How can we honor the people who fuel our local civic life: the volunteer poll workers, the after-school mentors, the public librarians, the community board members?
We can remember people like David Hosack. You probably don’t know the name, but he was one of the most famous Americans of his day. Hosack earned his fame by working tirelessly at the civic education of new generations of Americans and the improvement of his hometown. He did this by helping found over a dozen organizations in an astonishing range of fields. He also taught medicine, conducted scientific research and cared for patients, both rich and poor. His most illustrious contemporaries — the Founders — honored him for these achievements. Like Hosack, they understood what really makes a nation great: not grandstanding politicians, not solo inventors, not celebrity entrepreneurs but the builders of civic institutions.
David Hosack was born in New York in 1769 and grew up under the British occupation of the city. By the time he was a teenager, the Founders had won a war and framed a new government. It fell to Hosack's generation, the first post-Revolutionary generation, to forge the institutions that would bring solace and joy to citizens, stability to civic life and respect from haughty Europe.
Hosack devoted himself to this challenge with every fiber of his being. As a young man in the early 1790s, he spent two years studying in Britain, where he discovered firsthand that many Britons still held out hope that the American experiment would fail. Hosack sailed home with vivid mental images of London’s and Edinburgh’s universities, hospitals, charities, museums, learned societies and botanical gardens, as well as a passion to help his fledgling democracy match this ancient monarchy’s great scientific and cultural institutions.
Hosack began by founding the nation’s first public botanical garden. All around him adults and children were dying of ailments whose causes no one fully understood — typhus, scarlet fever, consumption and on and on. The role of microbes in many of these diseases would not be understood until the late 19th and early 20th century. In an age when most known medicines came from the plant world, a public research garden was a brilliant answer to this desperate situation. In 1801, using his own money, Hosack purchased 20 acres of farmland a few miles north of New York’s city limits at the time. (Today, his land is the site of Rockefeller Center.) There he amassed thousands of species from around the globe, trained a new generation of physicians and supervised some of the first systematic pharmacological research in the United States.
As he worked, Hosack earned praise and trust from the most famous of his fellow Americans. He became the family physician to both Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Thomas Jefferson sent him seeds and encouragement. James Madison lauded his civic devotion. Even the two greatest living European scientists, Sir Joseph Banks and Baron Alexander von Humboldt, heaped compliments on Hosack.
His botanical garden was just the beginning. Hosack went on to found or co-found the New-York Historical Society, New York’s first scientific museum of natural history, its first museum of fine arts, its first horticultural society, its first obstetrics hospital, its first mental hospital, its first subsidized pharmacy for the poor, its first school for the deaf and its first public schools. For the founding generation, Hosack embodied the greatest impulses of the young nation — reverence for science, compassion for his fellow citizens and devotion to the civic life of the republic. Hosack had a prodigious talent for creating the kind of voluntary organizations that Alexis de Tocqueville saw as a distinctive feature of the young nation. (During Tocqueville’s visit to the United States in 1831, he accompanied Hosack on a tour of some of the organizations in which the latter was active.)
Hosack became so famous for his lifetime of civic work that when he suffered a stroke in 1835 at the age of 66, bulletins ran in newspapers from South Carolina to New Hampshire offering prayers for his recovery. From there, he began to fade from memory. Hosack now appears in our historical memory, if at all, as the doctor at the Hamilton-Burr duel (of whom Burr says in the musical, “You have him turn around so he can have deniability”). But even his presence at the duel was a mark of his status among his contemporaries. Hosack was chosen by his friends Hamilton and Burr because he had earned their respect as a physician and a citizen.
Today, we like our heroes to stand alone, so that we can easily discern and celebrate their achievements. But Hosack's greatest legacy is the kind that is the hardest to see. He showed his fellow citizens how to improve civic life. Over and over, in the face of criticism and misfortune, he rallied Americans to create the charitable, medical and cultural institutions that make cities worth inhabiting, that alleviate physical and emotional suffering and that educate citizens for generations to come.
Devoted citizens like Hosack are all around us today, toiling in hospitals, libraries, community centers, city parks and other places. These civic organizations — what the sociologist Eric Klinenberg in his book “Palaces for the People” has called “social infrastructure” — demand just as much patience, ingenuity and funding as any great discovery or invention. We should be celebrating the people who sustain them with all the enthusiasm we bestow on our favorite celebrity inventors, entrepreneurs and politicians.
The Founders knew this. Why have we forgotten?