Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the American Declaration of Independence, third president of the United States, and an influential political philosopher, was a man of widely diversified interests. Born in Virginia on April 13, 1743, the son of Jane Randolph and Peter Jefferson, a civil engineer. He entered William and Mary College in Williamsburg at the age of 16. There he acquired an interest in mathematics and natural sciences, and studied foreign and classical languages (becoming fluent in French, Greek, Latin, Spanish, Italian and Anglo-Saxon). In time he became interested in the study of law as a force for social and cultural development, and after five years of study was admitted to the bar in 1767. He had little taste for routine law practice, however, and abandoned it after a few years to devote his time to political action and philosophy.
Though impressive, his political career was far from absorbing all of his energy. He retained his early love of mathematics and natural science, was skilled and creative as an architect and inventor, enjoyed scientific farming and meteorological studies, and attained some fame as a paleontologist. At his personally designed plantation ("Monticello") he built a small museum, acquiring for it many of the products of the New World, including fossils and mineral specimens. He also assembled a substantial library including a number of mineralogical works, including Haüy's Traite de Minéralogie (1801), Cronstedt's Essay Towards a System of Mineralogy (1788), Cramer's Elements of the Art of Assaying Metals (1741), Hamilton's Observations on Mount Vesuvius (1774) and others.
Annoyed by the claim of the French naturalist Buffon that all American species were somehow inferior to those of the European continent, Jefferson sought plenty of examples to prove otherwise. He disdained laboratory work as stifling, and considered the study of chemistry as mostly wasted effort, but he enjoyed geological field work and prospecting, and carried with him a traveling blowpipe kit and a set of analytical chemicals. His interest in minerals was of an entirely practical nature, based on their utility to manufacturing.
Jefferson's years in Paris as U.S. minister to France (1785-1789) had exposed him to the scientific intelligentsia. Like Benjamin Franklin, who held that post in Paris before him (1776-1785), he socialized with the important naturalists and mineralogists of his day. Franklin had even brought back a collection of Derbyshire minerals, which he later donated to Charles Willson Peal's museum in Philadelphia. Jefferson became a friend of Peale's as well, helping him in the acquisition of important large fossil skeletons. Peale's main purpose in the establishment of his large, public natural history museum in 1786 was to promote the scientific and religious enlightenment of his countrymen through the display of his many stuffed animals, insects, minerals, fossils and marine life. Jefferson (classifiable as a "creationist" in modern terminology), fully approved, and later turned over to Peale a large proportion of the plant, animal and mineral specimens brought back by Lewis and Clark's expedition.
Although somewhat skeptical of geology as a useful science (Jefferson objected to its uncertainty and lack of practical utility), he encouraged Samuel Latham Mitchell (1764-1831), professor of geology at Columbia College and an enthusiastic mineral collector, to translate Cuvier's Essay on the Theory of the Earth. Jefferson also included mineralogy in the curriculum of the University of Virginia, despite the chronic shortage of properly identified study collections in the United States at that time.
Jefferson died on the 4th of July, 1826. Monticello has been thoroughly preserved and restored today as a unique national landmark. But regrettably, all of Jefferson's mineral specimens are gone.
WILSON, W.E. (1994) The history of mineral collecting 1530-1799. Mineralogical Record, 25 (6), 241 pp.
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