Science and the Founding Fathers: Science in the Political Thought of
Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Madison.
Corrected edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995, 1997. 368 pp.
Illustrations, bibliographical references, index. $25.00 (cloth), ISBN
0-393-31510-X ISBN 0-393-03501-8; $15.95 (paper), ISBN .
Shalom Doron , Brooklyn College/CUNY and R. B. Bernstein (email@example.com),
Brooklyn College/CUNY and New York Law School.
Exploring the Age of Experiments in Government
past half century, historians and other scholars who study the origins of
the Constitution and the political achievements of the revolutionary
generation have spawned a rich interdisciplinary literature. These scholars
have shown the influence on those achievements of just about every realm of
thought--political, religious, cultural, ethnographic--except one. By and
large, historians, political scientists, and constitutional and legal
scholars either have overlooked the influences of science on Americans'
political thought and action in this era, or they have contented themselves
with superficial and hasty references betraying their own lack of knowledge
of such matters as Newtonian physics.
reason, Science and the Founding Fathers is a groundbreaking work on
the creation of the American Republic. I. Bernard Cohen, now the Victor S.
Thomas Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at Harvard University,
helped launch the history of science as an academic discipline; the first
recipient of an American university's Ph.D. degree in the field, he has done
pioneering work on such subjects as Newton's Principia and Benjamin
In the book under
review, Cohen investigates the role of science in the "age of experiments in
government," seeking to correct what he sees as a gross oversight by
scholars of American political, legal, and constitutional history. Written
in simple, engaging prose, Science and the Founding Fathers deserves
praise as a book that explains, for those with little or no scientific
background, complex scientific ideas and their connections to the political
thought of the Founding Fathers.
argues "that scientific issues were related to the political thought and
also the political action of our Founding Fathers" (p. 13). The
revolutionary generation was heavily influenced by the Enlightenment, with
its great emphasis on science; they based much of their political theory on
scientific ideas and defended their theories by analogies from the physical,
mechanical, and biological sciences.
first chapter, "Science and American History," Cohen examines the impact of
the Enlightenment, also known as the "Age of Reason," on Americans of the
revolutionary generation. He shows that many of the Founding
Fathers--including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and
James Madison, the main subjects of this study--repeatedly used scientific
ideals, concepts, and analogies to formulate and support ideas about
government. These scientific concepts and analogies drew primarily, though
by no means exclusively, on the "twin luminaries" of the Enlightenment, the
philosopher John Locke and the scientist Isaac Newton. Says Cohen, "There
can be no doubt that the Founding Fathers displayed a knowledge of
scientific concepts and principles which establishes their credentials as
citizens of the Age of Reason" (p. 60).
Two, "Science and the Political Thought of Thomas Jefferson: The Declaration
of Independence," begins by exploring Jefferson's relationship with science
in general and with Newtonian physics in particular. Jefferson's education
in science was extensive, and he manifested his interest in the promotion of
science through the active roles he played to expand scientific knowledge,
both as president of the American Philosophical Society (an honor he valued
more highly than his election in the same year as vice president of the
United States) and as president of the United States. The most important
example of his promotion of scientific knowledge was his devising of the
Lewis and Clark Expedition, which would explore the territory to the west of
what was in 1803 the United States (and which the United States ultimately
acquired through the Louisiana Purchase). In preparation for the expedition,
President Jefferson had his choice as its leader, Captain Meriwether Lewis,
trained by leading American scientists in botany, anatomy, zoology,
astronomy, and Indian history. Furthermore, in a remarkable confidential
letter that was in effect the expedition's charter, Jefferson instructed Lewis to gather extensive scientific data about
the country he would be passing through and its flora, fauna, and
1780s, Jefferson--ever the patriot--used his scientific training and
methodology to counter "the widely held 'scientific' theory that plants and
animals, and even human beings, of the New World were inferior to those of the Old" (p. 73). French naturalists,
led by the Comte de Buffon, argued that all life "degenerated" in America. Jefferson responded
in his only full-length book, Notes on the State of Virginia, with an
analysis of extensive specimens (which he had collected and preserved as
evidence) proving that plant and animal life was as large and healthy in
America as in Europe, if not more so--thus proving that America was the
equal, and perhaps even the superior, of Europe.
then discusses how "Jefferson's most renowned political statement, the
Declaration of Independence, exhibits signs of his commitment to the
Newtonian Philosophy" (p. 68). Cohen finds Newtonian echoes in the preamble
of the Declaration of Independence, where "Jefferson defines the 'separate
and equal station' as one to which the people are entitled by 'the Laws of
Nature'" (p. 110). In using the plural "Laws," rather than the singular
"Law," Cohen argues, Jefferson was referring not to the common law, but to the scientific "Laws
of Nature," a reference to Newton's laws of motion.
