Thoughts on the Polymaths of the Revolution

Reading the Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin for the first time I was struck by the huge generational difference between Franklin and that other polymath of the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson.

Benjamin Franklin, 1778/79 — by Anne-Rosalie Bocquet Filleul

Franklin’s formative years are the twenties — the 1720s. This is the decade he arrives in Philadelphia, makes a misguided excursion to London, sets up his own printing shop, creates with his friends a weekly discussion group (the Junto), founds the first lending library in the colonies, and marries. During the time of the French and Indian War (the 1750s) he is already retired, and becoming world famous for his experiments in electricity.

In an environment where practicality is rewarded, Franklin’s strivings are all practical. He wants to improve himself, improve his town, and contribute to England by helping to grow a colony. He also wants to become known for doing so.

Jefferson, on the other hand, is shaped by the sixties — the 1760s. The war with France is over. Britain has ejected the French from North America. Yet with one uncertainty resolved, what should have been a decade of stability is instead anything but. The colonial economy is in a shambles. The mother country is mired in debt and needs to find ways to raise money. Indeed, by fits and starts it is trying to figure out how to manage an empire. A series of revenue-raising laws begin, as does reaction by the colonists.

Where Franklin had but two years of formal schooling and started doing, Jefferson continued as a student until he was 24, receiving his law degree in 1767.

Jefferson in 1786, painted in England by Mather Brown

Jefferson, like Franklin, is eminently curious — and will make his mark in political philosophy, natural history, colonial history, architecture, politics, and more — but less practical. In 1768 he starts his lifelong building enterprise atop Monticello, where there is no natural water, but what comes from rain or is hauled up by his slaves. (He will live with his family for much of his life in what is essentially a housing construction zone.) Jefferson also wanted to contribute, and to be known for it, but his decade of striving was largely educational, an apprenticeship for greatness, to quote the biographer Fawn Brodie.

Then in 1774, out of the gate, he becomes famous and treasonous at once for A Summary View of the Rights of British America. Jefferson is 31, an idealist, and a radical. Franklin, now one of the most famous men in the world, and, at 68, old enough to be Jefferson’s grandfather, doffed practicality — and his own security — took up idealism, and soon embarked on the political career for which he is readily remembered and revered today.

JDN | 21-Sep-2011

Monticello was a working plantation, and Jefferson was eager to make it pay. His slaves may have been members of his family, but they were units of production as well. Everywhere on his plantation he sought to eliminate pockets of idleness. If a slave was too old or too sick to work in the fields, he or she was put to tending the vegetable gardens or to cooking in the quarters. When one of his former head men named Nace became ill, Jefferson ordered that he be entirely kept from labour until he recovers; nevertheless, Nace was to spend his days indoors shelling corn or making shoes or baskets. Jefferson was willing to prescribe lighter work for women who were pregnant or raising infant children because they were actually breeding more property; thus, said Jefferson, a child raised every 2 years is of more profit than the crop of the best laboring man. This is one of the times, he said, when providence has made our interest and our duties coincide perfectly.

Gordon S. Wood
Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815 (2009)