Thomas Jefferson: More Than Just a President

Jun 10, 2014

Thomas Jefferson is well known as the author of the Declaration of Independence and as this country’s third president, but a new book shows him in another important role, as a geographer. 

In the age of GPS, few of us give much thought to maps, but in Thomas Jefferson’s time, they were rarely used to find your way.  More likely, you’d have a series of written directions describing landmarks where you should turn or go straight.  But Thomas Jefferson knew that nations vying to control North America needed accurate, way-finding maps.

“The major powers that were fighting over space did not know where they were going.”

Joel Kovarsky is the author of a new book called The True Geography of Our Country:  Jefferson’s Cartographic Vision.  He was surprised to learn that the sage of Monticello owned more than 300 books on geography.

“Jefferson had one of the finest libraries of American geography certainly of the United States and probably of the world.”

Kovarsky points out that as a lawyer, statesman and university founder, Jefferson relied on maps. 

When he dealt with land claims, well into his political career when he was dealing with the Northwest ordinances, for the eventual Louisiana Purchase, and in fact it tied to his architectural interest both in terms of developing Monticello and later, in his twilight years, the University of Virginia.  Jefferson was also tied to two and half decades of the development of Washington, DC.

As president, he commissioned Lewis and Clark to map the northwest, and he sent two other teams of explorers into the Louisiana territory, recognizing that the nation would need maps to move forward.