A TALL man with red hair and a face that "beamed with benevolence and intelligence," entered a shop in Philadelphia on July 3, 1776 and bought a thermometer for $19.
On July 4, while the angry members of the Second Continental Congress debated a Declaration of Independence from the tyranny of the British crown, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the declaration, calmly took four readings of the temperature that day on his new thermometer, at 6 a.m., 9 a.m., 1 p.m., and 9 p.m.
In the evening, the debate ended. All present except one signed the declaration. A political and social revolution that continues to change the world was underway.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness...."
There is no casual connection between the thermometer and the Declaration of Independence. To Jefferson, with his unsurpassed interest and knowledge about everything including the weather, horticulture, architecture, furniture, music, languages [he spoke and read seven languages], books, cooking, astronomy, medicine, art, surveying, paleontology, etc., it was his pursuit of happiness to explore the fullness of life and nature.
Unremarkable now, but extraordinary in 1776, Jefferson wanted each man to have the opportunity to pursue happiness free of political tyranny (Some thoughts later on Jefferson's ownership of slaves).
Today, at Monticello, Jefferson's home and center of exploration and happiness for 40 years, the commemoration of the 250th anniversary of his birth in 1743 will be launched. The centerpiece of the celebration is an exhibition of more than 150 of Jefferson's possessions on loan from museums and individuals from around the world. The exhibit, as well as dozens of related events across the United States, will continue at Monticello through the end of the year.
"His intellect and values are expressed in everything here," says Susan Stein, curator of the exhibition. "I think he was always conscious that Monticello was at the edge of the frontier, and what he did was bring the larger resources of the world here. Also, he wanted to remind himself of past events and absent friends; so he surrounded himself with reminders of the people who had shaped his thinking and his life."
Even cursory research into Jefferson's range of interests and accomplishments - in addition to his political career - verifies former President John F. Kennedy's comment about Jefferson at a White House dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners. Said Kennedy, "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House - with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."
This might have been true on occasions at the White House, but at Monticello, Jefferson's sociability and generosity of spirit would have left him seldom alone at dinner.
Shy in public, Jefferson's intellect and interests always bloomed in the conversational flow of small groups around a dining table. He also wrote more than 18,000 letters to friends in his lifetime and kept five notebooks simultaneously.
Daniel Jordan, the executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello, puts Jefferson's accomplishments in further perspective. "I like to say that we have 200 people working at Monticello trying to keep up with one man who lived 200 years ago," he says.
A walk around the grounds of Monticello with Peter Hatch, director of grounds and gardens for 15 years, reveals what Mr. Hatch considers the full revelation of Jefferson's character.
"He related to people by talking about gardening and considered gardening and agriculture the workhouse of nature," says Hatch, pointing to Jefferson's 1,000-foot-long garden, recreated in l979. "His grand vision was to create an ornamental farm, to take the necessary elements of a working farm and intersperse the attributes of a garden. The theme that defined his view of the landscape, and life, was combining the useful with the delightful." Smiling, Hatch concludes, "Jefferson never talked about furnit ure like that."