Thomas Jefferson’s Contributions to Natural History

His effort sent out the Lewis and Clark exploring party into the unknown West.

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,” 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.

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