Founding Scientists

In US schools, we like to tell our students that the Founding Fathers were strongly influenced by the European Enlightenment philosophers, who wrote about the power of reason and the natural equality of all people. Parenthetically, some historians credit the introduction of coffee in Europe for the rapid spread of these new ideas. Instead of gathering to drink alcohol, people came together to consume coffee, which likely caused drastic changes in the complexity of the topics discussed.

In any case, civics teachers usually focus of the political philosophies of John Locke or Immanuel Kant, but the rejection of the established order and received wisdom regarding clergy and kings also applied to science. The scientific revolution led by Newton and Copernicus  helped prepare the way for a worldview in which Nature can be made comprehensible to humans using pure reason. This makes established powers, like absolute monarchs and lesser nobility, very nervous, since anyone can claim – rationally – that birth or favor from elites alone should not generate special privileges. It makes sense, therefore, that the founding fathers engaged in science.

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In a new book called Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries: The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment by Tom Shachtman, goes through some examples: (from the publisher)

“Science and experimentation were at the heart of the Founding Fathers’ philosophies and actions. The Founders relentlessly tinkered, invented, farmed by means of scientific principles, star-gazed, were fascinated by math, used scientific analogies and scientific thinking in their political writing, and fell in love with technologies. They conceived of the United States of America as a grand “experiment” in the scientific meaning of the word. George Washington’s embrace of an experimental vaccination for smallpox saved the American army in 1777. He was also considered the most scientific farmer in the country. John Adams founded a scientific society and wrote public support of science into the Massachusetts constitution. The president of another scientific society, Thomas Jefferson, convinced its leading lights to train Meriwether Lewis for the Lewis and Clark expedition; his Declaration of Independence was so suffused with scientific thinking that it was called Newtonian. Benjamin Franklin’s fame as an “electrician” gave him the status to persuade France to help America win the Revolutionary War. Thomas Paine invented smokeless candles, underwater bombs, and the first-ever iron span bridge. In Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries, Tom Shachtman provides the full story of how the intellectual excitement of scientific discoveries had a powerful influence on America’s Founding Fathers.”

Benjamin Franklin’s kite experiment demonstrating that lightning is a form of electric current – and thus not supernatural in origin and possible to be controlled by humans – but not as many people know that he came up with the nomenclature of positive and negative electric charges. Thomas Jefferson was an inventor, writing that “Nature intended for me the tranquil pursuits of science by rendering them my supreme delight.” TJ came up with:

  • dumbwaiters for wine bottles
  • the Great Clock than runs for a week
  • the hideaway bed
  • the pedometer
  • the plow moldboard of least resistance
  • the polygraph letter copying machine)
  • a revolving bookstand
  • the wheel cipher

So let us reflect on the connection between openness to science, new ideas, and classical liberalism, while this is in the news:

 Sen. Inhofe, denier of human role in climate change, likely to lead environment committee

Sen. James M. Inhofe, an the Oklahoma Republican who once compared the Environmental Protection Agency to the Gestapo, is likely to lead the Environment and Public Works Committee when the GOP takes control of the Senate next year. If approved, Inhofe would replace Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), an avowed environmentalist, producing one of the most stark post-election changes in the Capitol.