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As a member of the American Philosophical Society (APS) for forty-six years (1780-1826) and as president of the society for seventeen years (1797-1814), Thomas Jefferson left his mark on the pursuit for useful knowledge. He played a vital role in the collecting activity of the society. By inspiring scientific expeditions and securing their findings for the society, he contributed greatly during a fruitful period in the pursuit of natural history. This page contains materials relating to the pursuit of animal knowledge in the time of Jefferson, during the early American republic.

In Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Jefferson sought to show the vitality and strength of American animals when compared to their European counterparts. In a series of charts, he compared and contrasted the weights of animals in the two continents. The work was a direct challenge to the claim of French naturalist Georges Buffon, who purported that American animals were inferior to those found in the Old World. Jefferson proved otherwise.

In a letter to APS Librarian John Vaughan from 1805, Jefferson notes the importance of classifying animals: "Nature deals in individuals, but man can retain them in his memory only by grouping them into masses by some arbitrary rule or other." In particular, Jefferson was interested in the categorization of the Megalonyx, a prehistoric creature which he believed still roamed the American countryside.

Jefferson also sought to classify the languages of Native Americans in an attempt to determine their history. Included here is a page from his effort, showing the translation of "pheasant" and "partridge" into numerous tribal languages.

Perhaps Jefferson's greatest gift to the APS, and to American science, was his championing of scientific exploration. As president both of the country and APS, Jefferson played a vital role in arranging federal sponsorship of the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806. After the Louisiana Purchase, the young republic had vast swathes of unchartered land, land that was inhabited by scores of uncataloged animals. The exploratory mission was charged with documenting and collecting hundreds of plant, animal, and fossil specimens from the trans-Mississippi west. The written products of the expedition, , were given to the APS by Jefferson.

While in the field, Captain Meriwether Lewis encountered dozens of animals, some of which he sketched in his journals, including the stunning White Salmon Trout. Working from specimens brought back from the expedition, naturalist/artist Charles Willson Peale drew "The Fisher" and "Two Birds." The birds are a Mountain Quail and a Lewis Woodpecker, two species discovered by Lewis on the expedition.

Peale was an avid naturalist who sought to promote natural history to the public at large. From 1795-1810, he directed a natural history museum in APS' Philosophical Hall (the current site of the APS Museum). The Peale Museum housed numerous specimens brought back from scientific explorations. Peale's son Titian Ramsay Peale, himself an enthusiastic naturalist-explorer, painted the "Missouri Bear" from two animals which Jefferson presented to the Peale Museum from Zebulon Pike's explorations.

The further illustrations on this page by Benjamin Smith Barton, William Bartram, and Titian Ramsay Peale come from additional scientific exploratory missions to Jefferson's America.

Image Gallery