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  • Spreading Progress:Jefferson's Mix of Science and Liberty
  • Robert K. Faulkner (bio)

1. Liberal Civilization, Scientific Civilization

Founding the United States meant more than establishing a modern government. It meant establishing a modern civilization. The country prides itself as "A New Order for the Ages," and indeed involves at its core innovation in science, technology, society, and morals as well as in government, law, and rights. It is a country of progress and thus of pervasive transformation. Admittedly, old traditions remained, such as the states and various forms of morals, republicanism, and piety, but just as surely all these were sooner or later transformed. The transformation was intended. It was planned. If one doubts that, it suffices to consider the comprehensive plans and intent of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's vast efforts are the large topic of this small essay, which nevertheless focuses upon a part: his account of science and its place.1

This is not to deny the crucial place for politics in Jefferson's reforming and improving impulses, for the key science was his modern political science: the account of natural rights, representative government, and so forth. To miss that would slight the Notes on Virginia, the Declaration, the partisan organizing, the quiet machinations, the blizzard of political letters, and, of course, the Presidency and the democratizing Revolution of 1800. Jefferson was famously doctrinaire, and his crafty statesmanship largely served his rational plans. But those plans were not narrowly governmental. He also introduced or contributed to a remarkable array of other arts and sciences, from archaeology to botany, medicine, and zoology. He was America's seminal paleontologist, the outstanding American classifier of plants and animals of his era, an assiduous recorder of weather, and America's (perhaps also the world's) leading student of the many languages of the North American Indian. This all had its political implications. As diplomat he was also scientific scout for the leading universities as well as for himself and his familiar correspondents. Like one of the scientist-spies in Francis Bacon's New Atlantis, he assiduously sent home news and samples of the latest discoveries and inventions. At home and abroad, in short, Jefferson was the inveterate inquirer, inventor, tinkerer, and improver. In these respects he, like Benjamin Franklin, stood out. While nothing of his work compares to Franklin's discoveries as to electricity, Jefferson had a "wider overall knowledge of every branch of science and education," and a wider acquaintance among men of science, than any American contemporary. He was an "information center" for observations and information on both sides of the Atlantic, the President most informed ever about the sciences, and the first to provide government support of science.2 In 1796 he was elected president of the American Philosophic Society, which Franklin had founded to promote the "useful sciences;" he was annually reelected throughout his vice-Presidency and Presidency of the country and after, until he finally resigned in 1814.

Still, the point for our purposes here is the general character of the science he was promoting and in particular the relation between that and his politics. To get at his distinctiveness we contrast his plans with those of Francis Bacon and John Locke, the two who most influenced his science and political science. That contrast distinguishes this paper.

In his survey of Jefferson's "intellectual location,"3 the historian of science Walter Fleming recently focused on his location in history and position among his contemporaries and successors. Jefferson exhibited a "universalizing impulse," unlike the deeper but narrower specialists of today. While in this Jefferson was typical of his time, his views even then were distinctive (Fleming compares the two von Humboldts—Wilhelm and Alexander—as well as John Quincy Adams). Jefferson as scientist was "unabashedly practical"—he harnessed his curiosity "to enlightened nationalism"—and displayed a singular interest in religion. Agreeing broadly with this, I concentrate on the singular practicality, which goes deep into a utilitarian science, and in particular how that orientation by utility supplements his politics and his virulent attacks (for such they are) on religion. Accordingly, I turn less to history and to contemporaries and successors who shared his fundamentals, and more to what...


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