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  • A Passion for Nature: Thomas Jefferson and Natural History
  • Peter S. Onuf (bio)

Thomas Jefferson, Natural history, Native Americans, Nature

A Passion for Nature: Thomas Jefferson and Natural History. By Keith Thomson. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press; distributed for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Pp. 148. Paperback, $14.95.)

Keith Thomson's engaging study offers an attractive portrait of the Sage of Monticello that does not overlook or explain away the great man's controversial positions on race and slavery but instead provides us with a fresh framework for understanding his paradoxes and contradictions. "Jefferson's natural history and his views of the grander sweep of nature were always as contradictory as the rest of his life," Thomson concludes: "he both admired the Indians and helped annihilate them; he believed [End Page 323] that all men were created equal," but "could not emancipate" his slaves (124-25).

As a man of the Enlightenment, Jefferson was a "controller and improver" (17), seeking to shape both the landscape and the enslaved people at Monticello in ways that promoted the welfare and security of this self-described "patriarch" and his dependents. His crushing burden of debt marked his ultimate failure as a farmer and culminated in the liquidation of his estate and the sale of his slaves. Jefferson was sustained by his lifelong "passion" for nature, but the "idealist" was "caught, as we all are, in the web of his times" (125). Jefferson's Enlightenment had its limits, but so did the Enlightenment project generally. A Passion for Nature illuminates those limits.

Thomson's distinguished career as a modern-day "natural philosopher" and student of evolution, paleontology, and the history of science has prepared him well to take a fresh look at his early American counterpart. Students of Jefferson are, of course, familiar with Jefferson's scientific interests, and fine studies by Daniel Boorstin, Karl Lehman, Charles Miller, Maurizio Valsania, and others have established the significance of natural philosophy for his social theory and political anthropology.1 But Thomson's mastery of the emerging disciplines that so engaged Jefferson gives his account of Jefferson's passion particular authority. Far more than the genteel affectation of a provincial planter, ambitious to make a place for himself in the "republic of letters," Jefferson's engagement with nature had deeper roots, in his attachment to his father's land and to the home he spent his adult life building, and never completing, on the top of his small mountain. He urged his daughter Martha to keep meticulous records of everything that happened at Monticello when he was away, from daily weather reports to "the first appearance" of frogs, birds, and peas. This data was of great value to the natural historian and his like-minded correspondents, but, as Thomson astutely notes, "he also wants to be reminded of home" (19).

Enlightenment "science" was, in Jefferson's day, "divided into two streams: natural history and natural philosophy." Ironically, given the [End Page 324] contemporaneous (and still influential) caricature of Jefferson as a visionary (or crackpot) philosopher, he was much more at home in the empirical world of the natural historian, discovering, describing, and identifying organisms and "organizing . . . data about the natural world." Philosophers sought to explain "the 'how' and 'why' of nature," experimenting rather than observing, and speculating about nature's laws (44). Progressive as he might have been about the human prospect in the great "republican experiment" he helped launch, Jefferson, the cautious natural historian, was not prepared to embrace a dynamic conception of nature, with old species—like the mammoth or mastodon—dying away, and new species emerging and evolving. If God's creation was not complete, how could the historian ever hope to grasp its complexity and explain its operations? For Jefferson, Linnaeus's system "represented nothing less than a common language that anyone in the world could understand," and so use to understand the world (52). This was a "democratic" Enlightenment for observant amateurs like Jefferson who were capable of adding to a growing stock of knowledge.

Jefferson demonstrated his scientific sophistication in his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, with its systematic Linnaean compendia of the...


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