Thomas Jefferson: America’s first great innovator

Thomas Jefferson might be history’s busiest polymath. His numerous letters work in tandem with the wealth of musings published since his death to illustrate a mind charged by unrest and immense productivity.

All the literature mentioned above herald an innovator with remarkable range. His role, for instance, in the Barbary Wars at once perplexed his views on emancipation, planted the seed for what we know as the U.S Navy and served as a prelude to America’s long-standing refusal to bargain for liberty.

Twenty-five years of reserved authority saw him father the library of congress, pen the declaration of independence and found the University of Virginia. His agricultural and medical contributions are a testament to his private subscription to deism and are fueled by his prophetic instincts.

A man of the land

Jefferson officially established his agricultural legacy with “A General Gardening Calendar,” a collection of his meditations debuting in The American Farmer in 1824.

The generalist famously possessed a predilection for agronomy- occasioned via the curation of one of the most eclectic gardens in history. His massive Monticello masterwork, pioneered the culinary importance of vegetables by emboldening their presence in the preconceived notions of a balanced diet. The same dietary regimen that enabled Jefferson to evade the scythe until the age of 84, has since maintained an esteemed place in contemporary regard.

Pedestrian fixtures like mashed potatoes, French fries, and fried eggplant were at one time viewed by many to be curious if not welcomed features of his white house dinner table, all of which were nods to his intimate knowledge of the epicurean traditions observed by France, Spain and the Mediterranean.

Though you couldn’t properly categorize Jefferson as a vegetarian he rarely ate meat, stating: “I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, & that, not as an ailment so much as a condiment for the vegetables, which constitute my principal diet.”

This, no doubt, contributed to the impression of vitality remarked upon by those who knew him well. His grandson, Randolph– when questioned on the subject, handsomely recalled a man of strength and “robust health..his carriage erect; step firm and elastic, which he preserved to his death; his temper, naturally strong, under perfect control; his courage cool and impassive . .”

The latter portion of Randolph’s characterization is consistent with what we know of Jefferson as an inventor–a title he boasted sans the unhinged madness that oft accompanies it. The instruments dreamed up by Jefferson owed equal gratitude to practicality and a wealth of cultural influences.

The inspiration to construct the Moldboard plow, which enabled farmers to manage a deeper furrow, only occurred to him during his time serving as a minister to France. There, he studied European methods intimately.

Despite the enthusiastic reception the light-iron-clad device earned from his colleagues, Jefferson never sought to patent it. In fact, the extent of its popularity is not really known save The French Society of Agriculture awarding Jefferson membership as a foreign associate on its behalf. This innovation like a good many others was beholden much more to viability than ego.

When his dearest Martha, bemoaned the invasion of pests wreaking havoc on her crops, the prolific agronomist responded with a postulation that we now understand as rudimentary.

“We will try this winter to cover our garden with a heavy coating of manure. When rich it bids defiance to droughts, yields in abundance, and of the best quality. I suspect that the insects which have harassed you have been encouraged by the feebleness of your plants; and that has been produced by the lean state of the soil.”

Similarly, Jefferson’s influences on the preservation of vaccinations (notably derived from his smallpox vaccine trials) suggest a man pulled every which way by many burgeoning talents. Or as the late Christopher Hitchens put it: “He could have easily elected to do something other than politics and have perhaps been not as well known but equally successful in the chosen field.”

Action and delineation

Jefferson’s precocity is well documented, but a savage thirst for knowledge too played a role in rearing the Promethean author of independence. When his father, Peter Jefferson, died in 1757, Thomas inherited his extensive library.  Unfortunately, the contents within were largely destroyed by a fire some 13 years later.

The heir at once set out to resurrect his father’s collection at Monticello–this library as many already know would go on to be sold to Congress in 1815 as solace for the British Invasion that decimated its own volumes but a year prior.

Jefferson’s massive libraries (let’s not forget the impressive collection of Poplar Forest) were partly composed of books given to him by George Wythe, the very man that played such a crucial part in forging Jefferson’s often overlooked but undoubtedly impressive law career. Jefferson’s tenure unsurprisingly focused on matters concerning common farmers and indentured servants-pleas of the yeoman; one of the 900 land affairs he handled involved a biracial man unlawfully bound to servitude-(in case you thought our third president was anything resembling resolute on the topic of slavery).

True, these formative years, were peppered with the clashes with his mentor, Wythe, that many scholars find so compelling, (a dispute between the two regarding the quarrel of brothers over a will resulted in a 252 paged publication indexing their highly technical arguments.)  But they, more importantly, saw Jefferson nurture his fascination with natural law.

Though Law has become something like the red-headed stepchild of Jefferson’s vocations, it was an unmistakable precursor to so many of the important philosophies associated with him: note “Virginia Statue For Establishing Religious Freedoms” and the classics within such as the right to chose faith without corrosion, acknowledging the right for future assemblies to change the law and of course the separation of church and state.

An impressive librarian, a vivacious lawyer and an inspired farmer saying nothing of his impact on the vertiginous political landscape of his day- the very one he coursed for nearly a quarter of a century.

The Shores Of Tripoli

When America was still finding its footing, Jefferson helmed the famous assault against the Barbary Pirates.

Now there’s obviously a lot to unpick politically and ethically about the origin of the conflict and its ensuing effects but this is hardly the stage to employ division. However, I think any reasoned mind would have to submit to the objectively positive institutions ushered by Jefferson’s unyielding loyalty to the liberty promised to the peoples of early America-the establishment of the U.S Navy being principle among them.

Linda Colley’s account of what we now call The Barbary Wars estimates that between 1650 and 1830-more than a million Europeans and Americans were taken captive by the navies of the Ottoman Empire. The pirates of Tripoli soon after requested a slew of demands in an attempt to cow President Madison into perpetually offering tribute.

Joined by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson sought consolation with the North African ambassador behind the conflict, in London, insisting an explanation for the havoc aggressively dismantling trade. This confusion was justified by America’s decision not to establish itself as a Christian nation-taking no part in the Crusades and even signing a treaty with Tripoli.

I’ll spare you the Barbary ambassador’s response, except to say it made clear the necessity of war and ignited one of the finest instances of Jeffersonian Democracy: A radical defiance of all forms of aristocracy and corruption; a resolute devotion to the common man. The Barbary pirates threatened free trade, enforced religious beliefs with the threat of tyranny and imprisoned American citizens-excuse the lack of imagination but the termination of this maritime feud quickly became Jefferson’s great white whale.

There’s some debate to be had about which term more accurately names the antecedent of America’s first true encounter with terrorism; commerce or theology, but for the sake of my aim I’ll favor the former.

In defiance of the Barbary menace on free trade, Jefferson, with the aid of President Madison, championed a refusal to bend to temptation. This galvanized the American people. The nautical conflict aggravated both their ethics and their fiscal liberties, and bid them welcome the inevitable war. Madison’s statement, lyrical and potent was as follows:

“The United States, while they wish for war with no nation will buy peace with none”

Saying nothing about whether or not we have upheld the virtue of conviction since, Jefferson’s role in embedding it into our country’s fabric should be noted.

The battler, replete with flaws and questionable ambivalences, procured a legacy of passion and innovation fundamental to the American ideal. His many careers confirm liberty to be the reward of courage and a commitment to enlightenment.