The Founding Fathers were 18th-century tech geeks.
Thomas Jefferson nearly went broke collecting scientific instruments and fossils, including ground sloth bones that scientists named Megalonyx jeffersonii. James Madison was an environmentalist of sorts, warning about how “vital air becomes noxious.” John Adams idolized astronomers. Benjamin Franklin would have been a hit on “Shark Tank” flying his kite and showing off all of his inventions, including bifocals. George Washington praised vaccines.
So it is no stretch to say that the men who made America great would be eager participants in Saturday’s March for Science, issuing profound decrees and giving interviews to CNN.
Jefferson to Wolf Blitzer: “Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight.”
Jefferson has been saying that for centuries, mostly in biographies, especially the ones that accentuate how the Founding Fathers relied on science to get the country going during the Enlightenment.
But the Independence Hall crowd weren’t just the earliest early adopters. They channeled their geekery and reverence for science into the principles of government.
“They understood the benefits that could come when science and democracy worked together,” according to the website of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “And they exemplified a kind of bold, American pragmatism that put problem solving above partisanship and sought to base our government’s policies on the best available data and the most up-to-date understanding of the world.”
Adams, debating Franklin, spoke of the “principle of mechanical equilibrium” in advocating for checks and balances in the government. The concept of transparency in government was derived, historians say, from the transparency of methodologies in scientific studies.
And the Federalist Papers are filled with scientific, medical and mathematical metaphors, including “the ENLARGEMENT of the ORBIT within which such systems are to revolve either in respect to a single State, or to the consolidation of several smaller States into one great confederacy.”
The great matter of religion didn’t get in their way.
“The Founding Fathers’ science was in no way opposite to their religion,” Tom Shachtman wrote in “Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries: The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment.” “The notion that science and religion were antithetical is a nineteenth-century construct.”
Science left their minds open to new ideas, including a revolution.
“Had the Founders shared an obedient-to-authority, orthodox religious outlook, they might never have undertaken such a radical revolution, rebelling against Great Britain, its king, its state-sponsored church, and its hierarchical, anti-egalitarian colonial society,” Shachtman wrote. “Their science-mindedness made them more willing to consider a multiplicity of new ideas.”
Washington approved use of an experimental smallpox vaccine on his soldiers during the Revolutionary War.
The death toll before the inoculations, according to Shachtman: 17 percent of his troops. After: 1 percent.
In his biography of Washington, the historian Joseph J. Ellis assessed the importance of that decision.
“When historians debate Washington’s most consequential decisions as commander in chief, they are almost always arguing about specific battles,” Ellis wrote. “A compelling case can be made that swift response to the smallpox epidemic and to a policy of inoculation was the most important strategic decision of his military career.”
The American Experiment.
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