'Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries': The Influence of Science on America’s Founding Fathers

Did you know that forming the country wasn’t the only experiment the Founding Fathers dabbled with?
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Tom Shachtman
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Did you know that forming the country wasn’t the only experiment the Founding Fathers dabbled with?

America's Founding Fathers were more scientific in their outlook and dreams for the new country than we usually give them credit for. Science, not religion, made them willing to consider a multitude of new ideas and provided the necessary ideological rigor to launch a successful rebellion against the largest world power of the time. 

From his new book Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries, author Tom Schactman shares more about the scientific leanings of America's earliest leaders.

George Washington

George Washington portrait

George Washington portrait by Gilbert Stuart  (Photo: The White House Historical Association (White House Collection) 

Among the ways that the Father of our country demonstrated leadership was making the decision to use an experimental vaccination technique to immunize the Continental Army against smallpox. In the first year of the Revolutionary War, prior to the vaccinating campaign, 17% of the troops died from smallpox and in the year after the vaccinations, only 1% did. Some historians now argue that preserving the army from smallpox was Washington’s most important strategic decision. And after the war, Washington, through his crop rotation and fertilizer experiments, became what leading agriculturalists once called “the most scientific farmer in America.”

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin portrait by David Martin  (Photo: The White House Historical Association (White House Collection)

During the Colonial era, Franklin formed the country’s leading scientific group, the American Philosophical Society, and conducted experiments in electricity that won him the then-equivalent of the Nobel Prize, the Copley Medal of the Royal Society. (The kite-in-a-storm experiment was not his first interaction with electricity—it was actually the last in a series.) He also figured out the circular flow of the Gulf Stream and invented an efficient heating stove and the most effective lightning rod. His fame due to his scientific prowess (which made him a rumored ladies’ man too) gave him the stature to be effective in negotiations with France which led to the country becoming our ally in the Revolutionary War.

John Adams

Official presidential portrait of John Adams by John Trumbull. (Image: John Trumbull [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

John Adams portrait by John Trumbull  (Photo: The White House Historical Association (White House Collection)

Adams's favorite teacher at Harvard was astronomer John Winthrop, and 30 years later Adams was thrilled that he still remembered enough of Newton’s calculus to teach it to his son, John Quincy Adams. He helped found the country’s second scientific society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and wrote support of science into the Constitution of Massachusetts. As president, he championed the establishment of West Point as a school for engineers and military technology. In his old age, corresponding with Jefferson, Adams expressed regret that he had not devoted more of his time to science, as Jefferson had.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson Wiki Commons

Thomas Jefferson  (Photo: WikiCommons)

Like Adams, Jefferson’s favorite teacher at college was his science professor, William Small of William & Mary, who provided the teenager with his lifelong scientific outlook. Always measuring, making fact-based notes and observations, Jefferson found friends and correspondents among the scientific communities, and nearly drained his fortune buying scientific instruments. He traded specs and technological ideas on bridges with Tom Paine for Paine’s first-ever steel suspension bridge. As president, Jefferson conceived of Lewis & Clark’s journey as a scientific exploration and collecting expedition, and had Lewis trained in proper techniques, prior to leaving for the West, by the country’s leading experts in botany, anatomy, geology, paleontology, and anthropology. The results continued to inform American science for the next several generations.

Gentlemen Scientists book cover

Check out the book!

Tom Shachtman has written or co-authored more than three dozen books, including Rumspringa, Airlift to America, and Terrors and Marvels, written and produced documentaries seen on ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, and BBC. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Smithsonian, environmental magazines, and such blogs as The Huffington Post, History News Network, Foreign Policy, and the Washington Post’s “Book Beat”. He lives in Salisbury, Connecticut.