For the Founders: A Practical Connection

Science and the Founding Fathers

By I. Bernard Cohen

W.W. Norton & Co.

368 pp., $25

'There can be no doubt that the Founding Fathers displayed knowledge of scientific concepts and principles which establishes their credentials as citizens of the Age of Reason."

I. Bernard Cohen tells us what we already know: Those who declared our independence and wrote our Constitution were renaissance men - not tethered to tradition or scripture. They did not await revelations. They were practical, empirical, reasoning men, well read in contemporary thought, including science.

The question is, what does a science historian add to this perception? In this book, Cohen adds a number of interesting anecdotes, but not much insight.

Cohen is a founder of science history and received the nation's first doctorate in this field. He observes that the many historians of our Revolution misconstrued 18th-century science if they considered it at all. Regular historians just don't understand Newton's Principia and other scientific texts. These historians miss scientific allusions in speeches and writings. As a remedy, Cohen samples the Founding Fathers. He takes Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison and painstakingly looks for science in their education and works.

We learn that Benjamin Franklin, the inventor of bifocals and the Franklin stove, was no mere gadgeteer. He was a scientist whose theories of electricity went far beyond kites and keys. Franklin described polarity and the fluidity of electricity. His works were required college reading in Europe and America well into the 19th century. His scientific fame aided his diplomacy and gave credence to our revolution.

Adams, at Harvard, and Jefferson, at William and Mary, received first-rate science educations. Madison was disadvantaged at Princeton (poor lab equipment!), but caught up on his own.

Of the four, Franklin was least likely to use scientific analogy in his political discourse, which tended to be simply phrased and to the point. He never indicated any direct correlation between political economy and Newton's physics or his own theories.

Jefferson's Declaration of Independence is fraught with allusions to natural law. "We hold these truths to be self-evident...." The presumption is based on analogy. Just as there are nature's laws, there are laws of human nature. But the one is not the other.

Adams and Madison also see parallels between science and politics, but do not overdraw the connection. Their rhetoric employs scientific metaphor and analogy. All four were level-headed men who compromised and adapted. They were not pseudo-scientific ideologues like Comte or Marx.

Cohen agrees with Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who lead the development of the nuclear bomb, whom he quotes. "What there is in eighteenth-century political and economic theory that derives from Newtonian methodology is hard for even an earnest reader to find."

There was no mathematical analysis. There was no experimentation. The impact of science and technology on political issues was tiny by today's standards. There was no talk of pollution standards or AIDS research. The lightning rod was as close as they got. Should it end in a knob or a point? England and America divided on that one. It was politics, not science, that decided.

This labored book reads like footnotes. Here and there are good anecdotes, such as Jefferson's conversion on the abilities of blacks (he finds a black man who knows advanced mathematics) and the story of the lightning rod. Still, this is mostly a reference for the serious student of the Founding Fathers. Its themes would have been better placed in a short article.

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