Jefferson’s Legacy: Three Exhibitions
April 2014 – December 2016
Silhouette of Thomas Jefferson, 1875-1925, artist unknown, APS
Thomas Jefferson was president of the American Philosophical Society from 1797 to 1814—before, during, and after he was President of the United States—and the Society was one of Jefferson’s primary ties to Philadelphia even after he left for Washington. As the site of Charles Willson Peale’s famed natural history museum, for which Jefferson served as chairman of the first Board of Visitors, the American Philosophical Society Museum provides an ideal venue for a series of exhibitions about Jefferson. This tripartite exhibition series—exploring Jefferson as a statesman, as a promoter of science and exploration, and as a student of Native America and indigenous languages—will not only add to our historical understanding of Jefferson’s accomplishments but will also demonstrate how his multifaceted legacy continues to be relevant today.
Letter to Benjamin Franklin from Thomas Jefferson, 1776, APS
I. Jefferson, Philadelphia, and the Founding of a Nation (April 17, 2014 – December 28, 2014)
The first exhibition commemorates Jefferson’s long association with Philadelphia, focusing first on his visits to the city in 1775 and 1776, when, as a delegate to the Continental Congress, he was selected to draft the Declaration. A handwritten copy of Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration, which includes annotations showing passages that were later deleted by Congress, will be the first object visitors see as they enter the exhibition. Also on display will be a letter from Richard Henry Lee, the delegate from Virginia who originally proposed independence, writing to console Jefferson about these changes: “the Thing in its nature is so good, that no Cookery can spoil the Dish for the palates of Freemen.” This exhibition places Jefferson in the context of an intellectual circle in Philadelphia that was steeped in Enlightenment thought and revolutionary fervor.
The second half reveals Philadelphia as it was in the last decade of the 18th century, when Jefferson returned to serve as Secretary of State for George Washington and Vice President for John Adams. In 1797, he became president of the American Philosophical Society (APS) and continued in that role until 1814—before, during, and after he was President of the United States. In a letter accepting the APS position, he stated that he deemed it “the most flattering incident of my life, & that to which I am the most sensible.”
Engraving of East Prospect of the City of Philadelphia, in the Province of Pennsylvania, 1761, George Heap and Nicholas Scull, APS
II. Jefferson, Science, and Exploration (April 10, 2015 – December 27, 2015)
Thomas Jefferson had a passion for knowledge that encompassed theoretical and applied sciences as well as statesmanship. His broad-ranging endeavors in fields ranging from paleontology to botany to climate change—all of which will be featured in the show—were often linked to Philadelphia’s intellectual resources. It was at Philosophical Hall that Jefferson gave a talk inaugurating American paleontology. When he obtained mastodon fossils while in the White House, he sent many of them for safekeeping to the APS.
As President, Jefferson advocated for westward exploration, commissioning Lewis and Clark’s successful 1804 expedition. The APS was a key ally of the Corps of Discovery and their investigation of the territory gained through the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Prior to the trip, Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis to study with five Philadelphians, all APS members. This government-sponsored journey aptly demonstrates the inextricable links between natural philosophy (science) and political ambition in Jefferson’s time.
Lewis and Clark journals, 1804-1806, APS
III. Jefferson, Native America, and the West (April 15, 2016 – December 18, 2016)
Jefferson had an abiding interest in Native American culture and language, while, at the same time, supporting national policies that ultimately threatened the survival of indigenous peoples. Jefferson believed that study of indigenous languages would reveal historical connections among Native American tribes, and he commissioned the collection of Native American vocabularies, many of which are housed in the APS library. In addition to these vocabularies, the exhibition will include Native American artifacts sent to Jefferson by Lewis and Clark.
Today, the APS Library continues to expand upon Jefferson’s legacy of research into Native American linguistics and history by digitizing wire, wax cylinder, and fragile reel-to-reel audio recordings. The exhibition will juxtapose Jefferson’s 18th-century written vocabularies with these 21st-century, newly digitized recordings of songs, stories, and conversations with tribal elders. The APS actively supports research in Native American linguistics and history in an effort to preserve and sustain this vital heritage.
Oil painting of Thomas Jefferson, 1821, Thomas Sully, APS