What is our full name?

Why are Thomas Jefferson and José Correia da Serra’s names associated with the Institute of Public Policy (IPP)?

It is a way of signaling the importance of scientific inspiration in the design and execution of public policies.

Each in his own way, Jefferson and Correia da Serra were men who lived intensely during a thriving time for science and politics. They were very much marked by the philosophical environment of the European Illustration, believing in the virtues of knowledge as a means to obtain happiness and the common good. Isn’t this, after all, and still, the great goal of public policies?

Thomas Jefferson

José Correia da Serra

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was one of the ‘founding fathers’ of the American nation. He was the main material author of the Declaration of Independence of 1776, and served two terms as the third President of the United States, between 1801 and 1809, after having served as Governor of the State of Virginia (1779-1781) and Vice President (1797-1801) of the young American nation. Jefferson also contributed decisively to the foundation of the University of Virginia. Throughout his life, Jefferson demonstrated a great desire for scientific learning. At the end of his political career, he settled in the famous Monticello estate and house (Charlottesville, Virginia), where he developed technical skills and technological innovations motivated by an inexhaustible scientific curiosity. He was late to recognize the importance of the application of the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity to the descendants of slaves used on his properties and plantations. However, this weakness does not overshadow the greatness of the virtues he demonstrated and the life examples he set for the construction of modern institutions that consolidated  the United States as an  emerging power  in the late 18th century.

In the Monticello house (now a museum), where he settled after his presidential term ended, Jefferson reserved a room that was always prepared to receive his friend José Correia da Serra, for whom he had genuine and deep admiration.

Abbot José Correia da Serra (1751-1823) was one of the most important scientists of the Portuguese and European Illustration. Having received a solid education in Rome and Naples during the first 20 years of his life, Correia da Serra returned to Lisbon between 1777 where he remained until 1795. He contributed decisively for the establishment of the Lisbon Royal Academy of Sciences (founded in 1779), of which he was the first secretary. During his time at the Academy of Sciences, Correia da Serra, revealed an enormous organizational capacity and developed a network of national and international scientific contacts, which were essential to his future career. His first scientific works in the fields of geology and botany, as well as important methodological reflections on the usefulness and practical uses of science also date from this period.

Accused of revolutionary and Jacobin sympathies, Correia da Serra began a long exile that would take him to the main stages of the production of innovative scientific knowledge, settling in London (1795-1801) and then in Paris (1801-1812). It was in the erudite and cultural environments of the Royal Society, the Linnean Society, and the Museum d’ Histoire Naturelle, that Correia da Serra produced and published his most relevant botanical research.  It was also in these stages of scientific and political revolution that he established the first personal contact with Thomas Jefferson, starting a promising Luso-American friendship.

In 1812, Correia da Serra moved to the United States, settling in Philadelphia. In addition to continuing his academic and scientific work, in mid-1816 he began a late but significant political and diplomatic career. He was appointed ambassador of the United Kingdom, of Portugal and Brazil, in Washington, a post that he held until 1820.The vast correspondence between Correia da Serra and Jefferson , as well as the frequent visits to Monticello, show the proximity of ways of thinking and the communion of principles between these two men, united by the enlightenment ideals they helped to consolidate, namely: the concern to affirm the usefulness of the knowledge of natural and exact sciences to improve the processes of allocation of productive resources, and the purpose of making historical and scientific knowledge a privileged instrument for the transformation of society. This is how the modernity of thought of two authors who have greatly contributed to the perennially of knowledge-based public policies.


The text was written by José Luís Cardoso (Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon).

Bibliographic note:

For further knowledge of the scientific and friendship relation of Correia da Serra and Thomas Jefferson, including some of their correspondence, see Richard Beale Davis, O Abade Correia da Serra na América, 1812-1820. Lisboa: Imprensa de Ciências Sociais, 2013 (Foreword by Onésimo Teotónio Almeida and Introduction by José Luís Cardoso).