Who is the liar now?

Posted in: Research, A Summary View, Thomas Jefferson

For my Fake TJ Stories files, and for the edification of our 6 devoted readers, I offer the following Reference Question Tale:

It is claimed, by websites and other sources various and sundry, that Thomas Jefferson, upon hearing of a meteorite crash in Connecticut in 1807 and its subsequent reportage by two professors at Yale, scoffed that it "was easier to believe that two Yankee professors could lie than to admit that stones could fall from heaven."

For doing all the hard work on tracking down this spurious TJ quotation, I am indebted to the late Silvio Bedini (although I must say that his footnotes led me on an annoying, er, merry chase).  Bedini referred only generally to the ultimate source of this story, but I finally located it in American Contributions to Chemistry: An Address Delivered on the Occasion of the Celebration of the Centennial of Chemistry, at Northumberland, PA., August 1, 1874, by Benjamin Silliman, of Yale College (reprinted from the American Chemist for August-September and December, 1874.)

To back up and explain just a bit, Bedini (in Thomas Jefferson: Statesman of Science, 386-8) relates that a shower of meteorites fell near Weston, Connecticut in December of 1807.  Two Yale professors, Benjamin Silliman and James Kingsley, investigated the event and published their findings in the Connecticut Herald.  The report found its way from there to the American Philosophical Society, the Royal Society of London, and the Académie Royale des Sciences.

Which brings us to TJ's supposed statement regarding the credibility of said Yale professors.  To all appearances, the statement actually originated with the 1874 address (given by the son of the same name of the original Silliman).  When I tracked down the original text, I saw that he actually expressed it thusly:

Thomas Jefferson, then president of the American Philosophical Society, is reported to have said on this occasion, in the well-known language of David Hume regarding miracles, "that it was easier to believe that two Yankee Professors could lie than to admit that stones could fall from heaven" - a remarkable evidence of the limited knowledge of such subjects then prevailing in this country, even in the minds of the most cultivated people.

In actual fact, Jefferson's reaction to news of this phenomenon was certainly cautious, but nowhere near as benighted as Silliman the Younger suggests.  He wrote to Daniel Salmon on 15 February 1808:

We certainly are not to deny whatever we cannot account for. A thousand phenomena present themselves daily which we cannot explain, but where facts are suggested, bearing no analogy with the laws of nature as yet known to us, their verity needs proofs proportioned to their difficulty. A cautious mind will weigh well the opposition of the phenomenon to everything hitherto observed, the strength of the testimony by which it is supported, and the errors and misconceptions to which even our senses are liable. It may be very difficult to explain how the stone you possess came into the position in which it was found. But is it easier to explain how it got into the clouds from whence it is supposed to have fallen? The actual fact however is the thing to be established, and this I hope will be done by those whose situations and qualifications enable them to do it.  I salute you with respect. (Transcription from Lipscomb-Bergh 11:441-2 - the polygraph copy of this letter is online here.)

I have yet to track down the "well-known language of David Hume" that Silliman Jr. refers to.  If I ever find anything in that regard, you'll surely hear of it in a subsequent blog entry.  But otherwise, I believe it is safe to say that what we have here is a little bit of irony (and I hope my seventh-grade English teacher, Mrs. Early, would agree): Benjamin Silliman's statement that Jefferson said "that it was easier to believe that two Yankee Professors could lie than to admit that stones could fall from heaven" is itself a lie.  By a Yankee professor.

Comments

says

I believe the "well-known language of David Hume" may be found here: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/hume-miracles.asp

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