Referring to human rights as "self evident," Jefferson means to say, in
Cohen's view, that they are "axioms," just as the "Laws of Nature" were
considered to be "axioms," but in the Newtonian sense, not the Euclidian
sense--that is, the truths of the Declaration "are plainly self evident only
in a particular way" (p. 133).
third chapter, "Benjamin Franklin: A Scientist in the World of Public
Affairs," outlines Franklin's
extensive scientific credentials, including his work in the new science of
electricity, of which he was a principal founder. (Here Cohen draws on his
work on Franklin covering more than five decades, from his 1941 edition of
Franklin's Experiments and Observations on Electricity to his 1990
collection of essays, Benjamin Franklin's Science.) Cohen first proves that Franklin's reputation as a
scientist was an important qualification for his appointment to diplomatic
office, first as colonial agent (that is, lobbyist for several American
colonies) to the parliament and king of Great Britain, and later, with the
coming of the American Revolution, as American minister plenipotentiary to
France. Cohen then discusses the examples of scientific analogy that appear
in Franklin's political
thought and arguments. Most notable of these is Franklin's argument in favor
of a unicameral legislature for the new nation, wherein he compared John
Adams's suggested two-house legislature to a specimen of natural history, a
two-headed snake which, if "one head should choose to go on one side of the
stem of a bush and the other head should prefer the other side...neither of
the heads would consent to come back or give way to the other" (p. 155), and
the snake--and by analogy the nation--would die. This episode illustrates
how Cohen's perspective enriches our understandings of perennial subjects of
scholarly inquiry; though the controversy over unicameral versus bicameral
legislatures has long been a staple of historians' understandings of the
evolution of American constitutionalism, no previous scholar has noted the invocation of scientific
analogies by the key figures in that dispute.
Jefferson, Franklin used science to promote the importance of America. In
his 1751 pamphlet, "Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind,"
Franklin used the mathematical science of demography to study the population
explosion in America as compared with Europe, "predicting that under the
American conditions which provided unchecked growth, the population would
double every twenty or twenty-five years" (p. 158); from these calculations,
Franklin concluded that "British America was destined to become the most
populous and the most important part of the British system" (p. 159).
third chapter, "Science and Politics: Some Aspects of the Thought and Career
of John Adams," deals with science in Adams's political thought, as seen
through Adams's debate with John Taylor of Caroline in the early 1800s over
the principle of balance in government. Though Adams was not as well-versed
in science as Jefferson or Franklin, his Harvard education (in particular,
his studies with Professor John Winthrop) gave him a background in both
physics and mathematics. By choosing "balance," most notably "balance of
power" and "balance of property," as the basis of his political philosophy,
Adams rejected Newton's dynamics, the study of forces and accelerations, for
the equilibrium of statics, "the science of forces at rest" (p. 216). Adams
attributed to the seventeenth-century English political thinker James
Harrington (who predated Newton) this concept of political power balanced by
its proportion to ownership of land; Harrington believed "that the physical
sciences are of absolutely no use as sources of analogies for political
discourse" (p. 217). Cohen's crucial point is that Adams's balance was
not Newtonian, for all that he seems to have thought it was.
Responding to John Taylor's charge that the Constitution of the United
States might be "complicated with the idea of a balance" (p. 225), Adams responded with an image "of balanced machinery, of wheels within
wheels" (p. 226), which promotes equilibrium in the system, which the people
desire for its tendency to promote their interests. Indeed, according to Adams, the people "have
invented a balance to all balances in their caucuses," where, Adams wrote, "elections
are decided" (p. 226). Adams did cite Isaac Newton's third law of
motion--erroneously--to defend this system of balance in the context of his
argument for a bicameral legislature. In response to Franklin's ridicule of
the system as impractical, Adams cited Newton's third law--"'that reaction
must always be equal and contrary to reaction,' or there can never be any
rest" (p. 229). Adams, Cohen notes, had forgotten the meaning of Newton's third law, which applies to the forces that bodies exert
on each other, not equal and opposite forces acting on the same body, which
produces Adams's image
of equilibrium or "rest." Adams's political theory, while scientific, was not Newtonian, though Adams still sought to
"hang his hat" on that esteemed sage of the Enlightenment.
fifth and final chapter, "Science and the Constitution," Cohen studies
science as it influenced the political thought of James Madison and other
members of the Federal Convention of 1787, as it emerges in the text of the
Constitution, and as it was used by Madison to defend the Constitution in
his essays in The Federalist. This chapter also serves as an epilogue
to pull together all the diffuse parts of the book and represent them as a
cohesive whole, arguing a single thesis.
begins this chapter with the single direct reference to science in the
Constitution--namely, the power granted to Congress under Article I, section
8, clause 8: "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by
securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the Exclusive Right to
their respective Writings and Discoveries." Cohen analyzes the various
versions of the provision recommended in and considered by the Convention,
as well as some practical applications, such as the invention of the
continues with a discussion of whether the Constitution is a Newtonian
document, citing Woodrow Wilson and others, who contend that it is Newtonian
(and, in Wilson's case, Darwinian as well), both in its structure and its
background. Cohen sets out to disprove those claims, and achieves his goal.
