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Revolutionary Minds

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison participated in a small "revolution" against British weather-monitoring practices

Susan Solomon, John S. Daniel, Daniel L. Druckenbrod

Figure%201.%20Modern%20weather%20station%20at%20MonticelloClick to Enlarge ImageIn 1790, Thomas Jefferson began his tenure as America's first Secretary of State in the cabinet of George Washington. In this role, he would wrestle with a host of issues facing the struggling new republic, including such weighty matters as neutrality or engagement should England undertake a war of conquest with Spain for Louisiana. But politics and government represented only one side of the life of the man who would become known as one of America's most cerebral presidents. Among other pursuits, Jefferson had an abiding interest in science, including the science of weather and climate.  As Jefferson took up the office of Secretary of State, he wrote to his son-in-law about his difficulties in finding a place to live, which were caused by an unusual, exacting and quite personal requirement:

I have not begun my meteorological diary; because I have not yet removed to the house I have taken. I remove tomorrow: but as far as I can judge from its aspects there will not be one position to be had for the thermometer free from the influence of the sun both morning & evening. However, as I go into it, only till I can get a better, I shall hope ere long to find a less objectionable situation. (TJ to Thomas Mann Randolph, May 30, 1790) 

Jefferson's interest in meteorology was linked in part to its role in the plantation farming that was both his heritage and his livelihood. He apparently began taking daily data himself while still a student at Williamsburg, perhaps inspired to do so by his friendship with then-governor of the colony Francis Fauquier, who is believed to have followed a similar practice. Throughout his life, Jefferson corresponded widely with other weather observers, exchanging both data and musings:

Soon after receiving your meteorological diary, I received one of Quebec; and was struck with the comparison between -32 & +19-3/4 the lowest depression of the thermometer at Quebec & the Natchez (Mississippi). I have often wondered that any human being should live in a cold country who can find room in a warm one. I have no doubt but that cold is the source of more sufferance to all animal nature than hunger, thirst, sickness, & all the other pains of life & of death itself put together. (TJ to William Dunbar, January 12, 1801) 

Jefferson's study of meteorology was also motivated in part by national pride, tracing to his profound displeasure with the work of one of the most distinguished naturalists of his day: French scientist Georges-Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon. Buffon expressed the view that the climates of the colonies in America were degenerative, "that nature is less active, less energetic on one side of the globe than she is on the other" (Jefferson's translation), and asserted that climate in turn led to smaller and less diverse plant and animal life in the New World as compared to the Old. By way of counter-evidence, on October 1, 1787, a proud Jefferson sent Buffon the skeleton of a moose along with written descriptions of the massive antlers such animals often possessed, expressing the hope that it "may have the merit of adding anything new to the treasures of nature which have so fortunately come under your observation." Jefferson also vigorously disputed Buffon's claim in his own book, Notes on the State of Virginia, arguing for the need for more data and "a suspension of opinion until we are better informed" as to issues such as differences in temperature and humidity, as well as the effects of climatic differences on flora and fauna.

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