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Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries: The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment
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Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries: The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment

by Tom Shachtman

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The “American Experiment” was not a metaphor in the eyes of our Founding Fathers, according to journalist Shachtman (Rum-springa: To Be or Not to Be Amish) in this lively history of 18th-century science. Retiring early after making his fortune, Benjamin Franklin took up scientific tinkering and his groundbreaking discoveries about electricity made him world-famous. He used his celebrity status to lobby Parliament to address colonial grievances and, when that failed, to persuade France to aid the Continental Congress. Science played a minor role in the Revolution itself, although one major event was Washington’s courageous 1777 decision to inoculate his troops against smallpox—a public health milestone that may have preserved his army. As leaders of the new nation, presidents Washington and Adams aggressively encouraged science, invention, and technological advances, but Jefferson, a man of science himself, outdid them. His administration sponsored several extensive information-gathering expeditions (Lewis & Clark’s being the most notable), supported fossil collection, and promoted vaccination. Shachtman makes an ingenious and convincing case that “science-based thoughts and actions were critical to the nation’s birth and early health—far more so than were religious doctrine or economic considerations.” (Oct.)
From the Publisher

“A well-researched, lively entry into the current debate about the role of science in a democracy.” —Kirkus

“An intriguing survey of science's influence on the Founders.” —Booklist

“We might hear as children about Ben Franklin with his kite and key in the thunderstorm, but this lively and learned book gives us the grown-up view of the Founders and their fascination with things scientific. Employing a large cast of colonial characters--Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, and other famous figures of the era, but also lesser-known thinkers and tinkerers--Tom Shachtman makes a compelling case that the American Revolution became a movement not only for political independence, but for scientific independence as well. Indeed, Shachtman shows us that the two can hardly be considered separable.” —Greg Nobles, Professor of History, Georgia Institute of Technology, and co-author of Whose American Revolution Was It?

“This splendid book tells the eye-opening story of America's founding generation as first-class scientists. We know how they created the government of the United States. Here we learn much more--and what a story it is!” —Lee Dembart, former science book reviewer, Los Angeles Times

“Brilliant new book by Tom Shachtman: science as practiced by the Founding Fathers and their generation.” —Charles Clark

Kirkus Reviews
Shachtman (American Iconoclast: The Life and Times of Eric Hoffer, 2011, etc.) makes a strong case for the importance of science and technology in the creation of the United States."Today," writes the author, "the centrality to the Founding Fathers of their enlightened, scientific outlook has been obscured." He takes a variety of familiar examples—e.g. George Washington's experience as a surveyor and plans for a complex canal system; Benjamin Franklin's scientific eminence; Thomas Jefferson's wide-ranging scientific interests; Tom Paine's less well-known design of an iron-span bridge; and John Adams' love of astronomy—to make a larger point. Acceptance of the scientific method of verification and experimentation played a central role in the Founding Fathers' confidence that they could build a new nation based on a radical vision of the rights of man. They were able to unify the population and its leaders in a shared worldview broadly defined by key figures of the Enlightenment. Shachtman reveals a direct connection between the political and scientific correspondence committees in the Colonies that laid the groundwork for coordinated action in the period leading up to the Revolution. Botanist Peter Collinson and others sponsored Americans for membership in the Royal Society. Collinson's networks promoted Benjamin Franklin's work and encouraged botanical research and astronomical observations in the Colonies. The scientists also fiercely debated the issue of small pox vaccination, and the author suggests, its adoption by George Washington avoided a potentially calamitous spread of the disease among soldiers. Shachtman also points to Jefferson's inclusion of the phrase "the pursuit of happiness" in his draft of the Declaration of Independence. The author traces it to a book on moral philosophy, The Religion of Nature Delineated, which was widely read in the Colonies and was authored by William Wollaston, who claimed that "the greatest happiness lay in the discovery of truth." A well-researched, lively entry into the current debate about the role of science in a democracy.
Library Journal
Shachtman (Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold) provides an interesting perspective on American Revolutionary history by leading the reader on a tour of the scientific highlights of the period: smallpox inoculation, farming techniques, manufacturing, and early paleontology. Many of these phenomena had important implications during the Revolutionary War or immediately thereafter. But first, Shachtman gives a quick introduction to the founding fathers with a focus on their scientific education and interests. As described here, these individuals include the traditional quartet of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, as well as several other former presidents, doctors, and scientists who the author feels deserve inclusion based on their scientific contributions. Many of these men spent their lives striving for recognition from their peers in Europe. The main thrust of the author's argument is that this scientific zeal pervades not only the men's actions but the very words of the revolution; he finds allusions to Issaac Newton in the Declaration of Independence and even patent law in the Constitution. VERDICT Although some of the assertions seem a bit threadbare, this is nonetheless a fascinating and unique look at the familiar history of the founding of the United States through the hyperfocused lens of scientific advancement.—Cate Hirschbiel, Iwasaki Lib., Emerson Coll., Boston

