Thomas Jefferson, paradox: Exhibit shows him as scientist and imperialist

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Indian on Horseback. Drawing by Titian Ramsay Peale, 1820. From the exhibit “Gathering Voices: Thomas Jefferson and Native America.”

No one was more fascinated by the rich variety of native languages than Thomas Jefferson.

He dispatched countless deputies to the wilderness to gather vocabularies and document speech. One of the key tasks for Lewis and Clark on their great expedition was to detail and map their encounters with native tongues, which resounded across the continent by the hundreds.

Jefferson saw these languages as uniquely American, praised their rhythms and their sounds - and predicted their inevitable extinction. "Civilization" - backed by the muscular expansion of the United States - could not be denied, he observed.

Jefferson was nothing if not a walking contradiction.

The somber final exhibition in the American Philosophical Society's trio of exhibits on Jefferson, third president of the United States and president of the scientific association (1797-1814), explores Jefferson and native America.

"Gathering Voices: Thomas Jefferson and Native America" is on view in the Philosophical Society's museum on Fifth Street, behind Independence Hall, Thursday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m, until Dec. 30.

It tells what might be the quintessential American story: Jefferson in love.

He was aroused and excited by indigenous American languages. He sought them out, gathered them in, and recorded their particularities. Jefferson then launched the policies that led to obliteration of those beloved languages. And, of course, he promoted preservation of the shards left behind all the while.

"His legacy is really complicated," allowed Diana E. Marsh, curatorial fellow at the society, which organized the exhibition from its 13-million item collection, including an unparalleled collection of native language materials begun by Jefferson.

"Even the public at this point has a love-hate relationship with Jefferson. At the time, what he was doing was unique. He was pioneering a field that wasn't even a field, and at the same time he was putting into place the architecture of removal."

Stark contradictions have been on view through all three exhibitions, notably the first, 2014's "Jefferson, Philadelphia, and the Founding of a Nation," which outlined Jefferson's possession and sexual use of enslaved Africans while, at the same time, he was denouncing the system of slavery.

The second exhibition, "Jefferson, Science, and Exploration," presented in 2015, depicted Jefferson's forays into science, often fueled by a desire to establish the uniqueness of the American environment - with science sometimes taking a back seat in the presidential mind.

But in the current exhibition, Jefferson's congenital paradoxes dominate. He personally studied and collected native vocabularies and languages for decades. When his presidency ended, he gathered them together, in preparation for publication, and shipped them to Monticello. Thieves intercepted the trunk, however, mistaking it for valuables, and tossed the whole into the James River in disgust.

Writing of the loss in 1809 to the Philadelphia botanist Benjamin Smith Barton, Jefferson described it as an "irreparable misfortune." Only 37 pages survived, donated by Jefferson to the philosophical society.

"No general use," he wrote Barton, who shared his interest, "can ever be made of the wrecks of my loss."

At the same time, Jefferson urged native people to embrace private property and learn English, and he believed those who did not should be removed to reservations. In 1802, he signed the Georgia Compact, agreeing to acquire Creek and Cherokee lands and transfer them to the state of Georgia. The native people refused to comply, however, beginning a chain of events that eventually led to forced removal under President Andrew Jackson.

Jackson defied the Supreme Court and compelled native peoples to endure a march far to the west. The trek became known as the Trail of Tears. At least 4,000 native people died; their homeland was destroyed.

All of this is documented in "Gathering Voices" - the removals, and the establishment of schools such as the Carlisle Indian School, which forbade the use of native language and dress and actively sought to root out all vestiges of native culture.

"On your return tell your people that I take them all by the hand, that I become their father hereafter, that they shall know our nation only as friends and benefactors," Jefferson wrote to chiefs and elders of the Osage Nation on July 16, 1804.

Charles F. Himes, speaking of the purpose of the Carlisle Indian School, proclaimed in 1916 that the school promoted "the white man's way" and looked to a time "when there will be no more Indians, but simply citizens of Indian descent."

The society has not been passive in the face of such attitudes. Over the decades it has collected and preserved hundreds of languages and now is partnering with native communities around the country in efforts to revitalize those languages. Digitized recordings of native speakers, vocabularies, stories - the whole environment of the spoken word - is slowly being restored, where possible, person by person.

"We're now working with native communities," said curator Marsh, referring to the society's Center for Native American and Indigenous Research, which collaborates to bring indigenous languages back to indigenous people. The center is based on the research and interests established by Jefferson when he was society president and even includes vocabularies collected by him.

"Very few people know the native community is using language Jefferson gathered," Marsh said. "That's new to people."

ssalisbury@phillynews.com

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@SPSalisbury

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