What Thomas Jefferson's Secret Lab Says About American Values

Thomas Jefferson is probably most famous for drafting the Declaration of Independence, but the indelible legal document is just one of many intriguing facts about the man.


Thomas Jefferson is probably most famous for drafting the Declaration of Independence, but the indelible legal document is just one of many intriguing facts about the man. Among his many accomplishments, he sponsored Lewis and Clark’s expedition into the American West; he invented the moldboard plow; and may have created a code wheel.

He was an educated man who loved learning so much that he founded the University of Virginia. And, this week, UVA discovered one more fascinating bit of Jefferson nostalgia — a chemistry lab tucked away behind a hidden wall of the college’s Rotunda, which the former president designed. The room, which may be the earliest chemistry classroom in the country, features a hearth, workstations, and countertops so students could perform chemistry experiments.

This find is not only historically important, but also a reminder that the Founding Fathers were Enlightenment thinkers above all else. And Jefferson, with his high esteem for science regardless of new discoveries' potential conflicts with his beliefs, is the best example of how they valued science, education, and learning as the cornerstone of burgeoning American values.

This find is not only historically important, but also a reminder that the Founding Fathers were Enlightenment thinkers above all else.

Politicians are quick to evoke “founding” American values, and the Republican primary field's continued onslaught against evolution, scientific reason, and philosophical inquiry is directly at odds with these early American leaders’ ideological thoughts — especially Jefferson’s. Ben Carson has called evolution “Satanic” while Marc Rubio has argued that exploring inexhaustible wind and solar energy resources is futile. Yet both men — as well as their contenders — have repeatedly misquoted the authors of the Constitution in support of their myopic views (to be fair some Democrats, such as Hillary Clinton, have as well). Just last week, Carson insisted that they would have never tolerated a Muslim president — never mind the fact that the Constitution explicitly espouses religious freedom or that its authors (Jefferson especially) were influenced by the Qur’an.

Jefferson once wrote, “Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error." The discovery of the chemistry lab at UVA reminds us that those two values were at the heart of American political life from its inception and that our only "error" would be to revise history to convince us otherwise. 

--

Daphne Muller is a New York City-based writer who has written for Salon, Ms. Magazine, The Huffington Post, and reviewed books for ELLE and Publishers Weekly. Most recently, she completed a novel and screenplay. You can follow her on Instagram @daphonay and on Twitter @DaphneEMuller.

Image courtesy of Getty

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

Can the keto diet help treat depression? Here’s what the science says so far

A growing body of research shows promising signs that the keto diet might be able to improve mental health.

Public Domain
Mind & Brain
  • The keto diet is known to be an effective tool for weight loss, however its effects on mental health remain largely unclear.
  • Recent studies suggests that the keto diet might be an effective tool for treating depression, and clearing up so-called "brain fog," though scientists caution more research is necessary before it can be recommended as a treatment.
  • Any experiments with the keto diet are best done in conjunction with a doctor, considering some people face problems when transitioning to the low-carb diet.
Keep reading Show less

A world map of Virgin Mary apparitions

She met mere mortals with and without the Vatican's approval.

Strange Maps
  • For centuries, the Virgin Mary has appeared to the faithful, requesting devotion and promising comfort.
  • These maps show the geography of Marian apparitions – the handful approved by the Vatican, and many others.
  • Historically, Europe is where most apparitions have been reported, but the U.S. is pretty fertile ground too.
Keep reading Show less

Want to age gracefully? A new study says live meaningfully

Thinking your life is worthwhile is correlated with a variety of positive outcomes.

YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • A new study finds that adults who feel their lives are meaningful have better health and life outcomes.
  • Adults who felt their lives were worthwhile tended to be more social and had healthier habits.
  • The findings could be used to help improve the health of older adults.
Keep reading Show less