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Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries

The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment

By Tom Shachtman

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2014 Tom Shachtman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-47460-5



The term "Founding Fathers" usually refers to four senior patriots, three of whom became president: in the order of their births, Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), George Washington (1732–1799), John Adams (1735–1826), and Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826). Membership in the Founders is often extended to James Madison (1751–1836), Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804), Aaron Burr (1756–1836), and James Monroe (1758–1831). I shall press the case for elevating to Associate Founder, for their scientific thinking, John Bartram (1699–1777), David Rittenhouse (1732–1796), Tom Paine (1737–1809), Benjamin Rush (1746–1813), and Charles Thomson (1729–1824), but will hold them aside for the moment to first consider the backgrounds and childhoods of the better-acknowledged octet.

In sharp contrast to the childhoods of later generations of middle- and upper-class Americans, the early years of Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Burr, and Monroe, as with most of their contemporaries, were stolid and purposeful, far from carefree or idyllic even in those families with money. All eight were of British descent; all were Protestants; save for Hamilton, all were born in the North American colonies; and, save for Burr, they had fathers with little formal education.

Washington, Jefferson, Burr, and Monroe became fatherless before they reached adulthood. Hamilton hardly knew his father; and while the fathers of Franklin and Adams survived into their sons' middle years, the sons definitively rejected the life paths set out for them by their sires. Only Madison's father lived to see his son, James Jr., fulfill his paternal expectations.

The condition of fatherlessness was then common. Average life expectancy for white men and women in the American colonies remained steady at forty-six years throughout the eighteenth century. Nearly half of the white children born in the southern colonies became fatherless, motherless, or both by age twenty-one; in the northern colonies the percentage of children who lost one or both parents was smaller but still significant. Though the loss of a parent was common, American family histories of the colonial era universally acknowledge that it was traumatic for a child; and while most widowed parents did remarry within a few years of a spouse's death, bereaved children remained emotionally scarred for life.

For sons in the American colonial culture, the early loss of a father was particularly difficult since the primogeniture laws and church practice mandated that male children were to be taught by fathers rather than by mothers and were to be led by their fathers through their major life choices of vocation, spouse, political and church affiliation, and residence. According to one study of familial structures,

Sons were often regarded as extensions of their fathers; young or newly born sons were commonly described by their fathers as "my hope" or "my consolation". ... Men were thought to have superior reason, which made them less likely than women to be misled by the "passions" and "affections" to which both sexes were subject. ... Fathers had to restrain their children's sinful urges and encourage the development of sound reason.

