The Founding Fathers Would Be Appalled at the Government's Declining Support of Science

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Tom Shachtman is an author, filmmaker, and educator. He's written more than thirty books including "Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries: The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment," which has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Currently, American scientists and technologists lament the decline of federal funding for research and development not directly related to national defense. The National Institutes of Health budget is reduced significantly from what it was a decade ago, as is funding for space exploration, atomic physics, molecular biology, and other fields. What would America’s Founding Fathers have thought of this?

To a man, the Founders were committed to the importance of science and technology, which, in their day, were inseparable. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and to a lesser extent Madison and Hamilton all received training in “the sciences.” Aas collegians, Adams and Jefferson became amateur astronomers and studied the breakthroughs in electricity of America’s scientific hero, Benjamin Franklin, who had won that era’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, the Copley Medal of the Royal Society. Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence owed as much to scientific thinking as to legal reasoning.

During the Revolutionary War, there were two signal events of importance to science and technology, one a triumph and the other a failure. Washington, in a decision based on scientific understandings, and in the face of a disapproving Congress, had all American troops “variolated.” This still-controversial vaccination technique required inoculees to be isolated for three weeks until they were no longer in the communicable stage of the disease; this was dangerous in the middle of the war, but Washington was convinced of its necessity. He was proven correct: prior to the vaccination program, in the first year of war, smallpox killed more troops than lost their lives in battle; after the vaccinations, smallpox accounted for only one percent of troop deaths. Washington’s decision to vaccinate was the key to his greatest tactical triumph, preserving the army so that it could eventually prevail.

The second event was the government’s failure to develop and utilize a potentially game-changing technology, David Bushnell’s “Turtle,” a one-man submersible capable of traveling underwater and affixing bombs to the hulls of enemy ships. Turtles could have sunk enough British vessels to turn the tide of the war. While Bushnell was working to perfect it, Franklin and Adams, apprised of it, did not encourage the Continental Congress to back the research and develop multiple submersibles. Washington, after witnessing one botched demonstration, did not see its potential either, although after the war he wrote to Jefferson that Bushnell’s machine had been “an effort of genius.”

During the period between the close of the Revolutionary War and George Washington’s inauguration as president in 1789, he became America’s most scientific farmer and was deeply involved in a scheme to conquer the Potomac River’s falls and currents by creating canals and operating steamboats, in the hope that the Potomac could become a water route to the Mississippi. John Adams helped to found the nation’s second scientific society, the National Academy of Arts and Sciences, and wrote public support of science into the Constitution he devised for the state of Massachusetts. Thomas Jefferson produced his only book-length manuscript, Notes on the State of Virginia, which contains a plethora of scientific information in many fields and, in Paris, he jousted with the Comte de Buffon, the world’s most famous naturalist, who had derided everything on the North and South American continents -- people, flora, and fauna alike -- as “degenerate” when compared to European examples. James Madison, in developing the Constitution, fought to have its Commerce Clause enable the issuing of federal patents to protect scientific and technological inventions.

“Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness,” Washington said in his first substantial address to Congress, nine months into his administration, asking for their support of science and literature by means of a patent system. It was through this patent system, administered by a committee of three cabinet secretaries with Secretary of State Jefferson in the lead, that the government encouraged the development of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and the competing steamboats of John Fitch, John Rumsey, and Oliver Evans, which led to that of Robert Fulton, the two technologies that enabled America to become an important economic power in the nineteenth century. Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s secretary of the treasury, in his notable Report on Manufactures, further exalted technology based on scientific principles as the best path to America’s future. The emigration to the United States of such distinguished scientists as Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen, boosted the country’s nascent laboratories. Up to this time, the principal scientific institution had been the American Philosophical Society, founded by Franklin and headquartered in Philadelphia. Under its aegis, Jefferson investigated the Hessian Fly, a pest eating its way through America’s wheat crops.

When Adams succeeded Washington in 1797 and Vice President Jefferson accepted the presidency of the APS, federal support of science and technology, and the interweaving of private scientific resources with governmental tasks began. The threat of war with France curtailed some of Adams’s plans for scientific research, but also spurred him to upgrade the Harpers Ferry armory, which in developing rifles and military materiel created products and processes that eventually found commercial applications. Adams also began work toward establishing the army’s engineering school at West Point, a principal source of new technological ideas, and commissioned new naval vessels with next-generation technologies.

The influence of science reached its height when Jefferson became president in 1801. Among the notable scientific projects of his presidency were the championing of the more-protective Jenner vaccine for smallpox, the assistance given to the unearthing of mastodon skeletons in the Hudson Valley and, in 1803, the Lewis & Clark expedition. To ready Lewis, his personal secretary, for the expedition, Jefferson had him trained in scientific collection and investigation techniques by the country’s leading experts in medicine, biology, chemistry, geology, paleontology, and Native languages. Among the expeditions finds were 122 species of previously-unknown animals, principally birds, and 179 similarly-unknown species of plants.

With such actions, the Founders acknowledged the leading role of science and technology in the conception and continuation of the United States of America.

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