Thomas Jefferson, Scientist

Thomas Jefferson’s passion for politics is rivaled only by his passion for science. Historic Interpreter Bill Barker shares his study of the third president.

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Harmony Hunter: Hi, Welcome to the podcast, I’m Harmony Hunter. We’re all familiar with Thomas Jefferson’s political contributions to the country but he had another passion equal to politics and that was science.

My guest today is Bill Barker, who interprets Thomas Jefferson at Colonial Williamsburg.

Bill Barker: Thank you Harmony. I have become the better acquainted with Mr. Jefferson over the years as someone so devoted to the pursuit of science that as he said I’ve come to realize were left to me to design my own life it would be upon a plot of ground amongst my books and in the bosom of my family to pursue a scientific investigation. That is what he believed his constitution was made for.

He found politics to be a labor although he was quite good at it, but he would have desired just to be a private citizen engaged in farming, engaged in bringing up his family but most importantly in pursuing science. He always said, “Light and liberty go together,” that the pursuit of science is one of the greatest efforts to improve the condition of man.

Harmony: Tell me a little bit about the American Philosophical Society. He was president of the United States and of that society.

Bill: He became a president of the American Philosophical Society, it was begun by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia, a society of gentlemen devoted to scientific investigation. This was the era of the Enlightenment, when man began to cast off, as Jefferson would say, “The wool of ignorance from their eyes to a mistrust of their own vision,” and began to believe that they themselves were responsible for the improving of their condition and that the laws of nature and nature’s god were amenable to pursuing science.

Harmony: So this is to say that this is an era of self-determination and of empirical observation is what we’re beginning to base our logic on rather than fate.

Bill: Absolutely, and logic and reason play such an important part in this.

Harmony: So where does the American Philosophical Society come in with all that, what is their goal?

Bill: Their goal is to continue to search the pathways of science, to create and invent, mechanics and articles and search for information that is going to help man improve his condition.

Harmony: And what part does Jefferson play in this?

Bill: Jefferson, I will say, is more or less a follower. Jefferson certainly invents things but his inventions are adaptations of what he has seen or heard about particularly in the conversation of the men involved in the American Philosophical Society. Jefferson is a sounding board, Jefferson is a database, Jefferson is someone continually in communication and correspondence with the gentlemen of the Philosophical Society across the globe, around the world, sharing information. He always said when the greatest amount of information is available at the public bar, the people will always make the correct judgment.

Harmony: He was concerned a great deal with fossils, the natural world.

Bill: Jefferson is continually intrigued with the wonders of nature all about him and no doubt having heard about, let alone perhaps discovered himself in his youth, fossilized shells on the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains, certainly in and about where he’s living on the southwest range of the Blue Ridge and those fossilized shells of the Tidewater in Virginia in and about Williamsburg.

Well the question naturally arises, “How do these fossilized shells arrive at the top of the mountains when we should find them in what has been the beds of the ocean?” So this question is raised in his Notes on Virginia and he is one of the first, if not the first, to suggest in his notes perhaps what are now the tops of the mountains were once the beds of the ocean and they were pushed up, created by some schism in nature.

This is no less in his study of archaeology, the Indian mounds in and around Monticello, what are they, how did they get there, who, who built them, was it indeed the Aborigines who were here before the white men, were they those we call “Indians” in his day, or were they people who were here perhaps even before the Indians? Rather than to errantly dig into these mounds and pull out what is found without any reference to how they were found, in what location of the mounds they were found, Jefferson applies a scientific study to it. He applies a grid system so that when he is digging into the mound that is not far from Monticello, he records in what square of the grid he discovers a relic and he also records in what layer of soil that relic is discovered. Believing of course, quite naturally, that if you are discovering certain relics in a strata of soil deeper than others, well they’re older and they were placed there at a time well before other relics might have been placed on top of them.

Coincidentally, in the study of the shells, Jefferson applies a Linnaean appellation, a scientific name for the large fossilized scallop shells that he’s discovering along the banks of the James River and the York River, the very large ones with about nine to twelve ridges he refers to as Chesapecten jeffersonius. The smaller ones with say less than nine, perhaps around five or seven ridges he refers to as Chesapecten madisonius. Of course Mr. Madison was somewhat shorter than Mr. Jefferson in stature.

Harmony: And that’s a legacy that survives today. That’s the state fossil of Virginia.

Bill: Yes it is.

Harmony: He was also very interested in the excavation of a Mammoth skeleton.

Bill: In Big Lick, Kentucky there was the discovery as they were digging there of fossilized bones of a very large creature and he is very curious as to what this could have been. Scientific application is applied to it, the bones that are brought up, and discovered are related to particular sections of an animal’s body, an animal’s skeleton and when they’re discovering that this is larger than anything they’ve discovered before.

Well, then they start to refer to accounts that are already provided throughout scientific ventures in Europe and elsewhere as to what this could have been. Jefferson refers to it as a Woolly Mammoth or a large Mammoth long extinct. He begins to ponder how it had got here and where it came from. He excites Charles Wilson Peale in this effort when he has delivered a certain bones from this expedition in this dig, he sends some up to Charles Wilson Peale and Peale later on paints a beautiful portrait, if you will, of the actual dig, provoking: what was this animal, how long ago did it live, and how did it get here? It’s almost the same application he’s providing to digging into the Indian mounds. Who were these people, how did they get here, and how long did they live?

Harmony: And in both cases, I think this logical approach is something that survives today when people are doing similar archaeological work.

Bill: Exactly. The application of reason, the eschewing of superstition emotional involvement, separate yourself from this and just apply reason. Reckon it out with what information you already have. You know, this leads into another one of his great interests, meteorology, the study of weathers and climates.

Jefferson begins to take accounts of the temperature when he’s a young man at William and Mary several times a day, usually at what he calls the coolest time of the day, before sunrise, usually about the middle of the day noon or one o’clock, and then at what he calls perhaps the warmest time of the day which will be three or four o’clock in the afternoon. He continues to build this database of temperature notations between Williamsburg and Charlottesville for several years and arrives finally at a reasoned calculation that over 120 mile distance there is on the average a six degree difference in temperature -- six degrees cooler in the mountains and in the Charlottesville area.

So this effort to maintain a database, to record temperatures is, becomes to him a fascination for what it can reveal and what you can reason out to provide a standard or a reference. I mean, it is a remarkable life-long effort to continue these notations in order to form a database. And remember, throughout his life, he is continuing to correspond with all of these other gentlemen that he’s provoking to do the same or have already begun to do the same.

Imagine this now -- throughout our nation we’re beginning to set a foundation for temperature and climate and what later becomes our national weather bureau is beginning there. The more people read Jefferson, the more they visit the places that he was familiar with -- be that Williamsburg, Monticello, Poplar Forest, go to Philadelphia visit the American Philosophical Society -- understand that in our government we have the geological surveys, the surveys of the coastlines that were initiated by Thomas Jefferson, the patent office of our nation, again, overseen by Thomas Jefferson when he was secretary of state is to help us understand that this man was not only remarkable in his curiosity and in his scientific pursuits but was also such a wonderful example of what we call the Age of Enlightenment.

And to help us understand that, those principles of reason and the principles of scientific investigation and the principle of the individual being able to govern himself and to apply himself for making a better world is not only uniquely American, but I think in Jefferson’s opinion, is fulfilling what is expected of mankind to provide not only for himself but for generations yet unborn. In other words, to make for a better world.

Harmony: Our guest today has been Bill Barker, Thomas Jefferson interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg. Join us again next week for a continuation of our discussion of the scientific mind of Thomas Jefferson.

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