Power to the People
In Cornelius Tiebout's 1801 engraving of Thomas Jefferson, the new president was placed in the company of a globe, a bust of Benjamin Franklin, and a plate electrical machine. 1 This juxtaposition was no accident, for it alluded to the Jefferson unknown to most present-day Americans. Jefferson was not only the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States, but he was also a highly educated man who had read Newton's Principia in the original Latin and followed the progress of many sciences. 2 In addition, he invented ingenious devices (including a machine for making a letter in duplicate) and was an agricultural experimenter who kept meticulous notes and challenged Buffon's theories on the supposed degeneration of plants and animals in the New World. Surprisingly, Thomas Jefferson was also the father of American archaeology and anthropology, carrying out on his plantation the first scientific excavations and linking the finds to linguistic and ethnographic information. An educated person of the late eighteenth century who spied the curious assemblage in Jefferson's portrait would have appreciated immediately that it alluded to Jefferson's lesser-known side, the learned man of science. Among the elite, especially, probably no artifact was a more potent symbol of science, of modernity, and of enlightenment than an electrical machine.
The electrical machine depicted in Tiebout's engraving was probably just a prop, but did Thomas Jefferson actually own any electrical technology? In fact he did. In 1783 he bought a 15-inch electrophorus from Dr. Bass, a Philadelphia physician and apothecary, but we do not know if, or how, he used it. 3 A few years later Jefferson acquired an amusing device for shocking the unsuspecting: a pocket-sized Ley denjar that could be chargedmerely by rubbing a ribbon. 4 In addition, Jefferson owned books on electricity, including Franklin's.