Science and the Founding Fathers


Another post from the History Book Club. It seemed particularly appropriate for today (January 20th, Inauguration Day).

Science and the Founding Fathers: Science in the Political Thought of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and James Madison,
by I. Bernard Cohen, W.W. Norton & Company, 1995.

I. Bernard Cohen was one of the grand old men in the history of science, one of the foremost authorities on Newton and Franklin. In Science and the Founding Fathers, Cohen delves into the influence of science on Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Madison, as well as its role in shaping the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

I remember visiting Monticello as a child. Right away the place made a strong impression on me. Everywhere I felt the imprint of a lively and multifaceted mind. Jefferson’s modifications to the moldboard plow interested me the least. Little did I realize that Jefferson’s design stemmed from the solution to a problem in the calculus of variations, one of the more recondite topics treated in Newton’s Principia.

Any educated 18th century gentleman would have some knowledge of “Newtonian philosophy”, but Jefferson was steeped in it. As Secretary of State, he wrote detailed proposals for standards of weights and measures; this lead him deep into the physics of pendula, again one of the more abstruse parts of the Principia. In his Notes on Virginia, he quoted Newton directly. In a letter to John Adams after leaving the presidency, Jefferson expresses his pleasure in having “given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid”. Only Newton is fit to be mentioned in the same breath as the three great figures from antiquity.

Jefferson brought his mastery of science to bear on politics on several occasions. The theory of degeneration, espoused by the famous French naturalist Buffon, held that the plants, animals, and human beings of the New World were inferior to the old, and that species transplanted from the Old World to the New would degenerate. In Notes on Virginia, Jefferson’s only book, he mounted a frontal assault on degeneration. As Cohen notes, “To demonstrate the falsity of this theory was a matter of real political consequence.” Jefferson did a masterful refutation, buttressed by reams of data, and convicting his opponents of flaws in logic and uncritical acceptance of misinformation.

In 1792, when Jefferson was serving as Secretary of State under Washington, Congress passed an act for the apportionment of congressional representatives. Jefferson persuaded Washington to cast his first veto against it. Assigning representation in proportion to population may seem like a trivial division problem. But fractional remainders pop up, and who gets the extra seat or seats is fraught with contention. Cohen lucidly explains the mathematical and political issues, and Jefferson’s ingenious solution, which was adopted.

Those stirring words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” bear a deep genetic relationship to the axioms of Euclid and of Newton. Cohen’s subtle and extensive discussion traces the Newtonian threads running through the Declaration of Independence. He dives into the history of the phrase “The laws of nature and of nature’s God”, finding antecedents in Newton’s laws of motion and the theory of natural rights. He engages with noted historians Carl Becker and Gary Wills. He concludes, “It is because Jefferson availed himself of such a rich and varied intellectual font that scholars have expended so much energy in interpreting the Declaration.”

In his own day, Franklin won international fame for his scientific achievements. 19th century accounts often relegated him to the status of a tinkerer, but modern historical research has restored his high status. Franklin, like Jefferson, studied Newton avidly, but Franklin drew his inspiration from Newton’s Opticks rather than the Principia. The Opticks, written in English rather than Latin and almost devoid of mathematics, supplied a superb model of the experimental method. Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity rose to the level set by his predecessor, interweaving theory and observation with equal skill.

Of course we think “lightning rod” when we think of Franklin and electricity. Franklin however undertook his investigations with no initial thoughts of practical applications. The lightning rod dramatically confirmed Bacon’s belief that pure science would yield useful inventions. It furnished the first such example and for quite some time the major one. Similarly, Franklin’s stove derived from his curiosity-driven studies of heat and thermal conductivity.

A Fellow the Royal Society and one of the eight associés étrangers of the Académie Royale des Sciences, Franklin’s scientific fame was one the chief reasons Jefferson gave for Franklin’s selection as ambassador to France. His popularity there compares only with modern celebrities. Franklin memorabilia flooded the Paris markets. One medallion depicted him warding off a lightning bolt with the shield of Minerva in one hand, while directing Mars to conquer tyranny with the other. Louis XVI privately expressed his annoyance by having a chamber pot, the medallion set at the bottom of the bowl, sent to his mistress as a present.

How important was Franklin’s fame for his diplomatic achievements? Certainly they helped open doors to him, securing entrée to grand dinners where the influential members of society formed their opinions. In Cohen’s words, “His reputation helped turn French opinion toward war with England as an ally of America, fanning the flames of an existing Anglophobia.” Cohen finally concludes though that geopolitical factors were equally important.

John Adams received a solid education in science at Harvard, including Newtonian physics. The theory of equilibrium made a lasting impression on him. Later in life, Adams employed a physical analogy to argue for three powers in government rather than two: equilibrium is more easily achieved with three forces rather than two, since precise cancellation is harder to obtain with two.

Science did not rank among Adams’ first loves, as it did for Jefferson and Franklin, and Adams was not fluent in it. Cohen is at pains to point out Adams’ misconceptions about Newton’s third law and Franklin’s electrical theory. The context for these errors was a dispute between Adams and Franklin about unicameralism versus bicameralism. Franklin favored unicameralism, Adams bicameralism. Adams introduced the scientific analogies into the discussion in the first place, a sign of the prestige that science conferred in the 18th century. Adams had the last laugh, when Pennsylvania converted from a unicameral legislature to a bicameral one within months of Franklin’s death.

Cohen’s final topic is the influence of Newtonian science on the Constitution. His discussion is nuanced, incisive, and thorough. It leads him through the pages of the Federalist and the thoughts of Madison and Hamilton, all the way to Woodrow Wilson and Darwinism. I forbear to summarize, and close with a quote:

What matters is … that science did provide a source of metaphors for some of the discussions in relation to the Constitution. … [T]he Founding Fathers displayed a knowledge of scientific concepts and principles which establishes their credentials as citizens of the Age of Reason.


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Filed under History Book Club, Reviews

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