9 of Thomas Jefferson’s Head-Turning Hobbies

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If television existed in the 18th and 19th centuries, Thomas Jefferson could’ve earned a living starring in Dos Equis commercials. As a writer, wine-maker, astronomer, gourmet chef, and even a fossil-hunter, our third President was clearly one of the most interesting men of his era. Here are nine of his favorite pastimes.

1. Inventing

Like Benjamin Franklin, the “Sage of Monticello” had a knack for tinkering. His designs include an innovative plow built to penetrate soil more deeply than conventional models.

2. Mockingbird Keeping

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Jefferson owned several mockingbirds, but it was an energetic male named “Dick” who stole his heart. According to witnesses, the friendly avian was often allowed to fly about the presidential cabinet, stopping now and again to perch on Jefferson's shoulder. 

3. Astronomy

In 1811, Jefferson penned a detailed account of a solar eclipse he’d observed via specialized telescope. During his administration, he instructed Meriwether Lewis to meticulously watch the stars and record their movement while exploring territories recently acquired through the Louisiana Purchase.

4. Violin Playing

“[Music] is the favorite passion of my soul,” Jefferson once wrote. His mastery of the violin helped win the affections of Martha Wayles Skelton, who loved hearing the future president play and eventually married him in 1772. Their courtship inspired a lovely song, “He Plays the Violin,” which was featured in the Tony Award-winning musical 1776.

5. Architecture

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Buildings based on Jefferson’s blueprints include his Monticello home, the Virginia State Capitol, and the University of Virginia’s picturesque rotunda.

6. Horticulture

The politician’s extensive garden included 330 types of vegetables and 170 species of fruit, several of which had rarely, if ever, been grown in U.S. soil previously (such as lima beans and tomatoes).

7. Mathematics

Jefferson gleefully tackled complex equations in his youth, but found them increasingly difficult as he aged. “When I was young,” he wrote to future Treasury Secretary William Duane in 1812, “mathematics was the passion of my life. The same passion has returned upon me, but in unequal powers. Processes which I then read off with the facility of common discourse, now cost me labor, time, and slow investigation.”

8. Obsessive Book-Collecting

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The Jefferson library consisted of 42 books when his father, Peter, passed away in 1757. By 1814, that number rose to a staggering 6487 volumes, enough to restock the Library of Congress after the British army burned it down during a raid of Washington D.C. This wasn't a donation, however. The government paid him $23,950 to part with his collection.

9. Mastodon Hunting

Jefferson dedicated so much time to studying fossils that there’s a species of giant prehistoric ground sloth named in his honor: Megalonyx jeffersonii. Additionally, he arranged to have choice mastodon specimens shipped to and stored in the White House, some of which were later given to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

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February 17, 2014 - 8:00am
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