DeWitt Clinton and Amos Eaton: Geology and Power in Early New York by David I. Spanagel (review)
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Reviewed by

DeWitte Clinton, Stephen Van Rensselaer, Amos Eaton, History of New York, Geology, Engineering, Science

DeWitt Clinton and Amos Eaton: Geology and Power in Early New York. By David I. Spanagel. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. Pp. 288. Cloth, $54.95.)

The book examines the key role of geology in early nineteenth-century New York, and the influence that New York society and geography played in the general development of the natural sciences in the early United States. The focus is the era of geologist Amos Eaton (1776– 1842), and his political and scientific patrons De Witt Clinton and Stephen Van Rensselaer. Spanagel suggests that geology became an important science for New Yorkers during this period because of its capacity to unlock nature’s wealth, a fact realized by the success of natural surveys for new transportation infrastructure such as the Erie Canal. These works were supported by patrons such as Clinton and Van Rensselaer, who saw science as both an honorable enterprise and a tool for political gain. New York’s growing scientific infrastructure was centered in Albany, and was founded on institutions, such as the Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, and educational organizations, including northeastern colleges and the Rensselaer School, the first civilian institute of engineering, which was founded by Eaton. This scientific infrastructure led to the establishment of the New York Natural History Survey in 1836, and it became such a successful model that it was exported to other states as the ideal way for public-good science to function.

In focusing on Eaton’s era of science, particularly natural history, Spanagel is challenging historiography of early U.S. science that has marginalized the importance of early nineteenth-century scientists as serious [End Page 500] and effective thinkers. Classical works of early American science such as George H. Daniels’s American Science in the Age of Jackson (New York, 1968) are mostly dismissive of the achievements of the post-revolutionary generation of thinkers such as Eaton. Sitting just prior to the generation of professionalization (in terms of being paid), the science of this time possesses disciplines labeled with modern nomenclature, yet its practice is far from modern, and too many scholars have approached it with ahistorical interpretation and analysis. The non-subtle uses of the word ‘‘scientist’’ in histories of the nineteenth century are indicators of such inattentiveness.1 More recent works, such as Andrew J. Lewis’s A Democracy of Facts: Natural History in the Early Republic (Philadelphia, 2011), have been kinder to this generation, and yet have focused on Baconian attention to facts at the expense of theoretical discussions. The theories of Eaton and his contemporaries are often identified as wrong, and then dismissed as unworthy of attention. Spanagel wishes to give them attention, discussing the ideas of New York scientists within their contemporary contexts, in which they were considered to be serious scientific achievers.

Spanagel’s intervention is therefore an important step in the examination of U.S. science in this period. He uses a good mix of secondary literature, and makes excellent use of his many primary sources. The story is well tied to the primary material, and it has numerous well-written passages, including those that address the state of politics in New York and the state of ideas in contemporary science. A number of classic misconceptions commonly discussed in the history of science literature are re-addressed for the benefit of non-specialists; for instance, the idea that geological deep time only became acceptable after Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species. The range of discussions, covering many fields of natural history but focusing on geology, mineralogy, and botany, places Eaton’s work in context. The book is split into three parts, each part containing three chapters. The first part examines New York’s geography; Eaton’s early years as a lawyer convicted of fraud, who turned to science and was subsequently pardoned; and the careers of his two major patrons in Clinton and Van Rensselaer, who came from opposing political traditions but saw similar benefits in supporting science. The second [End Page 501] part turns to the high points of Eaton...