- A Moderately Enlightened Polymath in British America
in the third chapter of The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden, historian John M. Dixon recounts that one winter evening in the 1720s, Colden, aspiring natural philosopher and future lieutenant-governor of New York, “hammered a day’s worth of corned beef and other solid food to a pulp” (55), added some liquid, inserted the mixture into an animal bladder, and instructed one of his slaves to massage the organ for thirty minutes. After examining the contents, he then directed the same slave to massage the food-stuffed bladder for an additional two-and-a-half hours. At the conclusion of this experiment, Colden claimed to have proven that animal digestion was a purely mechanical process; he subsequently wrote a lengthy treatise on the “animal oeconomy.” He then sent the treatise to Robert Hunter, governor of British New York from 1710 to 1719, who was also a fellow of the Royal Society, and could count Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, and Jonathan Swift among his friends.
The treatise was never published, but the tale links together a number of strains in Colden’s life that make him a compelling subject, and many of these strains feature prominently in Dixon’s new biography. First, Colden’s correspondence with Hunter points to the strong interconnection between politics and science in Colden’s life story. Second, the experiment was a product of Colden’s prevailing philosophical interest in the nature of matter and of his aspirations to make a significant contribution to the modern scientific understanding of the physical world. This eventually [End Page 183] culminated in his developing a new theory of “active matter,” a thesis that would earn Colden considerable, if relatively brief, prominence in Enlightenment scientific circles in the 1750s. Third, the account shows his involvement in the important transatlantic networks of correspondence between intellectuals at this time, which enabled an aspiring gentleman-scholar, working and writing often from his rural New York estate of Coldengham, to respond and contribute to active ongoing debates in Britain and Europe (though not without obstacles and delays). Finally, if we consider the irony of Colden pursuing intellectual progress while relying on the labor of his own slaves, the experiment also helps illustrate one the most prevalent patterns in Colden’s curious life: a difficult-to-reconcile mixture of progressive Enlightenment ideals and backward-leaning, elitist conservatism. On the one hand, his progressive rationalism would fuel scientific endeavors that would lead to his greatest acclaim as a prominent natural philosopher during his lifetime. On the other, his conservatism in politics would lead, despite significant early success, toward increasingly unpopular support for British colonial rule in North America, and ultimately to vehement opposition to the political factions that supported the American Revolution, in New York and beyond.
Cadwallader Colden was born in Scotland in 1688 and died in New York in 1776. As Dixon notes, he “died as he was born: amid a revolution” (167). These revolutionary bookends compellingly frame the book’s subject as a historical figure whose life raises important questions about how we understand the Enlightenment and how we link the Enlightenment to pre-Revolutionary British America. The main question that Dixon returns to in various formulations is posed most directly in the opening words of the book’s jacket copy: “was there a conservative Enlightenment” in the eighteenth century? if so, what did its participants and supporters look like? and more generally, how might the existence of a conservative or moderate Enlightenment complicate the traditional understandings of European and American intellectual culture at this juncture?
Enlightenment principles and values (reason, progress, individualism, the pursuit of knowledge) tend to be aligned by intellectual historians with republicanism, political revolution, and democratic reform. As Dixon points out, for many scholars, “the American Enlightenment is tied to the American Revolution. It is a teleological tale of unfolding liberty and equality” (167). As Colden approached death, however, and personally observed the outset of the revolution, he viewed it as...