April 10, 2009

Monticello: Sanctuary, Laboratory

Jefferson, despite being dogged in antiquity for his romantic exploits, was surely the embodiment of the Revolutionary Renaissance Man: his interests in "travel, literature, art, music, architecture, gardening, agriculture, science, and inventions" often left him yearning for a more private life than politics afforded, and also provided his adversaries with fodder for criticism in the media and elsewhere. The sciences, especially, were his "supreme delight," and once the "chains" of the Presidency were released from him in 1809, he dedicated himself to this true passion. Thomas Jefferson: Scientist by Edwin T. Martin recounts these endeavors--from adoption of vaccinations to the invention of the swivel chair--in effusive detail, and brings Jefferson the academic to life in a way often overlooked by political scholars. Monticello, Jefferson's infamous Virginia retreat, played an important role in defining this would-be scientist, as it was there that Jefferson began to record the migration of birds, tinker with inventions like the solar microscope, discover and examine fossils such as the Megalonyx jeffersoni, and contribute to botanical science, in addition to designing both Monticello itself as well as its sister home, Poplar Forest, in nearby Lynchburg. (And let's not forget his reputation as amateur sommelier.) Today's Times reviews the modern Monticello as a museum and historical landmark, one that retains much of the original quirkiness of design and material, but also boasts technology-fueled updates like interactive galleries and multimedia installations.

Martin also writes at length about the challenges Jefferson faced from his conservative peers while in office, quoting from one his letters, "Of all the charges brought against me by my political adversaries, that of possessing some science has probably them the least credit. Our contrymen are too enlightened themselves, to believe that ignorance is the best qualification for service." (How diplomatic!) Alas, dear forefather, how little has changed...

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