Examples of Jeffersonian Mathematics

Jefferson's enthusiasm for mathematics was manifest at a number of levels. Beyond various utilitarian motives for studying mathematics, from the fact that it is a good training for the law to its well-rehearsed uses in a colonial frontier society, we can see that the study of mathematics influenced Jefferson's very way of thinking, in the very forms of expression and categories his mind thought in. And following on from that is something which his public role made possible, his promotion of mathematics Monticello as a critical component of education in a free democratic society.

Let us start with an example of what one might call utilitarian mathematics, albeit with a Jeffersonian twist. First, see Jefferson watching the ground being cleared for his new house, Monticello, in 1768. Anyone else in that situation would be fussing round making tea, but Jefferson was doing an exercise in rule of three:

Julius Shard fills the two-wheeled barrow in 3 minutes and carries it 30 yards in 1 1/2 minutes more. Now this is four loads of the common barrow with one wheel. So suppose that the four loads put in, in the same time, viz., 3 minutes, 4 trips will take 1 1/2 minutes—6, which added to 3 filling is—9 to fill and carry the same earth which was filled and carried in the two-wheeled barrow in 4 1/2 minutes. From a trial I made with the same two-wheeled barrow, I found that a man would dig and carry to the distance of 50 yards, 5 cubical yards of earth in a day of 12 hours' length. Ford's Phil did it, not overlooked, and having to mount his loaded barrow up a bank 2 feet high and tolerably steep. [Garden Book, pp.33-34]

There is something timeless about this sort of thing--work supervisors in Uruk or Nippur, three thousand years before, were doing exactly the same calculation on exactly the same subject. Jefferson's enthusiasm for a constant arithmetical monitoring of what was going on around him was carried to remarkable lengths: even when a few years later his closest friend Dabney Carr died, and Jefferson was preparing what is now the graveyard at Monticello to receive his body, he subsumed his deep sorrow and grief in further Babylonian-style calculations.

2 hands grubbed the graveyard 80 feet square—1/7 of an acre in 3 1/2 hours, so that one would have done it in 7 hours, and would grub an acre in 49 hours—4 days. [Memorandum Book, 23 May 1773]

Of course, one hardly needs an expensive education in Newtonian mathematics at William and Mary College to do that. But another of Jefferson's ventures truly shows the benefits of a Newtonian education.

Travelling through France fifteen years later, in 1788, he noticed peasants near Nancy ploughing, and fell to wondering about the design of the moldboard, that is, the surface which turns the earth: he spent the next ten years working on this, on and off, wondering how to achieve the most efficient design, both offering least frictional resistance, and which also would be easy for farmers out in the frontiers to construct, far from technical help. He consulted the Pennsylvania mathematician Robert Patterson (born in Ireland in 1743), and consulted also another Philadelphia luminary, the self-taught astronomer and mathematical instrument-maker David Rittenhouse (1732-1796). It transpired that the answer lay in one of Jefferson's old college textbooks, Emerson's Doctrine of Fluxions, in material deriving from the discussion of 'solids of least resistance' in Newton's Principia, Book ii. Jefferson's account appeared in the 1799 volume of the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, of which he was president by this time. This is quite a good example of Newtonian mathematics in action, its perhaps surprising applicability to frontier needs, and of Jefferson's command of it. The most important thing isn't so much his solving the problem as his coming to see that there was a connection between his mathematical studies at William and Mary College and the furthering of frontier agriculture: that mathematics was the kind of thing to bear on the problems of farmers in the new country.

Several other examples of Jefferson's mathematics may be mentioned more briefly.

And in his later years, Jefferson revisited the practical mathematics of his youth, for example with dialling exercises, still keen to calculate the lines of a sun-dial [TJ to Charles Clay, August 23, 1811]

I have amused myself with calculating the hour lines of an horizontal dial for the latitude of this place, which I find to be 37o 22' 26". The calculations are for every five minutes of time, and are always exact to within less than half a second of a degree.

But he was not blinded to the limitations of his studies of a subject he had so little time to cultivate in depth, writing to Robert Patterson a few months later [TJ to Robert Patterson, November 10, 1811]:

Before I entered on the business of the world I was much attached to Astronomy & had laid a sufficient foundation at College to have pursued it with satisfaction & advantage. But after 40. years of abstraction from it, and my mathematical acquirements coated over with rust, I find myself equal only to such simple operations & practices in it as serve to amuse me. But they give me great amusement, and the more as I have some excellent instruments.

So we can see a range of particular instances where his mathematical training and cast of mind was used, to a greater or lesser extent, throughout his life. And Jefferson's most celebrated text, written some thirty-five years before, also turns out to have been informed by his mathematical experiences.