- DeWitt Clinton and Amos Eaton: Geology and Power in Early New York by David I. Spanagel
He got it all wrong. He traveled up and down and across New York State meticulously noting a host of geological features, creating wonderful maps, taking detailed notes, and he still got it wrong. As Amos Eaton surveyed [End Page 385] the Empire State during the construction of the Erie Canal, he thought he understood the processes that shaped the gorges, lakes, waterfalls, and strata that make New York a showcase of geologic splendour. He was certain that the great Biblical flood was responsible for depositing boulders, serrating the landscape, and carving the pathway that the canal’s engineers followed in order to connect the majestic Hudson River to the vast expanses of the American interior via the Great Lakes. Wedded to the idea that God had created a great inundation, Eaton could not see the bigger picture nor comprehend the eons it took to create and mold the earth as he knew it. If Eaton was such a flawed scientist, why should anyone write a book about him?
The answer lies in the pages of David I. Spanagel’s DeWitt Clinton and Amos Eaton: Geology and Power in Early New York. Despite the title, and the second billing, the book is really about Eaton, who was involved in the founding of the Rensselaer School, and who demonstrated the importance of the relationship between the state and science, and economic development during a crucial era in the expansion of American capitalism. Eaton was an improbable scientist. He began his adult life as a lawyer who was himself convicted of forgery and sent to prison in New York. There, he began his studies of nature in earnest. There, too, he met DeWitt Clinton and other political luminaries. Freed by a general pardon of all non-violent felons in New York in the wake of the War of 1812, Eaton parlayed a talent for teaching and his political connections into positions of trust. He convinced Stephen Van Rensselaer to ante up the money to start an engineering school in Troy, New York, where Eaton trained a generation of engineers and scientists who then spread across the nation conducting geological surveys of several states. Eaton’s career thereby demonstrated the close relationship between leading politicos like Clinton and Van Rensselaer, and the study of science. These men, too, were actively engaged in scientific inquiry and eagerly sponsored self-educated scholars like Eaton.
In short, what we gain from this book is a close examination of the peculiar position of science during the early American republic. Indeed, Spanagel draws connections between interest in natural history to both the literature of the day and the art of the Hudson River School. Although at times Spanagel gets a little too defensive of his main character, ultimately the strength of this book lies in the author’s ability to describe scientific ideas within their historical context by focusing not on Eaton’s errors, but rather by revealing how Eaton derived his ideas, which combined religion and science typical of the time, from the basic assumptions of the day. [End Page 386]