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Cadwallader Colden: A Biography

Cadwallader Colden: A Biography

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by Seymour I. Schwartz

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The first complete biography of Cadwallader Colden (1688-1776), the longest-serving Lieutenant Governor of New York and a brilliant intellectual, multifaceted colonial Renaissance man, and consummate royalist.

This is the first complete biography of Cadwallader Colden (1688-1776), one of the most accomplished intellectual and political figures in


The first complete biography of Cadwallader Colden (1688-1776), the longest-serving Lieutenant Governor of New York and a brilliant intellectual, multifaceted colonial Renaissance man, and consummate royalist.

This is the first complete biography of Cadwallader Colden (1688-1776), one of the most accomplished intellectual and political figures in the American colonies before the Revolution. As the longest-serving Lieutenant Governor of New York he was intimately involved in the tumultuous political life of the times. His History of the Five Indian Nations (1727) was the first English history of the Iroquois and a popular book both in the colonies and in Europe. 
     Colden was also a trained physician. Though he never practiced, he significantly improved the public health of the colony. Furthermore, he was an internationally recognized botanist, the author of the first scientific paper published in the colonies, and an accomplished cartographer who published the first map in the colony of New York.
     A prolific letter writer, Colden corresponded with many of the major intellectuals of his day, including Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Johnson. In addition, he wrote extensively on a wide range of topics, including philosophy, history, the natural sciences, and mathematics. 
     Why has this distinguished individual fallen into obscurity? As an ardent royalist he was the most vilified of the colonial leaders and was even burned in effigy. This well-researched and long-overdue biography tells the fascinating story of this multifaceted colonial Renaissance man.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An interesting, engaging, and readable biography of a central—but much overlooked—early American philosopher, scientist, and politician. This is the only comprehensive study of Colden’s personal and political life, and it should help to bring new attention to a man who was called ‘the most learned . . . in the [British] Colonies.’”
—Scott L. Pratt, professor of philosophy, University of Oregon, coeditor of The Philosophical Writings of Cadwallader Colden

“Cadwallader Colden is a colonial American intellectual and political figure whose contributions need to be much better known and regarded. Seymour Schwartz has written an important, readable, and carefully documented account of Colden’s life that should go far in enabling that to happen. Those of us who care about our understanding of American colonial history and thought are in Professor Schwartz’s debt.”
—John Ryder, provost, American University of Ras Al Khaimah, coeditor of The Philosophical Writings of Cadwallader Colden

“Working from a vast array of archival sources, Seymour I. Schwartz has meticulously chronicled the fascinating story of Cadwallader Colden, the brilliant but often-overlooked polymath of the American Enlightenment.”
—Valerie Paley, PhD, historian and vice president for Scholarly Programs, New-York Historical Society

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Prometheus Books
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Cadwallader Colden

A Biography

By Seymour I. Schwartz

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2013 Seymour I. Schwartz
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61614-854-6




Counter to the usual course in which the Scotch-Irish immigrants to colonial America joined in with rebellious factions, Cadwallader Colden (fig. 1) never diverted from his dedication to British rule and his obligation to the Crown. This can be ascribed, in part, to his genetic and acquired conservatism related to the early parental influence during his youth. Colden was born in Ireland on February 7, 1688, to Scottish parents, the Reverend Alexander Colden and his wife, Janet Hughes. Alexander Colden had received an MA from the University of Edinburgh in 1675, and, in 1685, he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. He was initially assigned to a parish in Enniscorty, County Wexford, Ireland, where Cadwallader was born. A year after Cadwallader's birth, his father was transferred to the Presbytery of Duns, Scotland, about thirty miles from Edinburgh. His parents would remain at that post for the rest of their lives.

In Alexander Colden's final letter to his son, dated August 5, 1732, in which it is noted that Cadwallader's mother died on September 23, 1731, Cadwallader's father proudly reported that, at the time, he had the distinction of being the oldest minister in the Church of Scotland. In that letter, as in all of his correspondence, Cadwallader Colden's father's rigid religiosity is evident. The narrative of each letter assumed a ministerial tone as the pen issued forth pages of sermonizing directed at his son. It was as if the son was a member of the father's congregation.

Cadwallader's youth was spent in a bucolic environment, not far from the east coast of southern Scotland. As a young teenager, he was sent to the University of Edinburgh in preparation for following in his father's ministerial footsteps. Cadwallader was admitted in 1702 and matriculated in February 1703, entering as a second-year student because of his proficiency in Latin and Greek.

