Pick from the Past
Natural History, April-May 1919

Thomas Jefferson’s
Contributions to Natural History

His effort sent out the Lewis and Clark exploring party
into the unknown West. Recognition and honor are given
today to the expedition’s leader, Meriwether Lewis

HE fact that Thomas Jefferson’s best service to mankind was political has limited the world’s estimate of his greatness to one contribution of his useful life. That he was the preeminent statesman of his day as today he is the dominating influence surviving from the first years of the republic, was not owing to a predilection for politics but to his answering the need for a great constructive and safely guiding genius at the beginning of our independent national life. He rejoiced, instead, at the prospect of the studious life. His letters abound in expressions of his desire to retire from the arena in which he was the most notable figure. The one to Dupont de Nemours is often quoted: “Within a few days I retire to my family, my books and farms. . . . Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight.”

Jefferson had a more or less scholarly acquaintance with mechanics, astronomy, meteorology, physics, civil engineering, surgical anatomy, geology, zoology, botany, economic entomology, aeronautics, and paleontology.

And by science he meant more than men do now. It included more than observed facts systematically classified and brought under general laws—he meant by it all that was connoted by the word scientia in the days of its widest acceptation. He was an eager student—going into every field open to him. It would not do to claim profound scholarship for him in all instances; his interests were too catholic, and limitations of time and opportunity so restrained him that the thoroughness of the specialist, often meticulous, was not within his reach. But he had a more or less scholarly acquaintance with mechanics, astronomy, meteorology, physics, civil engineering (mensuration, strength of materials), surgical anatomy, geology, zoology, botany, economic entomology, aeronautics, and paleontology.

While this list transcends in some instances the limits to which “science” is confined by present day definition and intrudes upon the domain of the industrial arts, it is far from embracing all that Jefferson would have included in the meaning of science, scientia, the derivative of all information and skill. His science enabled him to invent a plow, indeed the plow, to construct a barometer, a thermometer, a wind gage, a duplicating writing machine, and what not; to realize West Point for the nation and the National Observatory, to build the University of Virginia and inform it with a spirit and purpose hitherto disregarded.

The student who takes to the highways and byways of knowledge is sure to find wherever he penetrates that Mr. Jefferson has passed along before him with more or less careful observation. After twelve years of faithful, scholarly work in rediscovering and determining the truth of Latin and Celtic accent and rhythm and showing that our traditional rule of Latin pronunciation is at variance with the obvious usage of Latin verse, Professor Thomas Fitz-Hugh, of the University of Virginia, turned in pursuit of another object—for he had published the results of his own discovery—to Jefferson’s essay, Thoughts on English Prosody, and found that he had been anticipated by Jefferson by more than a century, and that nobody had seemed to know it! While Jefferson was the first to assert and use the principle that the pronunciation of an ancient speech cannot contradict the known rhythm of its poetry, Fitz-Hugh has used the principle to reveal a new world of accent and rhythm in Latin and Celtic and to expose the error of the current theory in both fields. “It is well worth while,” Professor Fitz-Hugh warns, “for the scholar and technical scientist of today to examine Jefferson’s reflections upon any field of investigation in which he allows himself to make excursions.”

And so Buffon thought long ago. He had announced his conviction that animals common to the Old and the New worlds are smaller in the latter, that those peculiar to America are smaller, that those domesticated in both have degenerated in the New world, and that the western world has fewer species. Mr. Jefferson collected data and upon ascertained facts based three tables in which he contrasted aboriginals (1) of both the Old and the New worlds, (2) of only one, and (3) of those domesticated in both. The first table showed that of the twenty-six quadrupeds common to both America and Europe, seven are larger in America, seven are of equal size, and as to twelve the facts were not decisive; the second showed that eighteen quadrupeds are peculiar to Europe and seventy-four to America, while one of the American quadrupeds—the tapir—weighs more than all the eighteen of Europe together; and the third failed to sustain Buffon’s theory of animal degeneration in the New world. He did not stop here, but had the bones and skin of the largest moose obtainable, the horns of the caribou, elk, deer, spike-horned buck, and some other large animals sent to Paris. Buffon was convinced, and said to the Virginian: “I should have consulted you, Sir, before publishing my Natural History, and then I should have been sure of my facts.” It is scarcely worth while to inquire whether the great Frenchman was pleased by the revelation of the truth or irritated by defeat.

