Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Thomas Jefferson, American Geographers, and the Uses of Geography

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Thomas Jefferson, American Geographers, and the Uses of Geography

Article excerpt

Speaking in April 1962, at a dinner honoring nearly fifty Nobel Prize honorees as well as university presidents and other distinguished guests, John F. Kennedy famously remarked that it was the most extreme concentration of talent and knowledge ever to dine at the White House, "with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone" (1963, 161). The comparison was exaggerated for humorous effect, of course, but it points both to the depth of his predecessor's intellectual accomplishments and to the range of his intellectual interests.

Among those interests was geography, as understood in the late eighteenth century. Yet interest by geographers in Jefferson's geography has been minimal, sporadic, and highly selective. In the last 110 or so years geographers have made only three significant general attempts to examine Jefferson's interests and accomplishments in this field broadly, the most recent almost fifty years ago. The last full treatment of Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia in an American geographical periodical appeared during World War II (Brown 1943a).

The literature of the Lewis and Clark Expedition is a partial exception to this recent neglect of Jefferson as a geographer. Scholarly and popular interest has been stimulated by the bicentennial of that major event. The recent comprehensive publication of the journals of the expedition may well give further impetus to our understanding of Jeffersonian geography, as may other documents relating to it (Jackson 1962, 1978; Moulton 1983-2001). But geographical survey and the associated increase in scientific geographical knowledge is only one part of Jefferson's geographical legacy. Indeed, the Lewis and Clark Expedition itself is only a part of Jefferson's interest in the new geographical knowledge that comes through exploratory travel and scientific survey. This article attempts to survey the "state of the literature" on Jeffersonian geography, primarily by geographers and a few other scholars in closely related fields. It also suggests some Jefferson-related geographical topics that remain to be explored more fully.


The earliest serious attempt in the geographical literature to establish Jefferson's credentials as a geographer occurs in a short note on "Jefferson as a Geographer" published in the National Geographic Magazine in 1896. Its author, General Adolphus Washington Greely, was himself a noted Arctic explorer and head of the Army's Signal Service, which until 1891 had also served as the nation's weather bureau under his direction. It originated as a piece d'occasion, a brief speech Greely had given at the National Geographic Society's annual field day, held that year in Charlottesville, Virginia. Participants had paid a visit to Jefferson's home, Monticello, and to his grave site. An expanded version of Greely's remarks was published a few years later as one of the introductory essays to each volume of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association's edition of the Writings of Thomas Jefferson. That project was the fullest collection of Jefferson's writings before Princeton University launched its still incomplete Papers of Thomas Jefferson project (Greely 1896, 1905; Boyd 1950-).

Greely praised Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia as admirable for its treatment of climate and for anticipating Alexander von Humboldt's argument about the relationship of climate and soil to plant and animal life. Greely also credited Jefferson with the plan for dividing the public lands and--as secretary of state--with overseeing the first U.S. census. He also praised Jefferson's "extra-constitutional act of annexation by purchase" of the Louisiana Territory and applauded him for sending out not only the Lewis and "Clarke" [sic] Expedition but also those of others. By its visit to Monticello, said Greely, the National Geographic Society recognized that Jefferson was the only one of our presidents of whom it could be said, "He was a geographer. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.