JEFFERSON AND SCIENCE -- At the Museum of American History through July 5.
If anyone had ever laid hold of Long Tom Jefferson by the heels and shaken him, the articles that cascaded from his pockets might well have included:
A pocket thermometer; a silver-cased set of miniature drafting instruments; a handsome brass-bound telescope; a mastodon tooth; the best watch made in London; a flask of fine wine; a Mandan Indian bone war whistle; a cipher wheel; a compass; the right metacarpal of an extinct musk ox; a magnifying glass; a pocket knife the Swiss Army would envy; a scarifictor; a stone ax; seeds enough to plant a homestead; spectacles with popout lenses for near or distant vision; and a notebook made of thin leaves of ivory, whose "pages" could be wiped clean and used again.
The notes might on any given day include:
Observations on political, moral, aboriginal, industrial, horticulture and prehistoric aspects of Virginia; land surveys; weather reports; mileage tables; the use of the Borda circle; the extraction of fresh water from the ocean; on how to plow and when to plant; on vaccination against smallpox; on his worldwide correspondence; on the grammatical structures of various Amerindian languages;
Other pockets would disgorge sketches:
Of a private observatory; of a swivel chair; of a travelling music stand for quintets; of herbs and flowers; of a serpentine brick wall; of a moldboard plow; of a dumbwaiter; of a rotating table-service; of an elaborate hodometer; of his farms and gardens.
But of course nobody ever did shake the Hon. Thomas Jefferson by the heels, because he was a towering great vigorous fellow, a fiery redhead full of Virginian punctilio, equally handy with his fists or pistol or sword. In fact his time at the College of William & Mary was such a rake's progress it is a wonder that he grew into a (or the) leading American intellectual of his time.
We can see what was in Jefferson's pockets -- and on his mind -- because Smithsonian historian Silvio A. Bedini has spent two decades studying his life and tracing scattered Jeffersonia. His trove has been distilled to six dozen items that went on display this week at the Museum of American History.
"He has long been described as a Renaissance man because of his curiosity and ingenuity and the depth and diversity of his interest," Bedini said. "I don't think the term does him justice; I call America's Leonardo." Bedini, who is working on a book called Jefferson: Statesman of Science, agonized for months over the indispensable things that had to be left out of the tight corner assigned to the exhibit.
President Jefferson turned the East Room of the White House into a museum, especially after the return of the Lewis & Clark Expedition from the West; when he left office he took most of the items home and installed them in the front hall at Monticello. After his death most of the items were scattered, but Bedini has managed to trace, if not recover, virtually everything but the mineral collection. "It went to the University of Virginia, and I think the minerals got commingled with others in the evacuation during the great fire."
The Smithsonian display concentrates on Jefferson the scientist, which Bedini regards as the least recognized of his many simultaneous careers. While he did some very respectable original work, including the excavation of an Indian mound by a stratigraphic technique that was a century ahead of its time, his most valuable contribution was as a promoter of science, Bedini said.
"From the American Embassy in London he kept American universities informed in detail of the progress of European science. In this country he corresponded with leading men in all disciplines, giving ideas, encouragement and support. He oversaw the scientific outfitting and training of the Lewis and Clark personnel. He deserves the major credit for making paleontology respectable in this country . . ."
Professor Bedini talked himself hoarse while showing a visitor around, and still despaired of describing Jefferson the scientist adequately in less than book length. The book we must wait for, but a catalogue Bedini prepared for the exhibit is on sale on the museum shops for $2.