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. 

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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

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