"SCIENCE AND THE FOUNDING FATHERS: Science in the Political Thought of Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Madison" by I. Bernard Cohen

"SCIENCE AND THE FOUNDING FATHERS: Science in the Political Thought of Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Madison"

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A fascinating study of how Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and James Madison applied science to their political thinking. In terms of scientific competence, Cohen (History of Science/Harvard Univ.) finds much to praise in Jefferson and Franklin. Jefferson the polymath persuaded George Washington to adopt his method of apportioning members to the House of Representatives rather than one proposed by Alexander Hamilton. The Declaration of Independence pays homage to Isaac Newton with its ""self-evident truths"" (i.e., axioms) and its opening lines concerning the ""Laws of Nature and Nature's God."" Franklin's contributions to the field of electricity go well beyond flying a kite in a thunderstorm, Cohen shows. The French idolized him as a scientist and a self-made man, making him extraordinarily effective in ensuring French aid in 1776. Franklin also anticipated Malthus with statements about population growth in relation to sustenance, and he provided powerful demographic arguments as to why England should annex Canada after the French and Indian War. Adams, while well taught and an aficionado of science, got his physics wrong; he thought he was referencing Newton's laws of motion in speaking of the ""balance of powers"" or ""checks and balances"" in the Constitution, but the correct analogy is to laws of statics and equilibrium. Still, he foresaw a future for America in which his sons should master mathematics and practical sciences so that their children in turn could study painting, poetry, and music. In brief comments on The Federalist, Cohen notes that Madison's science metaphors were largely medical -- a ""nerveless empire,"" an ""ailing government,"" etc. At times the text is repetitious; at times, Cohen wields a heavy hand in attacking earlier commentators (including Woodrow Wilson). Nevertheless, the founding fathers appear in an interesting new light, thanks to Cohen's fresh, not to say iconoclastic, vision.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1995
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Norton