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What Would TJ Do?

The Nation’s Third President: Tea Partier or Enlightened Science Advocate?

From the Editor: This is the first in our three-part series about the founding fathers’ relationships with science.

Many of our nation’s first political leaders were also leading scientists in their day, conducting research, founding academies of scientific learning, and inventing new methods and technologies, some of which are still in use today.

Each Monday for the next three weeks we’ll be looking at a different founding father and asking, what might he have to say about the big science questions in politics today? To get us started we ask “what would Thomas Jefferson do,” or WWTJD, about climate, vaccines, and evolution?

Next week, George Washington and natural gas fracking.


What Would TJ Do?

When it comes to political rhetoric, throwbacks to the founding fathers of our Republic reign supreme. On both sides of the aisle, it seems impossible to make a political argument not predicated upon what George Washington would have wanted. And it’s not just the founding fathers—a common trope on the conservative end of the spectrum is that “Ronald Reagan” serves as a sufficient counterpoint to any argument.

The rule of thumb seems to be: If you’ve got an old dead guy on your side, you’re golden. And lately, if you believe the media, it seems as though all the old dead guys have aligned politically with the right. This makes sense as a natural extension of the conservative ideology, which seeks to maintain tradition and stares longingly into the past with pangs of nostalgia. But perhaps it is time for the left to reclaim its stake in the political behemoths of the past—a past that is replete with progressive tradition, especially when it comes to the promotion of science. Indeed, among our founding fathers can be found astronomers, medical doctors, observational biologists, and inventors of many sorts.

The right wing has a tenuous relationship with Thomas Jefferson, for instance, when it comes to his attention to academia, which flies in the face of the anti-intellectualism movement. Through his entire life, Thomas Jefferson, like many of his contemporaries, was committed to the scientific method and progressive science policy.

To be fair, some allegations flung about in political rhetoric regarding the third president have credence. An ardent antifederalist, Thomas Jefferson believed that a centralized government would prove cataclysmic for the fledgling United States, and thought it best that America be divided into as minute of municipalities as possible, to be governed by the yeoman farmer ideal. Jefferson famously opposed the establishment of a centralized bank, bemoaning the state of credit in Europe. There are rational grounds from which to speculate Jefferson might have been sympathetic toward the Tea Party.

Yet most of what we know about Jefferson suggests he would oppose the right wing’s extremist, antiscience fringe. For instance, the Tea Party campaigned to require schools to show a movie, “A More Perfect Union,” distributed by a conservative group that describes the founding of America as a “divine miracle.” Having penned his own version of the Bible sans miracles, Jefferson probably would not have approved. After a series of correspondences with Dr. Benjamin Rush detailing his conception of deism, Jefferson rewrote the gospels, editing out most mentions of the supernatural. The Jefferson Bible reflected his ambition to represent the natural world as accurately as possible—a value that lent itself to a lifelong love affair with scientific inquiry.

In 1797, after having served on the board for some time, Thomas Jefferson was elected president of the American Philosophical Society, or APS. In the 18th century, “philosophical” took on several meanings that are now considered vestigial connotations of the word.

One of those meanings pertained to science; in fact, the APS was more analogous to science and research nonprofits back in the day. Jefferson commissioned the society, for instance, in the Lewis and Clark Expedition. In exchange for providing invaluable scientific resources to the explorers, the explorers deposited many of their journals and artifacts into the society’s archives. Jefferson also promoted the study of the Hessian fly, which was destroying crops in the region, and requested a whole skeleton of a woolly mammoth. Through his devotion to the APS, Jefferson demonstrated a decades-long commitment to the national pursuit of scientific advancement.

In light of the constant public deference to our nation’s founders, it is interesting to consider where Thomas Jefferson may have fallen on contemporary issues. Though it is somewhat arrogant to speak for the dead, especially in the cases of these monumental figures, with some historical context, we can make educated guesses as to what the great minds of the past would think of hot-button issues of today.

WWTJD on climate change?

Jefferson had a profound appreciation for the importance of the climate to economy. Ever the renaissance man, Jefferson was also an amateur meteorologist, rising every morning to record the temperature at Monticello. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson wrote:

A change in our climate however is taking place very sensibly. Both heats and colds are become much more moderate within the memory even of the middle-aged. Snows are less frequent and less deep.

No doubt Jefferson would have devoured material on theories that could account for this phenomenon.

An avid farmer, Jefferson redesigned the plow with his son-in-law to achieve greater planting efficiency. He manufactured his plow from iron, as opposed to his contemporaries’ wooden plows, and his was specially designed for hillside plowing. This innovation suggests Jefferson may have taken a keen interest in making industrial agriculture more sustainable. Creating jobs in agriculture would have been an added plus for the man who believed farmers to be the chief moral and political operators in society.

Finally, Jefferson demonstrated modern attitudes toward sustainable eating. In a letter to Dr. Vine Utley, he wrote that he ate temperately, and by many accounts he consumed a mostly vegetarian diet. Though no records show he conducted any systematic research on nutrition, TJ’s hunch that eating his vegetables would be beneficial served him to his old age of 83.

WWTJD on vaccines and medical research?