From birth to age five or six, children were clothed in dresslike gowns; by age seven, approximately when schooling began, boys were switched to clothing resembling that of an adult male, while girls remained in dresses — a change emphasizing that men were dominant and adult but that women were subordinate and childlike. Fathers, not mothers, had the responsibility of instructing sons at home or arranging for their early schooling. Later on in the sons' lives, fathers directed them into apprenticeships or to other ways of earning their livelihoods, superintended their marriages, and bestowed or bequeathed property to them. That many sons dutifully and regularly sought their fathers' counsel is reflected in the thousands of surviving letters from sons to fathers, in contrast to the few hundred extant letters from sons to mothers.

Literate fathers of lesser economic means taught their prepubescent sons to read and write at home; better-off fathers sent the sons to schools, usually those run by local clergy, who were often graduates of British universities and the most literate men in a community. In such early-grade schools, the revolutionary cohort learned what was, then as now, the basis of science: mathematics. Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Hamilton came to love mathematics and to rely on it. Although Franklin twice flunked basic math and never mastered geometry, in his adulthood he became adept enough to create "magic squares" of numbers; Adams remembered enough mathematics so that he could teach his son John Quincy rudimentary calculus; Washington's surveying was dependent upon mathematical precision; Hamilton used his facility with numbers to escape a stultifying childhood in the Caribbean for New York. Jefferson's embrace of mathematics translated into his measuring and comparing by ratio many aspects of his daily life; while teaching mathematics to his grandson, he revealed why he liked it: "We have no theories there, no uncertainties remain on the mind; all is demonstration and satisfaction."

Fatherlessness has been explicitly acknowledged in modern times as emotionally roiling and as a largely negative influence on children. But some modern studies show that the effects of fatherlessness on "high achievers" may not be as bad as they are upon those who never reach prominence. Studies of mathematical and scientific geniuses of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries reveal that a disproportionately high fraction, in some fields a quarter, in others a third, had lost one or both parents during childhood in an era when losing parents was significantly rarer than in prior centuries. Individuals who managed to surmount the difficulties attendant on an early parental death went on to accomplishment more often than did their contemporaries. This modern study echoes the lesson that Jefferson, who lost his father at age fourteen, understood from the experience: "The whole care and direction of myself was thrown on myself entirely, without a relation or friend qualified to advise or guide me." Willing and able to rely on his own decision-making processes, Jefferson grew up quickly. Fatherlessness, I believe, was one of the most important bases for the Founding Fathers' predilection for adopting mind-sets primed for independence, rebelliousness, and new ideas.

One of the most distinctive characteristics of high achievers is their willingness to break with convention. This trait is better acknowledged in scientific than in political work, for significant scientific breakthroughs are seldom incremental in nature and usually involve a rejection of or a serious alteration to prior theories and accepted wisdom. While Isaac Newton — hero to all of the Founding Fathers — famously wrote, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants," his accomplishments owed far more to his eagerness to disprove and transcend some of those giants' less rigorously scientific understandings of the universe. To make their Revolution, the Founding Fathers similarly had to overturn the patriarchal form of government under which the colonies labored, as well as many of its accompanying conventions and social structures.

Able to choose between fealty to the older, religious-dictated worldview and acceptance of the possibilities inherent in the newer, science-based one, the Founders gravitated toward the new — in part because just at that moment it was eminently possible for them to embrace the new without danger to their souls. Adopting scientific thinking did not require them to be irreligious or in any way to deny God as the First Cause of the universe. In their view, the breathtaking scope of God's design and its fabulous, intricate details had been revealed and illuminated by the scientific discoveries of the previous two centuries. In consequence, the then-current scientific worldview encouraged the rejection only of what was distasteful, unsupportable, or unduly shackling in religious explanations, and it retained and even burnished a reverence for God. That worldview had moved toward the aims for science that the quite religious Francis Bacon had set out in 1620 in The New Atlantis: "the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things, and the enlarging of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible." A hundred years after Bacon wrote, his vision was perhaps more characteristic of the conception and expectations of science in the American colonies than of science in the British Isles.

