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DeWitt Clinton and Amos Eaton

Geology and Power in Early New York

David I. Spanagel

Publication Year: 2014

David I. Spanagel explores the origins of American geology and the culture that helped give it rise, focusing on Amos Eaton, the educator and amateur scientist who founded the Rensselaer School, and on DeWitt Clinton, the masterful politician who led the movement for the Erie Canal. DeWitt Clinton and Amos Eaton shows how a cluster of assumptions about the peculiar landscape and entrepreneurial spirit of New York came to define the Empire State. Spanagel sheds light on a particularly innovative and fruitful period of interplay among science, politics, art, and literature in American history. New Yorkers' romantic views of natural majesty and ideas about improving the land influenced scientific ideas and other features of contemporary culture. The life of Amos Eaton provides a lens through which readers gain fresh awareness of scientific knowledge, economic planning, and cultural values during the first half of the nineteenth century. Scientists of the time were fascinated by questions such as: How old is the earth? When did time begin? How might the passage of time have shaped and reshaped the original landscape? In the United States, New Yorkers of the mid-1820s mounted the most concerted effort to find answers to these large questions of natural history. Both geographic conditions and historical forces led Amos Eaton and his wealthy patron Stephen Van Rensselaer to open the Rensselaer School at Troy, New York, in 1826. Eaton thus gave America its first generation of professional scientists, many of whom formed professional organizations and standards of practice still active today. Deeply researched, this book will interest historians of nineteenth-century American arts and science, politics, and technological development.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

List of Figures and Tables

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

Before we begin to walk through the pages of the past, let us take a moment to determine where we are going and by what routes we might hope to arrive at our destination. The historical characters whose lives and work are featured in this study were generally curious, intrepid, and persistent people who did not seek...

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Introduction: A Meeting Place for Waters and Students of Earth History

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pp. 1-14

For a time, Albany, New York, was the crossroads of the world. Important people kept moving to, coming from, or passing through the neighborhood of the once sleepy state capital. Like many places in the early American republic, Albany’s rate of population growth accelerated throughout the first three decades of the...

Part One: Exploring New York State

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Chapter One: Invitations to Study the Earth’s Past

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pp. 17-35

New York’s physical geography attests to the marvelous history of the planet. Along its eastern boundary can be seen the grandeur of an impossibly ancient tectonic-plate collision, which upthrust the now bucolic Taconic Mountains so violently that they once stood as tall as today’s Himalayas. On the other side of the...

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Chapter Two: Natural Sciences and Civic Virtues

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pp. 36-62

At dawn on the morning of 11 July 1804, America’s third vice president shot and mortally wounded the nation’s first secretary of the treasury, thus ending two great New Yorkers’ political careers. At the same time, incidentally, the clear way forward for a third opened. DeWitt Clinton built his career using the same skill...

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Chapter Three: The Landlord and the Ex-convict

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pp. 63-80

Stephen Van Rensselaer is largely forgotten today, but he was an extraordinarily rich and powerful man who influenced pivotal events in the early American republic. Born in New York City in 1764, Van Rensselaer was brought up among the colonial aristocracy. He was initially sent, as Aaron Burr had been nine years...

Part Two: Engineering for a New World's Geology

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Chapter Four: Clinton’s Ditch

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pp. 83-97

As it had begun to do in Britain, and to a lesser degree in France, the canal-building craze in the United States during the 1820s triggered major innovations in theoretical geology. Geological research would prove invaluable as an aid to the industrial and commercial innovations required to complete the Erie Canal...

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Chapter Five: Eaton’s Agricultural and Geological Surveys

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pp. 98-116

Governor DeWitt Clinton’s pardon permitted Amos Eaton to return to New York State in 1819. Eaton then devoted the remainder of his life to becoming the preeminent lecturer and recorder of the natural history of the northern United States. After a brief sojourn in New Haven to repair the deficiencies of his self-education...

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Chapter Six: Empire State Exports

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pp. 117-150

Amos Eaton made no research excursions along the Erie Canal route in 1825, but an extraordinary parade of public figures did travel from Buffalo to New York City in the celebration that officially opened the completed canal to navigation. As Eaton had foreseen, the new era brought a massive influx of migrants heading...

Part Three: Entertaining Deep Time and the Sublime

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Chapter Seven: Literary Naturalists

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pp. 153-184

Interdependence among science, literature, and the arts was perfectly reasonable to early nineteenth-century New Yorkers. To rigidly separate or divorce these branches of creative thought would contradict the Enlightenment tendency to seek affinity (if not unity) among the forms of human intelligence, an outlook...

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Chapter Eight: Kindred Spirits

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pp. 185-195

While geology’s relevance to early American literature may have been scarcely appreciated by previous scholars, the same cannot be said with reference to studies of Romantic landscape art.1 Art historian Barbara Novak led the way thirty years ago when she noted how Americans in the early republic who were grappling...

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Chapter Nine: Rocks, Reverence, and Religion

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pp. 196-211

The overlap between geology and religion constituted an important trading zone for ideas in early American culture.1 New discoveries in the earth sciences and interpretations of the Bible not only stimulated public interest in the history of the Earth but also catered to a growing multiform discourse on the meaning of the...

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Conclusion: Echoes of New York’s Embrace of Geological Investigation

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pp. 212-218

During his lifetime, Amos Eaton witnessed and contributed to a radical transformation of theory and practice in American geology. Contrary to what one might suspect from reading ordinary American history textbooks, the first four decades of the nineteenth century were an era in which scientific investigations were...


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pp. 219-254

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Essay on Sources

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pp. 255-262

The initial inspiration for my study of geological thinking in early nineteenth-century New York State came out of the broader investigation into the history of the American earth sciences that I launched in the early 1990s. My 1996 Ph.D. dissertation, “Chronicles of a Land Etched by God, Water, Fire, Time, and Ice,” constituted my first attempt...


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pp. 263-270

E-ISBN-13: 9781421411057
E-ISBN-10: 1421411059
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421411040
Print-ISBN-10: 1421411040

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 7 halftones, 3 line drawings
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 870994450
MUSE Marc Record: Download for DeWitt Clinton and Amos Eaton

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Subject Headings

  • Eaton, Amos, 1776-1842.
  • Clinton, DeWitt, 1769-1828.
  • Geology -- New York (State) -- History -- 19th century.
  • Geology -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Geology -- Political aspects -- New York (State) -- History -- 19th century.
  • Scientists -- New York (State) -- Biography.
  • Politicians -- New York (State) -- Biography.
  • New York (State) -- Politics and government -- 19th century.
  • New York (State) -- Intellectual life -- 19th century.
  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute -- History.
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