A bright, brisk assessment of the scientific interests and contributions of the Sage of Monticello.
Thomson (Natural History/Univ. of Oxford; The Young Charles Darwin, 2009, etc.) begins in an unsurprising place—the 1962 White House dinner honoring America’s Nobel laureates (where JFK uttered that celebrated “when Jefferson dined alone” comment)—but he swiftly moves into less familiar terrain. The author establishes the scholarly conflict between the Comte de Buffon, who wrote more like a buffoon about the natural history of America (his conclusions were uncluttered by any visits) and Jefferson, whose Notes on the State of Virginia largely exposed the Frenchman’s ignorance. Thomson reminds us repeatedly of Jefferson’s eclectic intellectual interests—portraits of Bacon, Newton and Locke hung in Monticello—and of his massive personal library of some 6,500 works. The author also examines the significant influence of teacher William Small and of the future president’s obsession to own the most recent scientific equipment—from thermometers to telescopes. (All of these scholarly pursuits contributed to Jefferson’s great financial indebtedness.) Thomson is inexplicably wry about Jefferson’s relations with his slave Sally Hemings, but he is clear and precise about Jefferson’s science, noting how his devout belief in the Genesis Creation story limited his potential understandings of fossils and extinction. Later, Jefferson focused on mechanical devices, some of which are on display at Monticello. Thomson properly credits Jefferson for the scientific achievements of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and he tells the story of how Clement C. Moore (“A Visit from Saint Nicholas”) accused Jefferson of atheism. He ends with a discussion of those Jeffersonian scientific ideas and discoveries that have endured.
Lucid and concise descriptions and analyses of an active, creative mind fully engaged with the natural world.