In sum, he agrees with the late political scientist and historian Clinton
Rossiter that, even though it goes too far to say that the Constitution is a
Newtonian document, Newtonian physics and the science of the Enlightenment
in general "quickened the advance toward free government" (p. 255) in three
ways--by conquering superstition; by its kinship with democracy, leading
promoters of science to promote "free government" as well; and by its system
of "immutable natural laws," which gave "sanction to the doctrine of natural
law" (p. 256). Moreover, as Cohen notes, the Constitution's framers did make
extensive use of scientific metaphors and analogies in the debates over the
Constitution, both in the Convention and during the ratification
example, The Federalist, the handiwork of Alexander Hamilton, John
Jay, and James Madison, was the primary book of arguments for the proponents
of the Constitution during the ratification controversy. Cohen shows that
its authors often used scientific metaphors, even though science was not
their primary concern. "What is significant, therefore," Cohen notes, "is
not that science provided metaphors in a prominent way for the authors of
The Federalist, but rather the fact that there are any such metaphors at
all" (p. 272). Scientific references in The Federalist indicate that
science pervaded the thought of its authors, and of the Revolutionary
generation as a whole, so completely that they referred to it unconsciously
in their political debates.
overarching thesis is that science influenced the political theories and
debates of the Revolutionary generation, by providing them with ideals to
achieve and models to imitate, as well as analogies to support and
illustrate their arguments in debate. Cohen makes his thesis more complex by
implying, in his last chapter, that the influence of science is not always
deliberate. That is, the Founders did not necessarily incorporate scientific
language into their arguments intentionally; rather, it had become second
nature to them.
two serious criticisms of this book, neither of which reduces its importance
as a groundbreaking work in the field of early American history. The first
is structural, or perhaps, editorial: this book is too diffuse. In
attempting to open up a completely new approach to the study of the
formation of the American Republic, Cohen has tried, and predictably failed,
to address every important aspect of the scientific influence in the
politics of the period. Attempting to do too much is always a danger when
one goes "where no one has gone before." Furthermore, Cohen's method of
burying discussions of key issues in "Supplements" rather than in
integrating them into his main text, and of failing to provide clear
cross-references to those Supplements at points when they would illuminate
his discussion, often leaves the reader at sea.
second, more serious criticism is that Cohen insists that every scientific
reference that he, an expert on science and its history, finds in the
writings of the Revolutionary generation, must be intentional and must
therefore imply or contain every meaning that he finds within it. Cohen's
thesis would become richer and more accurate if he expanded it to say that
even the political theory of the Revolutionary generation sometimes draws on
science quite by accident, because science permeated their thinking, and
therefore such references do not necessarily mean or imply all that Cohen
claims they do. (Cohen's acknowledgment, previously mentioned, that
scientific references were second-nature to the Revolutionary generation to
the extent of being unconscious or inadvertent should have been more central
to his argument.)
example, Jefferson referred to "the Laws of Nature" and "self evident"
truths in the Declaration of Independence, he did not necessarily intend to
imply the more specific Newtonian references that Cohen attributes to him.
Thus, Jefferson's inadvertent resonances with Newtonian thought are
analogous, so to speak, to James Madison's use of scientific analogies in
The Federalist. Moreover, recall Cohen's insistence that Jefferson was
the American of his generation who was by far most conversant with Newtonian
physics. Had Jefferson intended to incorporate direct and specific
references to Newtonian physics in the Declaration, by Cohen's own analysis
Jefferson would have been writing over the heads of the vast majority of his
intended audience--including the other two leading members of the committee
assigned to draft the Declaration, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. (Cohen
notes that, because Franklin could not read Latin, he could not read
Newton's original Latin text of the Principia; there is no evidence
that Franklin owned or read the contemporary English translation of Newton's leading work.)
claiming that all these scientific implications or resonances were in fact
intended, and so understood by contemporary readers, Cohen is guilty of the
very crime that he accuses experts on legal and political history of
committing--that of claiming ultimate authority, by virtue of his expertise
as a historian of science, to interpret American founding documents "in all
cases whatsoever." As we have noted, Cohen sells his thesis short by
limiting it as he does; a more complex reading of the evidence does not
diminish his achievement, but rather enhances it immensely. We look forward
to further work in this vein--by historians of politics, law, and
science--which will expand on what Cohen has begun, and thus enrich our
knowledge of the founding of the American republic and the complex
interactions among scientific ideas, technological innovations, and
constitutional arrangements in American history.
