Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Charles Willson Peale, 1791, National Park Service.


Natural history was an important aspect of the expansion of knowledge in the Early Republic.

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson was a leading proponent of the study of natural history. As a member of the APS “committee to collect information respecting the past and present state of this country.” he was instrumental in procuring artifacts and skeletons of previously unknown animals like the Mammoth.

"You will, in the course of your journey, take notice of the country you pass through, it’s general face, soil, rivers, mountains, it’s productions animal, vegetable, and mineral so far as they may be new to us and may also be useful or very curious; the latitude of places or materials for calculating it by such simple methods as your situation may admit you to practice, the names, numbers, and dwellings of the inhabitants, and such particularities as you can learn of their history, connection with each other, languages, manners, state of society and of the arts and commerce among them." 1

Jeffersonians and Federalists began to struggle over the proper expression of knowledge. Jeffersonians focused on the description of the natural world while Federalists focused on classical knowledge. Many Federalists made fun of Jefferson and portrayed him as a fool with a shovel randomly digging throughout the backwoods of Virginia.2

Mammoth Teeth

Thomas Jefferson Fossil Collection : Housed at the Academy of Natural Sciences provides excellent examples of artifacts that document the begining of American paleontology. This is one example of the teeth of the American Mastadon.



More information here.

Extinction and ideas of God's universe

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American Degeneracy

In America, therefore, animated Nature is weaker, less active, and more circumscribed in the variety of her productions; for we perceive, from the enumeration of the American animals, that the numbers of species is not only fewer, but that, in general, all the animals are much smaller than those of the Old Continent. --George Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707-1788)

Jefferson addressed the American Philosophical Society in 1797 discussing the discovery of a beast that was believed to be a large cat unknown to the scientific world. The Megalonyx or Great-Claw was believed to be three times the size of an African lion. This is significant because of it refutes the idea expressed by Comte de Buffon asserting that all species in the New World are less developed and inferior. This idea was known as American Degeneracy.

1 The Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, ed. Barbara B. Oberg and J. Jefferson Looney. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008. Canonic URL: [accessed 13 Feb 2010] Original source: Main Series, Volume 25 (1 January–10 May 1793)

2 Linda K Kerber, Federalists in Dissent; Imagery and Ideology in Jeffersonian America (Ithaca [N.Y.]: Cornell University Press, 1970).