U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What document bears the signatures of Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison?

It’s Friday, time for some light trivia with which to impress your friends over the weekend.

The manuscript pictured (from the archives of the American Philosophical Society) here is the only document known to contain the signatures of the first four presidents of the U.S. It is a subscription list for an expedition by André Michaux to explore “the interior of North America from the Mississippi along the Missouri, and Westwardly to the Pacific ocean.” Michaux, whose globetrotting life was full of excitements and disappointments, was a French botanist who came to United States to examine the North America flora. Today he is well remembered (at least in some circles) and his best know work is the Histoire des chenes de l’Amerique septentrionale (1801) illustrated by the famed Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Of course, Michaux scientific exploration was motivated and supported by more practical reasons than increasing the store of philosophical knowledge. He collected and shipped plants with commercial uses and which could be acclimated to grow in France or its possession. He also supplied beautiful exotic species, such as magnolias, to the empress Josephine’s garden at Malmaison.

Michaux expedition to the interior America never took place. However, ten years later Jefferson sent out another expedition (headed by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark) to obtain the geological and botanical knowledge he desired. This information provided Jefferson as much knowledge about the political situation and economic potential of the land west as much as it did about scientific matters.

It seems symbolic that the only document to bear the signatures of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison (and others) represents scientific, political, economic and imperial ambitions of the new country. It reminds us that since its founding, the United States, its political, economic, intellectual and scientific histories were intertwined.

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