Jefferson, the inquisitive; the little known side of a reluctant statesman
Washington — "He was a compulsive -- he had a compulsive curiosity, he wanted to know everything about everything. . . . He had this insatiable curiosity, a mind that was never still."
That's Silvio Bendini, a Jefferson detective, talking about Thomas Jefferson, the man he's stalked for 20 years and the subject of a new major exhibition.
"Jefferson and Science," which has just opened at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History here, is a fascinating glimpse of the United States President who called politics his duty, science his passion. mr. Bedini, the historian who put together the exhibit, based it o n two decades of research for his forthcoming book "Jefferson, Statesman of Science."
"This is the first time since Jefferson's death on July 4, 1826 that all these scientific things have come together," he points out. "When he died they were all dispersed. . . ."
Mr. Bedini, who is keeper of the rare books at the Smithsonian, has assembled the exhibition and written its accompanying catalog. It's all in a style that's the quintessence of Jeffersonian, right down to its color scheme (Jefferson's favorite colors, chocolate brown on the walls touches celery green and gray) and its score. (The record "Music of Jefferson's time" is on sale at the museum.)
Perhaps the best example of that unique melding of Jefferson's gifts as statesman and scientist is his invention of the traveling lap desk, which happens to be the one on which he drafted the Declaration of Independence. It's a mahogany writing board designed like an open book, the right side or page propped up above a drawer that holds inkwell, room for a quill, etc. On the left rests a rough draft of the Declaration of Independence on tan parchment covered with Jeffersonhs small, precise handwriting in brown ink.
Reading it, you can see that Jefferson sweated over writing the declaration that trumpeted US freedom from the mother country. "We hold these truths to be" it begins. Then Jefferson has written, scratched out, written something indecipherable, finally come up wi th "self evident," then scratched out the phrase "that from that equal creation" and replaced it with the now familiar "that they are endowed by their Creator with certain . . ." He hesitated over the word "inherent," decided to change it to "inalienable rights," and then worked on laboriously to hammer out what has become one of the most familiar, cherished, and powerful writings in American history.
Not content to be just a member of the Continental Congress that wrote that declaration, a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, governor of Virginia, minister of defense, secretary of state, vice-president and president of the US (for two terms), Jefferson also turned the magnifying glass of his enormous curiosity on several scientific fields: astronomy, meteorology, physics, mathematics, botany, surveying, as well as the art of architecture epitomized in the classic design for his own home, Monticello.
Jefferson the inventor, you learn from this exhibit, designed a machine for shelling corn, an apple press and cider mill, two pairs of his own specs, and a music stand for string quartets and quintets (he loved playing chamber music) that folded up into a cube. He also invented a portable copying press, whell cipher device, revolving chair, and walking stick that converted into a folding chair.
Jefferson the horticulturist wrote an expert tome ("Thomas Jefferson's GArden Book, 1766-1824") which gave sound advice on everything from mulching to harvesting but also included details on road building, fish ponds, flooding, and even slave records. A section on "the mode of drying marshes" maps out how to cut down a swath of trees 200 yards long so you open a clearing "bearing away the fumes of the marshes."
Jefferson the astronomer commissioned his own clock from a Philadelphia clockmaker, Thomas Voight, to be used for astronomical purposes only, "without any striking apparatus." There it stands, over eight feet tall, mahogany, with wrought iron hands and brass weights that tell you what day it is. "We cannot know the relative positions of two places on earth but by interrogat ing the sun , moon and stars" he wrote a friend. He designed a 107-foot-long observatory to be built near Monticello (it never was) and later turned his study into a miniature observatory, with telescopes and a skylight to watch the southern sky.
Jefferson the scientific collector, as Mr. Bedini points out, has been called "the father of American paleontology," the study of fossils. "I'm particularly proud of this big bone," says Mr. Bedini, pointint to the huge jawbone of an American mastodon. Jefferson hung up the jawbone, which is the size of a Manx cat, at Monticello and took it to the White House with him.
Jefferson the archaeologist pioneered modern archaeological techniques in his excavation of an Indian burial mound in the ancient Monacan Indian village of Monasukapanough. His archaeological collection includes a bone whistle from the Lewis and Clark expedition (a venture he rode herd on "from an interested distance") and a Mandan buffalo robe. This item, a large buff-colored hide, was painted by the Mandan tribe in a style similar to the cave drawings of Cro-Magnon man, with stylized men and horses in tones of brown, red, and gold. The robe, showing five tribes of 64 Indians battling, was such a favorite of Jefferson's he displayed it at the White House and Monticello.
The omnivrous Jefferson also tried to establish a national weather service, introduced the caper, the olive, and the pecan to the US, made such a contribution to botany that a plant (the Jeffersonia diphylla,m a member of the barberry family) was naed for him, aided in establishing smallpox vaccinations in some areas, and produced what experts regard as the first government scientific publication, dealing with desalinization of water.
The trademark of Jefferson was that he never stopped wondering, asking, measuring, poking, prying, calibratng, estimating. Even when taking a trip away from Monticello, he had a "hodometer" (similar to an odometer, but not quite) affixed to his carriage which gave not only the distance in miles but in dimes and cents.
As he wrote i n one of his 35,000 letters, this one to Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours in 1809: "Nature intended for me the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight. But the enormities of the times in which I had lived, have forced me to take part in resisting them, and to commit myself on the boisterous ocean of political passions."
The "Jefferson and Science" exhibit will continue through July 5, offering a curious public a look at an unknown side of the man popularized by Fawn Brodie's biography and the earlier "The Eye of Jefferson" exhibit, at the National Gallery.