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The Revolving Bookstand: Jefferson’s Shadow

Gaye Wilson

What We're Reading:
Jefferson’s Shadow: The Story of His Science

What author could more effectively tell the story of Thomas Jefferson and his fascination with science than Keith Thomson? Dr. Thomson is a professor emeritus of natural history at the University of Oxford, was a professor and dean at Yale University, and is currently the executive director of the American Philosophical Society. Since 2007 he has returned several times to the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello as a visiting scholar to research Jefferson’s interest in fossils, botany, anthropology, geology and mineralogy as well as Jefferson’s extensive collection of books on science. -----And here lies the strength of this book.

Given the author’s knowledge of science and its history in the western world, Thomson can evaluate Jefferson’s intellectual contributions within the context of the eighteenth century. He considers Jefferson’s interest in natural history (study of what is) and assesses his abilities in natural philosophy (study of what it means). In the introduction he puts forward the question as to whether Jefferson was a “dilettante”, a “typical Virginia gentleman-philosopher” or whether he was capable of making genuine contributions to the science of his day. In the following chapters he explores this question and presents how Jefferson approached and used his science in many interrelated ways. In introducing us to Thomas Jefferson, scientist, he gives us glimpses as well into Jefferson the mentor, teacher and most of all the passionate citizen and nation-builder. What makes this book even more convincing is that Thomson’s assessments are balanced and appear neither condescending toward Jefferson nor apologetic, but he speaks as a true and impartial scientific investigator.

Jefferson’s one book-length work, a natural history titled, Notes on the State of Virginia, often serves as the platform from which Thomson begins his discussions. He credits Notes as gaining Jefferson recognition as a man of science among his eighteenth century contemporaries and goes on to explain how Jefferson’s book was both an exercise in scientific observation and assessment while satisfying political objectives as well. Jefferson aimed much of his text at the French naturalist, the Comte de Buffon, who had written that the animals and indigenous peoples of the inhospitable North American continent were small and degenerate when compared to those of the Old World. European immigrants and their animals could also begin to degenerate within a few generations. This was not an idea conducive to immigration and economic growth, and thus Jefferson’s need to refute these claims. Though Notes began as a report on his home country, Jefferson ranged beyond the borders of Virginia and his work became a testament to the riches of North America in its geography, minerals, its waterways, climate, plants, animals, plus the character and abilities of the Native American inhabitants. Jefferson’s observations and collections of data on the natural world around him is still noteworthy, however it is his comments on race as put forward in Notes that have remained a contentious point of discussion among many modern readers.

Thomson’s book has three chapters devoted to Jefferson’s provocative statements about race, color and slavery.  These chapters are excellent examples of the author’s ability to place these controversial issues into the thinking of the eighteenth century. He compares Jefferson’s thoughts with those of other important European writers such as Buffon, Voltaire, Maupertius, and Scottish writer David Hume along with comments from Jefferson’s American contemporaries. Thomson makes no excuses for Jefferson’s attitudes toward race but does give us some indication has to how he may have arrived at his conclusions. He presents clearly the paradox of a Jefferson who abhorred and feared the outcome of the practice of slavery and the degradation it imposed on both master and slave yet saw the black race as inferior and incapable of amalgamation into a white society. In contrast, Jefferson strongly defended the Native American Indians against European accusations of their degeneracy and contended that they, unlike the African-Americans, could be incorporated into American society. Jefferson joined other scientists in suppositions as to the causes in the differences in race, color, and as to whether all were of the same species.

Jefferson’s Shadow becomes almost a biography, as it tells Jefferson’s story but through science rather than a chronological ordering of events. Still Thomson gives us the necessary background of Jefferson’s youth and education as an explanation of his bent toward science and then follows Jefferson as minister plenipotentiary to Paris, where the world of the latest in scientific ideas and discoveries was opened to him, from the attempts in flight with hot-air balloons to the many applications of the steam engine. During his presidency he was able to focus on the great unknown West of North America and sort the data that returned from the expeditions he was instrumental in organizing. It is in one of his concluding chapters that Thomson addresses the event for which Jefferson is best known---the writing of the Declaration of Independence. He debates the influence of scientific thought and terminology within this historic document. Was there something Newtonian inherent in Jefferson’s famous composition along with the obvious links to John Locke? Thomson calls upon many sources to debate the substance of Jefferson’s language, and makes the discussion interesting and easy to follow. This is another positive aspect of this book. With his very clear writing style, Thomson is able to guide us through what could become an obtuse and difficult narrative in a clear and approachable manner.

Thomson concludes Jefferson’s Shadow by stating that “Jefferson followed a career that was a constant search for truths to hold on to. . .” and reminds us that “sometimes he found himself unable to integrate opposing ‘truths’ into one belief, and that led him into irreconcilable conflicts that confuse and infuriate modern readers.” Jefferson remains a paradox in many ways, but viewing him within the context of science, his ever present “Shadow,” Thomson offers us another approach to understanding his thoughts and actions that still remain pertinent today.

Gaye Wilson, Shannon Senior Historian
Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello

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