Excerpted with permission from Gentlemen Scholars and Revolutionaries: The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment, by Tom Shachtman. Available from Palgrave Macmillan Trade. Copyright © 2004.
During the Revolutionary War, while American laboratory and field research was much reduced, science did not grind to a halt. Scientific thought helped frame America’s initiating rhetoric of the war, and throughout the conflict innovations in medicine and disease control and in arms and armaments were integral to the American effort. This and the next two chapters deal with science-related aspects of the war, the present one with the initiating rhetoric, the next with the medical aspects, and the following chapter with technology in armament.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Jürgen Habermas writes, the “light of reason” entered the public sphere in stages, cropping up first among the elite and in a semiprivate way before being adopted by ever wider groups. Broad public participation in debate did not take place until the “problemization of areas that had until then not been questioned,” and when “the issues discussed became ‘general’ not merely in their significance but also in their accessibility: everyone had to be able to participate.” Those stages had characterized the path of natural philosophy in the American colonies, from the initial debate in the public sphere of 1721–1722 about smallpox prevention in the Boston epidemic, increasing through the middle decades of the century and cresting in the broad participation in the recording of the 1769 transit of Venus and in the growing audience for the efforts of the renewed American Philosophical Society. The same path to acceptance was being hewed in the consideration of non-monarchical and non-church governance: the debate was moving steadily from the elite’s private colloquies to publicly available written materials and thence to open assemblies. Habermas insists that the “communicative” aspects of this path were absolutely vital; in his view, the availability of newspapers able to operate beyond the day-to-day control of governing powers geometrically increased a populace’s ability to engage in public argument. From 1765 on, there were increasingly sophisticated discussions in colonial news- papers of direct and indirect taxes and of an accused person’s right to habeas corpus, as well as of such scientific matters as the parallax to be computed from observations of the transit of Venus. At stake in all these sort of discussions were Enlightenment ideals, particularly those of liberty, justice, and equality, enabling ordinary citizens to openly consider wresting their collective freedom from what Habermas labels the “restrictive particularism” of fealty to kings, lords, and church hierarchies.
In the American colonies just prior to the Revolutionary War a newly aroused sensitivity to science-related concepts intertwined with political, religious, and economic opinions. “Experimental science,” philosopher David Zaret writes, “was clearly the most important for reshaping the general views of reason and public opinion that made plausible the liberal model of the public sphere,” and a polity able to consider radical alterations to the status quo.
Gordon Wood suggests that the ultimate aim of the Enlightenment in America was “nothing less than discovering the hidden forces in the moral world that held people together, forces that could match the great eighteenth-century scientific discoveries of the hidden forces—gravity, magnetism, electricity, and energy—that operated in the physical world;” this discovery process, Wood adds, was shared by people from many walks of life. Even if the free expression of ideas, the embrace of collaborative endeavor, and the championing of provable facts over received dogma— the core tenets of Enlightenment science—had not wholly permeated to the level of the ordinary farmer by the time of the Second Continental Congress, Daniel Boorstin argues, the delegates did generally acknowledge that “nature bound men together [and] was not to be overcome by rhetoric, chicanery or dishonesty of any kind; the winds were not to be predicted nor the poison of the rattlesnake combated, except by actual knowledge. . . . The desire to know nature was the strongest incentive to ingenuousness, and the most effective restraint against the deception of oneself or of one’s neighbors.” Such values, Boorstin concludes, enabled the delegates to attain to “the ‘scientific’ frame of mind in the best sense of the word.”3
IN THE FALL OF 1774, as the delegates from Massachusetts—well-known radicals—were nearing the city of Philadelphia, they were met secretly by like-minded Philadelphians in the private room of a tavern in nearby Frankford, and warned, as Boston’s John Adams put it, not to “utter the word independence” in the Congress or in “private conversation . . . for the idea of independence is as unpopular in Pennsylvania and in all the Middle and Southern States as the Stamp Act itself.” After the secret conference, the Pennsylvanians split up so as not to be seen as a group, and each returned to Philadelphia in the coach of a Massachusetts delegate, Benjamin Rush in that of John Adams—the beginning of a long and close friendship. At that first Congress, Charles Thomson was unanimously elected its secretary despite being the leader of Philadelphia’s Committee of Correspondence and a man whose radicalism was so overt that John Adams would soon label him “the Samuel Adams of Philadelphia.”
Philadelphia printer and publisher William Bradford warned Virginia delegate James Madison, his friend from college days, by letter that some members of the Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New York delegations were “inimical to the Liberties of America.”5 The presence of many demurrers at the First Continental Congress was indicative of there being no unanimity of political sentiment in favor of the thirteen colonies needing a new configuration of governance; nor was there unanimous support for the idea that such a new form could be established if a separation from Great Britain was attempted. Yet enough unity had developed by the time of the Second Continental Congress’s effort to allow that body to culminate its effort by issuing the Declaration of Independence in July 1776.
The all-important transition from doubt to action that took place between the First and Second Congresses can be seen being prodded into existence in the science-influenced offerings of three rhetorical forebears of the Declaration—those of David Rittenhouse, Tom Paine, and Benjamin Rush.
ON FEBRUARY 24, 1775, in that year’s annual address to the American Philosophical Society, Rittenhouse spoke to an audience of members, Pennsylvania’s governor, and the colony’s governing council. A somewhat shy and chronically frail man, the hero of the American triumph in the 1769 transit of Venus, Rittenhouse had turned forty-three, was remarried after being widowed, and had reentered the political arena after decades of reluctance to do so. His platform for political activism had been Philadelphia’s Mechanics Association, whose 1,200 members had urged the calling of a Continental Congress and had used its own Committee of Correspondence to coordinate the Association’s actions with the mechanics of other cities.
Everyone in the audience was aware that, in the months prior to Rittenhouse’s speech, the Continental Congress had sat, debated, and issued a call to King George III to settle the differences between the mother country and the colonies or suffer the consequences. Though politely worded, the petition had demanded that the king reaffirm that American colonists enjoyed the rights of all other British citizens, rights trampled by recent edicts. A full colonial boycott of all British goods was threatened should the king not agree. That boycott began at the start of 1775, after King George III’s rejection of the petition out of hand became known in the colonies. It was so nearly total that British imports were on track to drop from the previous year’s level by 97 percent. Accordingly, while Rittenhouse’s announced subject in the February oration to the APS was astronomy, the expectations were for more than a dry recounting of the sublime science.