As part of his studies, Cadwallader was exposed to botany, which was an integral part of the curriculum. The subject had been added to the roster of courses at the University of Edinburgh in 1676. At that time, it was stated: "[C]onsidering the usefulness and necessity of encouragement of the art of Botany and planting of medicinal herbs, and that it were for the better flourishing of the College that the said profession be joined to the other professions, they appoint Mr. James Sutherland, present Botanist, who professes the said art; and upon consideration aforesaid, they unite, annex, and adjoin the said Profession to the rest of the liberal sciences taught in the College, and recommend the Treasurer of the College to provide a convenient room in the College for keeping books and seeds relative to the said Profession." The subject, in which Cadwallader would maintain a long-term interest, was introduced to him by Dr. Charles Preston, the author of Hortus Medicus Edinburgensis.

Colden graduated with an MA from the University of Edinburgh in 1705. Stimulated by his study of the sciences, including Newtonian science and general physics, Cadwallader forsook his father's plan and elected to study medicine in London, where, within a period of five years, he completed a course in anatomy with Doctor Ariskine and a course in chemistry with Mr. Wilson, both distinguished in their professions. As Colden later confessed in a letter to the Swedish botanist Peter Kalm, he was unable to establish a medical practice that would sustain him in London, and so in 1710, he accepted the invitation of Mrs. Elizabeth Hill, his mother's widowed and childless sister, to join her in Philadelphia, at the time, a community with less than three thousand inhabitants. There, he planned to pursue his medical career while assisting his aunt in her mercantile business.

The business, which concentrated on trade with the West Indies, took Colden to Barbados, Jamaica, Antigua, and St. Kitts. The bills of lading of the trade chronicled shipments of the two-way traffic that was dominated by sailings between Philadelphia, the busiest colonial port at the time, and, mainly, Barbados, the largest of the British colonies in the Caribbean Sea. Sugar, rum, and molasses were shipped from the islands, while bread, flour, meat, dry goods, and Madeira wine were sent from North America to the West Indies. One consignment from Colden in Philadelphia includes a "Negro Woeman & Child." She was described as "a good House Negro understands the work of the Kitchen perfectly & washes well. She has a natural aversion to all strong Liquors. Were it not for her Allusive Tongue her sullenness & the Custome of the Country that will not allow us to use our Negroes as you doe in Barbados when they Displeas you I would not have parted with her."

In 1715, Colden interrupted his work in Philadelphia and traveled to Great Britain, where, that year, he married Alice Chrystie (fig. 2), the daughter of a Scottish minister in Kelso, about twenty miles from where he had spent his own youth. Alice was two years Cadwallader's junior and the sister of his friend and classmate at Edinburgh. Colden and his wife would eventually parent ten children, eight of whom would survive infancy. Colden's visit home coincided with the First Scottish Rebellion, known as "The Fifteen," in which there was an attempt to return the Stuarts to the throne. In a subsequent letter, written in support of Colden, in order to counter the criticism that he was a Jacobite rather than a staunch unionist, it was pointed out that, "on the News of McIntoshes Landing on the South Side of the First of Edinburgh he [Colden] brought upward of Seventy Men from the Parish where his Father lives and continued with your Lordship [the Marquis of Lothian] under Arms at Kelso several days."

During that 1715 trip, which was the last time Colden returned home, he met Edmund Halley, the famous astronomer whose name was attached to the comet, the orbit of which he had defined. Colden visited the Royal Society, which received and published his first scientific paper, "Animal Secretions."

The married couple arrived back in Philadelphia in 1716. On his return, Colden concentrated to a greater extent on his medical career. He purchased a barometer and thermometer, from Edinburgh and sent for "any thing that is new in Medicine Mathematics History or Poetry, including the last edition of Newton's Optics and Dr. Gregory's astronomical tables." Among the medical texts ordered by Colden were: Le Clerc Histoire de la Medicine, Hovius de Circulari Humoum, Motie in Oculis, Nuck Operationes et Experiment Chirurg, Wepfer Historia Cicutae Acquaticae, Banister Herbarium Vorginea num, Artis Medice Principles published by Borheowe, Ruyschs Observation. He also ordered a variety of drugs from an apothecary in addition to mortars, crucibles, and Glyster pipes.

Colden, as a formally trained physician, was a member of a distinct minority. William Smith, Jr., in the first volume of The History of the Province of New-York, covering a time period that ended in 1732, wrote: "Quacks abound like Locusts in Egypt, and too many have recommended themselves to a full Practice and a profitable Subsistence. This is the less to be wondered at, as the Profession is under no Kind of Regulation. Loud as the call is, to our Shame be it remembered, we have no Law to protect the Lives of the King's Subjects, from the Malpractice of Pretenders. Any Man at his Pleasure sets up for Physician, Apothecary, and Chirurgeon. No Candidates are either examined or licensed, or even sworn to fair Practice."

