Mathematics Education in the Public Sphere

In relation to American mathematics education in the wider sphere, we see Jefferson's promotion of mathematics as a matter of public policy in two important educational institutions whose spirits breathe a Jeffersonian world-view.

It was during Jefferson's presidency that the United States Military Academy was established at West Point--it formally opened on July 4th 1802--and it is felt that Jefferson's influence played a part in its coming to develop such a strong mathematical cast. Even though it took some time to find its feet and it wasn't until after 1817 that West Point began to establish its reputation as a major powerhouse of mathematical instruction, such a conception was in Jefferson's mind from the 1790s (as seen in a letter of November 23rd, 1799).

The other major and equally influential educational institution which Jefferson created, at every level from site and architecture to syllabus and appointments, is, of course, the University of Virginia, in its conception the most enlightened and liberal college of the New World. In his plans for this institution mathematics had a more prominent place than at most American colleges of the period. Another feature is his sending back to Europe for teachers. This was not uncontroversial, but Jefferson was surely right that that is what the country needed: it hadn't yet a critical mass of scholars to be self-sustaining in teaching, let alone research, at the level to which Jefferson was aiming.

Jefferson did try in fact to persuade the American mathematician Nathaniel Bowditch (1773-1838) to be the foundation mathematics professor, but Bowditch refused and Jefferson subsequently sent an emissary, Francis Gilmer, to England, in order to find the right quality of professor for the new institution. Indeed the first three professors of mathematics at Virginia were English: Thomas Hewett Key, the foundation professor of pure and applied mathematics, moved back to England after two years and the chair passed to Charles Bonnycastle, another of Gilmer's finds, who had been professor of natural philosophy at first. It was to Bonnycastle in particular that this University's distinguished mathematical tradition from its early years is due. After his death in 1840 one of his students, Pike Powers, held the fort until the appointment of a third English mathematician, J. J. Sylvester. Sylvester's career in Charlottesville, and very nearly his whole career, ended abruptly, as it happens, in a tragicomedy of mutual misunderstandings; but nevertheless the fact that Virginia had an opportunity to learn from someone who in his maturity turned out to be one of the greatest of nineteenth-century mathematicians, and who made a major contribution in his later years to the establishment of the mathematics research community in the United States, is due to Jefferson's policy of importing the best English-speaking scholars available—for his university in particular and thus American education in general, believing as he did that his educational proposals were "a germ from which a great tree may spread itself" [TJ to Col. Yancey, Jan 6, 1816].

In conclusion: for Jefferson a personal enthusiasm and passion for mathematics was coupled with a measured judgment about the crucial role of mathematics in the education of individuals in a free democratic society. We are all in his debt, and in this as in other things Jefferson set an example which serves as a continued inspiration.