In 1797 Jefferson was made president of the American Philosophical Society, and took his place officially at the head of the scientific world of his country. Elected Vice President of the United States, he went to Philadelphia to be inaugurated—and took with him the os femoris, a radius, an ulna, three claws, and some other bones of an animal then unknown to science, the giant edentate, allied to the recent sloth. These bones, which he had collected in Greenbrier County, Virginia, he presented to the Philosophical Society, with a statement of the results of his studies in connection with them. His discovery bears the name Megalonyx jeffersonii.

“The spectacle of an American statesman coming to take part as a central figure in the greatest political ceremony of our country and bringing with him an original contribution to the scientific knowledge of the world, is certainly one we shall not soon see repeated.”

“The spectacle of an American statesman coming to take part as a central figure in the greatest political ceremony of our country and bringing with him an original contribution to the scientific knowledge of the world, is certainly one we shall not soon see repeated,” said Frederic N. Luther, writing of Jefferson as a naturalist. “. . . During those exciting weeks,” Mr. Luther continued, “in February, 1801, when Congress was vainly trying to untangle the difficulties arising from the tie vote between Jefferson and Burr, when every politician at the capital was busy with schemes and counter-schemes, this man, whose political fate was balanced on a razor’s edge, was corresponding with Dr. Wistar in regard to some bones of the mastodon which he had just procured from Shawangunk, Ulster County. Again in 1808, when the excitement over the embargo was highest, when every day brought fresh denunciations of him and his policy, he was carrying on his paleontological studies in the rooms of the White House itself. . . . Never for a moment, however apparently absorbed in other work, did he lose his warm sympathy with Nature.” This devotion at that early time won for him less praise than ridicule and blame in his own country. The feeling it evoked was expressed by Bryant, then a boy of thirteen:

Go, wretch, resign the Presidential chair,
Disclose thy secret measures, foul or fair.
Go, search with curious eyes for horned frogs,
’Mid the wild wastes of Louisianian bogs;
Or, where the Ohio rolls his turbid stream,
Dig for huge bones, thy glory and thy theme.

The man thus lampooned was the author of Notes on Virginia which a historian of science, the late G. Brown Goode, of the Smithsonian Institution, declared “is the most important scientific work as yet published in America,” if “measured by its influence.” It was the first comprehensive account of the topography, natural history, and resources of any North American commonwealth, and Goode pronounced it “the precursor of the great library of scientific reports which have since been issued by the state and federal governments.”

He was deeply interested in what was concealed from the world a century and a quarter ago in the great unexplored region between the United States and the western ocean. The mammoth, he believed, might be found roving the great interior plains; indeed, nothing was too much for his credulity. The exploration of the Northwest was one of his fixed purposes, to be carried out at the first opportunity. When John Ledyard reached Paris in 1786, Jefferson, who was there as minister of the United States, believed the hour of the great adventure had arrived. Ledyard had been with Cook on his voyage to the Pacific and had engaged in other adventurous undertakings. He was appraised by Jefferson as “a man of genius” and “of some science,” and the great American soon had him on the way to explore the western part of the North American continent. His itinerary was to take him through St. Petersburg to Kamchatka and thence to Nootka Sound. Ledyard’s arrest by the Prussian government, which regarded the undertaking as impracticable, ended the enterprise, but not Jefferson’s interest in it.

Six years later, in association with the American Philosophical Society, Mr. Jefferson, now Dr. Jefferson by the decrees of Yale and Harvard universities, promoted a subscription for the exploration of the West, and personally became responsible for a thousand guineas of the amount to be raised. Andre Michaux, the noted French botanist and traveler, and Meriwether Lewis, a youth of nineteen, who lived within ten miles of Jefferson’s home in Albemarle County, Virginia, were chosen to make the westward journey. The letter of instructions, which was drawn with Jeffersonian care of details, discloses his interest in natural history. “Under the head of animal history,” Michaux is told, “that of the mammoth is particularly recommended to your inquiries, as it is also to learn whether the Lama or Paca of Peru, is found in those parts of this continent.” Whatever its motive, the French government interfered with the undertaking by charging Michaux with a mission relative to the occupation of Louisiana. Later the French minister canceled the appointment.

