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Another Side of Little Jemmy:
Science, Technology and Exploration in James Madison's World

Bill Ingham talk during 2009 Madison Week
Bill Ingham, JMU professor of Physics, discusses James Madison's interest and acumen in science during a talk for Madison Week.

Thomas Jefferson often makes his way into discussions during Bill Ingham's history of science course at James Madison University.

The nation's third president is remembered by many, not only for his innovation in politics, but also for his exploits in science, engineering and invention.

But according to Ingham, just as Jefferson owes much to the oft-overlooked James Madison in the political realm, his scientific prowess owes much to Madison too.

"Jefferson is probably more amazing as a generator of new ideas, but Madison was a really good evaluator of ideas," Ingham said during a presentation as part of Madison Week 2009. "They were very good together."

In "Another Side of Little Jemmy: Science, Technology and Exploration in James Madison's World," Ingham highlighted Madison's inquiries into biology, agriculture, architecture and other scientific and technical pursuits.

 

Science on the Farm

Growing up at Montpelier, a working tobacco, wheat and corn plantation, Madison was exposed at an early age to the study of weather, climatology and agricultural science by his father. 

Though Madison may not have initially been interested in running the family farm, Ingham said, in later years, Madison embraced a return to farm life.

In managing Montpelier's agricultural operations, he kept detailed weather diaries, including a 10-year experiment to understand temperature variations caused by altitude, latitude and distance from the sea.

"In retirement, he could really put his energy into it," Ingham said. "He was a guy who really did his homework."

Madison became president of the Agricultural Society of Albemarle in 1818, and along with Jefferson hoped to implement a model of scientific farming, which they thought necessary to save Southern agriculture.

"The person who unified with other science the greatest agricultural knowledge of any man he knew was Mr. Madison," Jefferson wrote in an 1807 letter to John Quincy Adams. "He was the best farmer in the world."

 

Renaissance Men

While studying at what is now Princeton University, Madison undertook a classical curriculum that included modern science, astronomy and mathematics. Though his educational focus was in the humanities, Madison's intellectual curiosity fueled studies in the sciences as well, Ingham said.

"It's not that his studies were especially geared toward the sciences, but he was a child of the Enlightenment," Ingham said. "They took a systematic approach to studying everything. They had a wide palate."

After meeting in the autumn of 1776, Madison and Jefferson maintained a close friendship and intellectual partnership until the end of their lives, Ingham said. Intertwined in their correspondence even while the fledgling United States was embroiled in revolution were queries about new species of animals and plants, engineering plans for infrastructure projects and evaluations for many of Jefferson's inventive ideas.

"In addition to all the other things that were happening, in many of the letters, there is inevitably something scientific or technical," Ingham said.

As both men ascended to roles in the federal government, science was a major guide to their political paths. Perhaps the most important scientific contribution to come directly from their political partnership was the purchase and exploration of the Louisiana Territory, which nearly doubled the size of the United States.

President Jefferson was the driving force for the purchase, while Madison, his Secretary of State, was the immediate supervisor of the American negotiators. Reflecting the commitment of both men to scientific exploration, Madison issued orders in 1804 to ensure the safe passage of Alexander von Haumboldt, the preeminent naturalist of his era.  Humboldt had spent five years in the New World and was transporting forty boxes of specimens back to Europe. 

In part, Madison's orders read: "These are to require the Commanders of all armed vessels of the United States, public and private to suffer them to pass without hindrance, and in case of need to give them all necessary aid and succour in their voyage; and in consideration of the respect due to persons engaged in the promotion of useful science, they are in like manner recommended to the favorable attention of the Officers, Citizens and subjects of all friendly powers."

Many years later, after Madison's terms as president, Jefferson and Madison worked as partners in their retirement years in forming the University of Virginia. Upon Jefferson's death in 1826, Madison became rector of the university, guiding the school's administration, staffing and curriculum.

 

The Spark

Ingham said he became interested in seriously studying Madison's relationship with science as part of teaching history of science courses. He knew that Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were significant in the growth of science and technology, but said he was startled to learn the intellectual debts that Jefferson owed to Madison.

"In my reading related to teaching the history of science, I looked more into what an intellectual partner he was with Jefferson and what an inquiring and curious mind Madison had," Ingham said. "He probably talked Jefferson out of some of his not-so-great ideas in both government and in science."

 

Published March 2009