Only one of Boston's ten practitioners had a foreign medical degree in 1720, and only one of nine Virginia physicians of the eighteenth century had attended medical school. William Douglass, the one Boston physician with a foreign medical degree, in the 1750s wrote: "by living a year or two in any quality with a practitioner of any sort, apothecary, cancer doctor, cutter for stone, bone-setters, tooth-drawer, &c. with the essential fundamentals of ignorance and impudence, is esteemed to qualify himself for all the branches of the medical art, as much or more than gentlemen in Europe well born, liberally educated (and therefore modest likewise) [who] have travelled much, attended medical professors of many denominations, frequented city hospitals, and camp, infirmaries, &c. for many years." At the time of the American Revolution only 5 percent of medical practitioners held a recognized medical degree.

An eighteenth-century Virginia practitioner, who had trained under the apprenticeship system, countered that "those self swollen sons of pedantic absurdity, fresh & raw from that universal asylum of medical perfection, Edinburgh, ... [who] enter with obstinate assurance upon the old round of obsolete prescription, which their infallible masters taught them, &, like the mule that turns aside for no man, push on in their bloody career till the surrounding mortality, but more especially the danger of their own thick skulls, brings them to pause, & works in them a new conviction."

Colden is credited with the first attempt to establish a systematic course of medical lectures in the colonies. He directed his proposal to James Logan, an influential Philadelphia politician with an interest in science, including botany and Newtonian physics, who was the cousin of Colden's wife. Logan was described as "the region's most influential statesman, its most distinguished scholar, its respected—though not its most beloved—citizen. Logan had invited Colden to assist him in using a telescope to observe an eclipse of the sun in order to compare observations made by astronomers in England. As is noted in a letter by James Logan, written May 1, 1717, in addition to Colden's educational proposal, he requested that an arrangement be established in which he could be compensated for taking care of the poor.

He [Colden] came to me one day to desire my opinion of a proposal to get an act of Assembly for an allowance for him as physician for the poor of this place. I told him I thought very well of the thing, but doubted whether it could be brought to bear in the House. Not long after R. Hill showed me a bill for this purpose, put in his hands by the Governor, with two further provisions in it, which were, that a public physical lecture should be held in Philadelphia, to the support of which every unmarried man above twenty-one years, should pay six shillings, eight-pence, or an English crown yearly, and that the corpses of all persons that died here should be visited by an appointed physician, who should receive for his trouble three shillings and four-pence. These things I owned very commendable, but doubted our Assembly would never go into them, that of lectures especially.

In 1718, Colden's life changed rapidly and dramatically. The change would provide for him the platform for his political performance and the opportunity to satisfy his intellectual curiosity. It began when Colden casually visited New York and, in accordance with protocol, called upon the governor of the province, Robert Hunter. Hunter was a fellow Scot, who had apprenticed to an apothecary but ran away and joined the army. He rose in the ranks, married a woman of high status, and served under the Duke of Marlborough until 1709 when he was made governor of New York. Hunter was an intellect, a classical scholar, linguist, poet, amateur scientist, and a member of the Royal Society of London. Hunter was immediately impressed with Colden's potential as an aide in the governance of the province of New York.

Hunter sought an endorsement for Colden and, in response to Colden's request for a recommendation to Hunter, Logan wrote that it was, "too much like a man's desiring his wife to speak on behalf of another woman.... My heart goes against my head" and if "Colden were doomed to leave Philadelphia, I should wish him at New York, and can say no further." About two weeks after Colden's visit to New York, he received a letter from Governor Hunter offering him the position of surveyor general and master in chancery. Colden immediately accepted and moved with his family to New York.


Excerpted from Cadwallader Colden by Seymour I. Schwartz. Copyright © 2013 Seymour I. Schwartz. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Seymour I. Schwartz, MD (Pittsford, NY), Distinguished Alumni Professor of Surgery at the University of Rochester, is a world-renowned surgeon and the author of Schwartz's Principles of Surgery, which in its seven editions and translations has sold more than 500,000 copies. He is also the author of a history of American surgery called Gifted Hands: America's Most Significant Contributions to Surgery. Dr. Schwartz is equally renowned as a cartographic historian and is the author of many books on historical maps, including Putting "America" on the Map: The Story of the Most Important Graphic Document in the History of the United States.

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Cadwallader Colden: A Biography 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Sean_Dillon_II More than 1 year ago
Very interesting. I finished this over the weekend. Led me to buy The Letters and Papers of Cadwallader Colden, The History of the Five Indian Nations by Cadwallader Colden, a short biography of Jane Colden, and a couple of books about Botany. I love a book that opens the door to more study for me. Thanks Dr. Schwartz!