"THE BEAME AND CHAINE balke no Truthes nor blaunch Un-truths ... Take away Number, Weight, Measure you exile Justice and reduce and haile-up from Hell the olde and odious Chaos of Confusion." Sarah S. Hughes cites this ancient quotation about surveying in her study of Virginia colonial surveyors to underscore the idea that surveying was then considered a thrillingly exact practical science and exploration into the barely known, aspects that contributed to its respect by the community, and certainly by the young surveyor George Washington.

George Washington was a child of a second marriage; his father, Augustine, had remarried after being widowed. When George was three, the family moved to Fredericksburg, where he may have first been taught by his father's tenant, a Mr. Hobby, who later claimed credit for his instruction, prior to attending a school run by the Reverend James Marye. Two hundred pages of Washington's schoolboy notes survive; they are largely taken up with copyings from mathematics textbooks and exercises in geometry, trigonometry, rudimentary economics, record keeping, and surveying. It is likely that Washington also received informal education from his half- brother and idol, Lawrence, fourteen years older, who had attended the Appleby School in England and may have stayed on as an instructor before returning to Virginia. George's own school attendance ended abruptly in 1743 when his father died. The tall eleven-year-old then came more directly under the influence of Lawrence, then twenty-five, and of Lawrence's father-in-law, Lord William Fairfax, who served as Washington's model for acting as a gentleman.

George's next schooling of record was four years later, when he attended the College of William & Mary for a short session that, given the school's fiat, must have been devoted to training and licensing as a surveyor rather than to the classical education that the college provided to regular students. William & Mary held an exclusive grant to license surveyors in Virginia and had reason to assert that privilege, which was an important source of revenue for the college from licensees bound by contract to turn over to it a sixth of their fees. But Lord Fairfax was a powerful man who held sway over five million acres granted to him by the king, and within that domain he independently exercised the right to employ, if not to license, surveyors. In 1748, Washington worked as an apprentice for George William Fairfax, the son of Lord Fairfax's cousin, on a survey into the Shenandoah Valley, and on a second one for the city of Alexandria, of which Lawrence was a trustee. A few days after the plan for Alexandria was completed, George Washington was commissioned as a full surveyor.

Surveying was a way of introducing order and reason into the wild western Virginia frontier — and into the life of a young and largely adrift practitioner of the craft. In Virginia, surveying had evolved into a gentleman's calling that brought cash and prestige to such men as Peter Jefferson, father of Thomas, and John Henry, father of Patrick, both senior surveyors when Washington was a neophyte. "Whatever the defects of their education," Hughes concludes, "the gentlemen surveyors were numbered among the colony's practical-minded intellectual elite, the minority who collected books and subscribed to newspapers."

From 1749 to 1752, Washington put in a few months each year as a surveyor during amenable weather, taking along an experienced chainman whom he paid directly rather than, as per custom, having the several chainmen paid for by the client whose property was being surveyed. Washington and a crew of three or four were often at work far from European civilization at a time when Native Americans understood the meaning of surveyors' hacked marks on trees and sometimes followed those marks to a camp and killed or kidnapped the surveyors.

Washington did most of his surveying work on the frontier, at the western edge of Frederick County. His regular kit included expensive state-of-the-art equipment, such as a two-foot "Gunter's scale." Although Washington appears to have enjoyed using his surveying skills and commanding a small band of men, his letters suggest that his main purpose in surveying was income. "A Dubbleloon is my constant gain every Day that the Weather will permit my going out, and some time Six Pistoles," he wrote to a friend. Aside from paying his chainman, he kept all of the £100 or so he earned each year, sending none of it to the College of William & Mary.

A few entries in his diaries and notes convey his modest appreciation of the natural surround, but more of them deal with the need to conquer it for the settlers' use. He conceived a lifelong interest in reshaping the rapids and falls of the Potomac River for a commercial route to the lands of the West. Returning from a trip along the Potomac, he observed to a friend, "There is no obstacle other than the shallowness of the water to prevent Craft from passing," and imagined that one waterfall "may be much amended by digging a channel on the Maryland side abt 2 Miles from this and 1/2 Mile below the Mouth of the Shannondoah." He used part of his profit from surveying to make a first land purchase, 1,459 acres along Bullskin Creek in Frederick County.