Thomas Jefferson by Gilbert Stuart

Thomas Jefferson, c.1821

Gilbert Stuart
(National Gallery of Art)

Ten years afterward Jefferson, then President of the United States, decided that the exploration ought not to be delayed longer. In 1803 the continuance of the act for establishing trading houses with the Indian tribes was under consideration and the President seized upon the opportunity it afforded to propose to Congress, in a confidential message, a party to explore the Missouri to its source and thence to make its way to the Pacific. “. . . other civilized nations have encountered great expense to enlarge the boundaries of knowledge by undertaking voyages of discovery, and for other literary purposes,” Mr. Jefferson contended. “The nation claiming the territory, regarding this as a literary pursuit,”—thus he advanced in his plan to persuade Congress—“would not be disposed to view it with jealousy.” The necessary appropriation for the enterprise could be charged to “the purpose of extending the external commerce of the United States,” which the President would understand as legislative sanction. The bill was passed.

Meriwether Lewis, who was to accompany Michaux, had now been for two years private secretary of President Jefferson, by whom he had been appointed captain of the first regiment of infantry, and was eager to undertake the adventurous journey. “Of courage undaunted,” Mr. Jefferson wrote of him, “possessing a firmness and perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from its direction, careful as a father of those committed to his charge, yet steady in the maintenance of order and discipline, intimate with the Indian character, customs, and principles; habituated to the hunting life, guarded by exact observation of the vegetables and animals of his own country against losing time in the description of objects already possessed; honest, disinterested, liberal, of sound understanding, and a fidelity to truth so scrupulous that whatever he should report would be as certain as if seen by ourselves—with all these qualifications as if selected and implanted by nature in one body for this express purpose, I could have no hesitation in confiding the enterprise to him. To fill up the measure desired, he wanted nothing but a greater familiarity with the technical language of the natural sciences, and readiness in the astronomical observations necessary for the geography of his route. To acquire these he repaired immediately to Philadelphia, and placed himself under the tutorage of the distinguished professors of that place.”

Meriwether Lewis, who was to accompany Michaux, had now been for two years private secretary of President Jefferson, by whom he had been appointed captain of the first regiment of infantry, and was eager to undertake the adventurous journey.

With Lewis Mr. Jefferson associated William Clark, a brother of George Rogers Clark, the Hannibal of the West (George Rogers Clark, born in Virginia in 1752, won fame as soldier, surveyor, and Indian fighter. He was known as the conqueror of the large area northwest of the Ohio River, which was practically reclaimed from the warlike Indian tribes by him. He died in Kentucky February 18, 1818, and lies buried in an unmarked grave in Louisville), and, like him, a born leader of men, a soldier and an expert in woodcraft and in knowledge of Indian character. The other members of the party were fourteen United States soldiers, nine volunteers, Clark’s colored valet (York), and an interpreter and his Indian wife.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition was a high adventure with vast results, whose characterization transcends the scope of a sketch. An abundant and thrilling literature has resulted, and will be increased. The first installment of the story was written—as was appropriate—by Mr. Jefferson in his message “communicating discoveries made in exploring the Missouri, Red river, and Washita by Captains Lewis and Clark.” While the record in books is ample, in marble and bronze it has been singularly scant, as in the case of Clark’s elder brother, George Rogers Clark.

The members of the exploring party were the first white men to traverse the region now mapped as the states of Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. Meriwether Lewis, the leader, who contributed to our knowledge of the customs, manners, and languages of the American Indians, has had until recently, so far as my information goes, a single visible memorial. In Lewis County, Tennessee, “in the midst of wild and romantic scenery, surrounded only by the native growth of the forest and where but few travelers pass, there stands a gray stone monument composed of native rock, with a shaft of limestone in imitation of a giant of the forest untimely broken,” the tribute of the General Assembly of Tennessee rendered to Meriwether Lewis in 1848. (Since writing this I have been informed of a monument to Lewis and Clark in Portland, Oregon, but I have not been able to obtain facts relative to the artist or to the details of its erection).

Another memorial is now on the eve of inauguration in Charlottesville, Virginia, the home town of Lewis until he enlisted in the army at the time of the Pennsylvania whiskey insurrection. This monument, the work of Charles Keck, of New York, is a group in bronze, and commemorates the moment when Lewis and Clark had their first view of the Pacific. They stand at gaze, with Sacajawea, the squaw guide and only woman of the party, bending forward, intent on the scene. The group is the gift of Paul Goodloe McIntire, of Charlottesville.


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