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Author Topic: Thomas Jefferson on meteorites
Ron Miel
I'm Dreaming of a White Sale


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True quote or apocryphal?

quote:
http://www.amsmeteors.org/about.html

Silliman was thrust into meteoric matters when he was asked to investigate an 1807 meteorite fall on Weston, Connecticut. Silliman became a target for President Thomas Jefferson's derision because Jefferson doubted Silliman's conclusion that a rock fell from the sky. Jefferson was a science hobbyist, but he was also a southern U.S. partisan. The President dismissed Silliman's claim by scoffing, "I would more easily believe that (a) Yankee professor would lie than that stones would fall from heaven."

I've heard numerous versions of this story, lots of slightly different quotes. Did it happen at all? What were the exact words? What is the authority for this story? This is, by the way, the first time I've seen the Yankee Professor actually named.
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Legion600
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According to this Meteorite Articleswebpage the story has never been fully substantiated. According to the site " Jefferson was interested in the fall and ordered a careful investigation by Nathaniel Bowdith of Salem. His findings supported those of the Yale Professors."
One copy of the quote that I found though was Jefferson saying, "I would rather believe two Yankee professors would lie, than that stones have fallen from the heavens." Which would be more likely considering Jefferson's devotion to science.

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Top Kat
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It sounds like the quotation is using the word "Yankee" to mean "Northerner"; but did it have that meaning during Jefferson's time? I am no expert, but it doesn't sound quite right to me.
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RealityChuck/Boston Charlie
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quote:
Originally posted by Top Kat:
It sounds like the quotation is using the word "Yankee" to mean "Northerner"; but did it have that meaning during Jefferson's time? I am no expert, but it doesn't sound quite right to me.

Sure it did.

From the OED:

quote:
1. a. U.S. A nickname for a native or inhabitant of New England, or, more widely, of the northern States generally; during the War of Secession applied by the Confederates to the soldiers of the Federal army.

1765 Oppression, a Poem by an American (with notes by a North Briton) 17 From meanness first this Portsmouth Yankey rose. Note, ‘Portsmouth Yankey’, It seems, our hero being a New-Englander by birth, has a right to the epithet of Yankey; a name of derision, I have been informed, given by the Southern people on the Continent, to those of New-England: what meaning there is in the word, I never could learn. 1775 J. TRUMBULL McFingal I. 1 When Yankies, skill'd in martial rule, First put the British troops to school. Editor's note, Yankiesa term formerly of derision, but now merely of distinction, given to the people of the four eastern States.


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Top Kat
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I guess you're right, Reality Chuck! I withdraw my objection.
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Johnny Slick
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Peter James and Nick Thorpe's Ancient Mysteries includes the Jefferson quote but I can't find a specific cite for it in the bibliography. However, it must be said that this particular idea is not that far-fetched. Meteorites were not accepted as scientific phenomena until somewhere around the middle of the 19th century. They basically flew in the face of two accepted scientific dogme of the time: one, that the heavens were not designed to cause harm unto humans (a belief going all the way back to Aristotle), and two, the idea that things have gradually improved since the beginning of time and neither the planet nor its civilizations were wracked by catastrophe. Ironically, it was the second reason - a product of an Age of Enlightenment that tried to completely divorce science from the Bible - that was probably the largest factor in this. Think of the Victorian "march of progress" and realize that Jefferson's age was even more entrenched in gradualism than the Victorians.

The quote has little to do with Jefferson's anti-Northern bias and a whole heck of a lot more to do with scientific attitudes at the time.

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Linden
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quote:

The quote has little to do with Jefferson's anti-Northern bias and a whole heck of a lot more to do with scientific attitudes at the time.

Yes, indeed. Jefferson was applying the principle of the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume `On Miracles' here:
http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/hume-miracles.html
`That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish....'

As it turns out, stones falling from the sky are not miraculous, but Jefferson can hardly be blamed for not knowing that.

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Linden

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Ron Miel
I'm Dreaming of a White Sale


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quote:
Originally posted by Johnny Slick:
However, it must be said that this particular idea is not that far-fetched. Meteorites were not accepted as scientific phenomena until somewhere around the middle of the 19th century.

Yes, I know that. The Jefferson quote is one of two famous quotes on the subject.

The other was by Antoine Lavoisier (a great chemist who discovered the composition of air, and combustion theory.) He investigated a meteorite fall, and after careful chemical analysis came to the conclusion that it was just an Earth rock that had been struck by lightning. His report contained the line "A stone cannot fall from the sky - there ARE no stones in the sky."

The Lavoisier quote is well documented, his report is extant, and the rock itself still exists. I was wondering if the Jefferson quote is documented or apocryphal.

Does anyone know the source of the quote? When was it first attributed to him?

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Bonnie
The Red and the Green Stamps


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You know, I don't have that much more to offer the discussion (and I could've sworn we'd talked about this before); still, though, here is a piece (said to have appeared in Astronomy Now) that speculated on the origin of the apocryphal quote. (The full text of Jefferson's February 1808 letter to Daniel Salmon regarding inspection of the meteor he possessed, perhaps a piece of the Weston meteor itself, can be found here.)

quote:
When was it first attributed to him?
Ben Zimmer's post on this subject for AFU (from two summers ago) reveals not only multiple forms in contemporary sources of Jefferson's supposed observation, but also some early 20th-century sightings from American newspapers.

For what it's worth, the oldest written forms that I can find date to the late 1890s.

From F.W. Clarke's "Chemistry in the United States," Science 5(108): 117-129, 1897,

quote:
[In] 1808, Professors Silliman and Kingsley, of Yale College, published their account of the meteorite which fell at Weston, Connecticut, the year previous. This paper attracted widespread attention, and drew from Thomas Jefferson the oft-quoted remark "that it was easier to believe that two Yankee professors could lie than to admit that stones could fall from heaven."
And, from O.C. Farrington's "The Worship and Folk-Lore of Meteorites," The Journal of American Folklore 13(50): 199-209, 1900,

quote:
[Modern civilized peoples] have generally refused to believe that stones could fall from the sky, and have echoed the remark of President Jefferson when told that Professors Silliman and Kingsley, of Yale, had described a shower of stones has having taken place at Weston, Conn. "They may be right," he said, "but it is easier for me to believe that two Yankee professors would lie than to believe that stones would fall from heaven." [p. 208]
In any event, try as I might, I can't push the quote (or a form of it) back beyond 1897.

I think that it's logical to conclude that Jefferson never uttered or penned those words. The key, as you've hinted, is in figuring out when the comment first appeared and when it was first attributed to him. Naturally, it would be helpful to identify 19th-century precursors that may have led to the this particular wording.

Bonnie "bolide but Yankee professors didn't" Taylor

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Ron Miel
I'm Dreaming of a White Sale


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Thanks for the info, Bonnie, very useful.
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