Acknowledgement: the reviewers wish to acknowledge the contributions of
Shamaila Afzal, Eric Bemben, Anthony Chu, Elsie Gottesman, Christopher W.
Hanke, Catherine Layden, Ahmed Mohassib, Ysidro A. Mora, Moshe (Brad)
Nemetski, Marya Riche, Josh Schenbart, and Max S. Valcourt, students at
Brooklyn College enrolled in Professor Bernstein's spring 1998 History 43.9
course, "Science, Technology, and the Constitution in American History," for
their discussions of this book and their contributions to our understanding
of its strengths and weaknesses. We also wish to thank Daniel M. Lyons,
Brooklyn College/CUNY '39, for endowing the Daniel M. Lyons Visiting
Professorship in American History at Brooklyn College that
made History 43.9 possible.
Michael Foley, Law, Men and Machines: Modern American Government and the
Appeal of Newtonian Mechanics (London and New York: Routledge, 1990),
which discusses previous historians' superficial and careless references to
Newtonianism and the Constitution.
example, I. Bernard Cohen, Introduction to Newton's "Principia"
(Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971); I.
Bernard Cohen, The Newtonian Revolution (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge
University Press, 1980); I. Bernard Cohen, Revolution in Science
(Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985); and I.
Bernard Cohen, Interactions (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994).
Jefferson, "Instructions to Captain Lewis," 20 June 1803, reprinted in
Merrill D. Peterson, ed., Thomas Jefferson: Writings (New York:
Library of America, 1984), 1126-1132.
generally Thomas Jefferson (William Peden, ed.), Notes on the State of
Virginia (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press for the
Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1955); Charles A. Miller,
Jefferson and Nature: An Interpretation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1993); Antonello Gerbi (Jeremy Moyle, ed. and trans.),
The Dispute of the New World (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh
Press, 1973); Henry Steele Commager, The Empire of Reason: How Europe
Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment (New York: Anchor
Press/Doubleday, 1977); Henry Steele Commager and Elmo Giordanetti, eds.,
Was America a Mistake? An Eighteenth-Century Controversy (New York:
Harper and Row, 1967); and Richard B. Bernstein with Kym S. Rice, Are We
to Be a Nation? The Making of the Constitution (Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 1987), chapter Five.
. I. Bernard
Cohen, ed., Benjamin Franklin's "Experiments": A New Edition of
"Experiments and Observations on Electricity"...
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1941); I. Bernard Cohen,
Franklin and Newton (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1956); I. Bernard Cohen,
Benjamin Franklin's Science (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard
University Press, 1990).
generally Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic,
1776-1787 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1969;
rept., with new introduction, 1998); Donald S. Lutz, The Origins of
American Constitutionalism (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University
Press, 1988); Willi Paul Adams (Rita and Robert Kimber, trans.), The
First American Constitutions (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North
Carolina Press, 1980); Jackson Turner Main, The Upper House in
Revolutionary America, 1763-1787 (Madison: University of Wisconsin
Press, 1967); and Bernstein with Rice, Are We to Be a Nation?,
Chapters Two and Five.
Call Number: E302.5 .C62 1995
Franklin, Benjamin, 1706-1790 -- Knowledge -- Science
Franklin, Benjamin, 1706-1790 -- Political and social views
Jefferson, Thomas, 1743-1826 -- Knowledge -- Science
Jefferson, Thomas, 1743-1826 -- Political and social views
Madison, James, 1751-1836 -- Knowledge -- Science
Madison, James, 1751-1836 -- Political and social views
Adams, John, 1735-1826 -- Knowledge -- Science
Adams, John, 1735-1826 -- Political and social views
Political science -- United States -- History -- 18th century
Science -- United States -- History -- 18th century
Shalom Doron . "Review of I. Bernard
Cohen, Science and the Founding Fathers: Science in the Political Thought of
Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Madison," H-Law, H-Net Reviews, June, 1998.
"In his preface, Cohen
asserts that…’[t]here are no works that seek to determine the degree to
which scientific considerations were in any real sense a guide to the
political actions of the Founding Fathers’ (p. 19). This work does
much to fill that void. It will undoubtedly serve both as a model for
and a stimulus of further study of the relationship between scientific and
political thought throughout American history.”
Phillip Cash, review of Science and the Founding
Fathers: Science in the Political Thought of Jefferson, Franklin, Adams,
and Madison, by Bernard I. Cohen, The New England Quarterly, 69
(June 1996): 322-325.