Thomas Jefferson was generally suspicious of the medical practices of his time. He held that folk medicine was grounded in erroneous theory rather than empirically derived facts, and opposed practices such as purging and bloodletting. Jefferson once lamented that the “state of medicine is worse than that of total ignorance.” Jefferson nonetheless treated his own myriad physical ailments, notably using quinine to alleviate severe migraines that plagued him his entire life.

The view that medicine was ineffective also did not preclude him from getting his family vaccinated from smallpox—a procedure that was not without considerable controversy at the time.

In fact, inoculation in the colonies sparked riots in Norfolk, Virginia. In 1768 Dr. Archibald Campbell and Dr. John Dalgleish brought the smallpox vaccine to Norfolk County, precipitating violent demonstrations that would culminate in the burning of Dr. Campbell’s house. Jefferson, still practicing law at the time, agreed to represent Dr. Campbell in a civil suit filed against the perpetrators. Though Jefferson resigned his practice before the resolution of the case, he would later advocate the repeal of anti-inoculation laws in the Virginia General Assembly.

Jefferson extended his support of vaccination beyond mere political advocacy. In 1801 Jefferson collaborated with Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse in experimenting with a less virulent cowpox vaccine. After that, he led a local campaign in Charlottesville to get his family, his slaves, and his neighbors vaccinated. Needless to say, Jefferson would have been quietly appalled by the recent uproar over vaccines that has recently dominated the presidential primary news cycle.

Although, on the whole, Jefferson favored a more limited government, he made exceptions when it came to the pursuit of knowledge—probably because he recognized the importance of advancing science and technology. In light of his vaccine activism, it may be safe to say that he would have condoned or even supported funding for the NIH. Jefferson demonstrated such support for medical research in 1793, when he laid the foundations for pharmacological innovation with his patent statute. True to his cautious nature, he tailored the act to protect inventors, while ensuring the system could not be abused so as to monopolize innovation.

WWTJD on teaching evolution in schools?

Even in the 18th and 19th centuries, Thomas Jefferson knew that the earth was more than 6,000 years old. In fact, Jefferson was an archaeologist himself, and he invented several techniques that are still in use today. Observing rituals at an Indian burial ground made an impression on Jefferson at age 8; as a young man, Jefferson returned to the site, just north of Charlottesville, for exploration. It was there that Jefferson revolutionized American archaeological technique by replacing top-down digging with careful removal of wedges with respect to their stratigraphy.

Due to his insistence that Meriwether Lewis take notes on the excavation of the Big Bone Lick in painstaking detail, naturalists concluded that the mastodon and the mammoth were, in fact, two distinct species. Jefferson was resistant, however, to the idea of extinction, which contradicted his worldview of the “completeness of nature,” an idea that the earth and the cosmos exist in a perfect continuity governed by natural law.

After examining the fossils of what he believed to be a massive lion (later determined to be a giant sloth and honored with his namesake—the Megalonyx jeffersonii), Jefferson demanded Lewis and Clark’s vigilance for a Megalonyx sighting, certain that the creature was extant. Confirmation would support his completeness-of-nature theory. While this might seem inconsistent with today’s scientific consensus on evolution, the fact that Jefferson requested evidence to support his theory suggests he was receptive to being disproved, and therefore dedicated to the scientific method. After all, it was Jefferson who said, “we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

Given that he died five years before Darwin’s famous voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, it is impossible to know whether Jefferson would have changed his mind, especially in light of the intellectual rigidity he acquired in old age. Nevertheless, Jefferson’s commitment to empiricism and penchant for fossil collecting may have made room for Darwin’s finches.

Jefferson once wrote that “democracy cannot long exist without enlightenment,” and “that talent and virtue, needed in a free society, should be educated regardless of wealth, birth or other accidental condition.” Coupled with the belief that an educated populace was imperative for universal suffrage, Jefferson would probably have supported the dissemination of this knowledge in public schools.

In 1778 Jefferson presented his “Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge,” which would serve as the precursor to public education. As a cornerstone of this education, Jefferson supported the teaching of a variety of subjects, encouraging science especially at the university level. This led to the founding of the University of Virginia in 1819, in what Jefferson considered his crowning achievement in education advocacy. Today the University of Virginia has an impressive evolutionary biology department.

TJ’s science legacy

In recent weeks Jefferson has been credited with the ability to see into the future, the opposition of abortion, and to have been just kidding about the separation between church and state. Although he was certainly bound by the limitations of his time, Dumas Malone, a prominent Jefferson biographer, wrote that Jefferson “lamented that public affairs had taken him from the path of study and inquiry for which Nature really intended him.”

So perhaps in order to avoid that rumbling of the founding fathers turning in their graves (what—you thought that was an earthquake originating just miles east of Charlottesville?), we ought to leave Jefferson out of the political volleying over science and safely nestled in the annals of his favorite hobbies, which is where he wanted to be all along.

Lauren Simenauer is finishing her bachelor’s degrees in biology and psychology at the University of Virginia, the best university ever … founded by Thomas Jefferson.

Next week, we ask: What would George Washington do about natural gas fracking?

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