In all that Washington later did he incorporated surveying's essentials — faith in numbers, precision, accuracy, and rigor, and the need to double-check every assessment. He ceased his surveying in November 1752 when he had an opportunity to take over Lawrence's military commission; but also, the supply of unsurveyed lands on the western Virginia frontier was dwindling. Additional pressure to yield his surveying assignments may have come from William & Mary; under a new royal governor, the college was reasserting its sole right to license surveyors, taking it back from Lord Fairfax.

The previous year, Washington had cut short his surveying season to accompany Lawrence, ill with tuberculosis, on a journey to Barbados, in whose balmy atmosphere his brother's health was expected to recover. George kept a diary on this thirty-seven- day voyage, recording his advancing knowledge of the "riggan," his new eating experiences of dolphins and "barracootas," and what occurred when the sea-going equivalent of a survey was inaccurate:

We quitted our beds with surprise and found ye land plainly appearing at bout 3 leagues distance when by our reckonings we shou'd have been near 150 Leagues to the Windward we to Leeward abt ye distance above mention'd and had we been but 3 or 4 leagues more we shou'd have been out of sight of the Island run down the Latitude and probably not have discover'd Error in time to have gain'd land for 3 Weeks or More.

On Barbados, Washington observed flora, fauna, and society, and read a local natural history book and commented in his diary on crops, means of production, and yield per acre compared to what he obtained in Virginia. Lawrence's health did not markedly improve and on November 17 George was "strongly attacked with the small Pox," becoming so ill that he did not write again in the diary until December 12. Lightly scarred in the face, he understood that a scientific fact had been imprinted on his body, evidence that he had acquired immunity from smallpox for life.

Lawrence died soon after their return to Virginia, and George took over Lawrence's responsibilities with the militia and devoted himself to agriculture at Mount Vernon, the estate he inherited from Lawrence and enlarged after his 1759 marriage to Martha Custis, the wealthiest widow in Virginia. On Mount Vernon's acres he struggled to replace the land-exhausting crop of tobacco. He recorded in a diary that he and his smith, Peter, made "several efforts to make a plow after a new model — partly of my own contriving," but did not then succeed. He cultivated new crops, flax and hemp, obtained equipment for turning those crops into cloth, and within three years the plantation was making all of the cloth needed for his numerous slaves' everyday garb. He also conducted what he styled "experiments" of various mixes of manures, seeds, and planting schemes. A typical entry, March 24, 1760: "In the Evening, in a Bed that had been prepared with a mixture of Dung on Saturday last, I sowed Choice Lucerne, and Rye Grass Seeds in the Garden, to try their Goodness, doing it in the following Order: at the end next the Corner were two Rows of Clover Seed; in the 3rd, 4, 5, and 6th Rye Grass — the last Row thinnest Sowd; 7th and 8th Barley (to see if it woud come up)." Within a few days he was grafting cherries, plums, apples, and planting Madeira grapes; in May he experimented with different soils in which to plant oats and "watch their growth and different changes till Harvest."


Excerpted from Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries by Tom Shachtman. Copyright © 2014 Tom Shachtman. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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

Tom Shachtman is an author, filmmaker, and educator. He has written or co-authored more than thirty books, including Rumspringa, Airlift to America, and Terrors and Marvels, as well documentaries for ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS, and has taught at major universities. Publishers Weekly lauded his book Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish as "not only one of the most absorbing books ever written about the Plain People, but a perceptive snapshot of the larger culture in which they live and move." He has written articles for The New York Times, Newsday, Smithsonian, and environmental monthlies, and writes a column for The Lakeville Journal (CT). A two-hour television documentary based on his book Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold was broadcast on PBS in February 2008.

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