Kovarsky Lays Out Jefferson’s Cartographic Vision

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Joel Kovarsky
Joel Kovarsky

A new book on Thomas Jefferson’s interest in maps and geography by Crozet author Joel Kovarsky, The True Geography of Our Country; Jefferson’s Cartographic Vision, was published by the University of Virginia Press in May.

Kovarsky, a rheumatologist, had a career in medicine, mainly at the Texas Medical Center in Houston. Before he retired, he earned a master’s degree in information science and interned at the University of Virginia’s Special Collections Library, where he was involved in cataloging maps.

He became interested in antique maps and eventually formed his own company, The Prime Meridian: Antique Maps and Books, which trades in pre-20th-century maps, atlases and related books and operates out of his home in Wayland’s Grant. For seven years he contributed the “recent publications” column of the Washington Map Society’s bulletin.

“I had talked about running a bookstore,” said Kovarsky, “but I had been tied to a beeper too long and I didn’t want to be behind a counter. I got into maps as a business and drifted into expertise. I perceived maps as historical documents. I like the artwork involved and the history of printing and paper. It just happened it began at Monticello, linking Jefferson to Manifest Destiny. That was first major portion of the book. There was no epiphany in this for me. It was the culmination of interest in history and science. I just sort of kept going.

“It took six years to write. I went through all his letters and writings. I could search with my own keywords. There’s not a better place to write this, with U.Va. and Monticello here.” Kovarsky pitched the book idea to the Press and, “They ruled yes. It fits with an academic press. I wouldn’t mind writing on maps, but it’s more their tie to the wider history—the why they were used.”

The 200-page book contains 28 plates, which are mostly maps. “It’s not a coffee table book,” warned Kovarsky. “It’s aimed at an educated audience. I do go to a lot of work to avoid jargon.”

Kovarsky has a 700-volume reference library on maps and geography, including The American Atlas of 1776.

“Only two other atlases [of America] existed at the time, one was mainly a coastal atlas, both from British publishers,” said Kovarsky. “When you started west you had no idea where you were going. There were problems in knowing the boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase. “The best map makers in the 18th century were the French. But they were superseded by the British. The maps were engravings on copper plates.”

Thematically organized, the book covers Jefferson’s longtime interest in surveying and land claims, including his involvement in the U.S. coast survey, the planning of the District of Columbia and the Virginia State Capitol and Monticello and U.Va.

“Jefferson was a surveyor. An educated man of the time on a plantation needed to know surveying. Jefferson was not as good as George Washington. Geography was considered the mother of all other sciences at the time. Jefferson’s library holdings on geography dwarf his collection on architecture—300 volumes in geography, including all the major atlases.

“He wanted the best practical information he could get. He understood maps were valuable for exploration and commerce.

“Jefferson was involved in every phase of the development of Washington, D.C. Pierre L’Enfant went first to Jefferson to see what to build. L’Enfant was hard to work with and Andrew Ellicott took over.”

Another chapter treats Virginia geography and Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia.

“Jefferson’s only printed map was in Notes on the State of Virginia,” said Kovarsky. “It is composed of answers to a series of questions from a French ambassador. The vast majority of those had geographical components. It’s a geographical treatise.”

Another chapter deals with Jefferson as an expedition planner. “Jefferson was one of the great expedition planners of his time—with Joseph Banks [the British naturalist who sailed on an exploration with Capt. James Cook and headed the Royal Society for more than four decades.] He knew the principles of the rights of discovery. He who holds the mouth of a river holds the watershed. Jefferson wanted to control the mouth of the Columbia. Clark did not have to be trained, but Ellicott trained Lewis.

“As foundational elements, maps were scaffolding for the rest of Jefferson’s life,” Kovarsky said. “Nobody has pulled it together in this way. It’s not earthshaking in terms of understanding Jefferson. They were a necessary but not sufficient element. Combine it with his other interests and you’re getting into the design of the University of Virginia.”