he developed ways to make a river near his plantation navigable; and he began the construction of a house—eventually called Monticello—that became an outlet for much of his ingenious inventiveness. Despite his joys in building Monticello, circumstances always seemed to force him to perform other tasks. During the 1770’s, for example, his marriage and the movement of the colonies toward independence consumed much of his energy. He understood that revolution was the extraordinary event needed to enable ordinary events to continue on a new level. He became one of the youngest members of the Continental Congress, and while in Philadelphia in 1776, he found himself a member of the committee appointed to compose a declaration of independence. Using a laptop desk of his own design, he agonized for...
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