Shachtman (American Iconoclast: The Life and Times of Eric Hoffer, 2011, etc.) makes a strong case for the importance of science and technology in the creation of the United States.
“Today,” writes the author, “the centrality to the Founding Fathers of their enlightened, scientific outlook has been obscured.” He takes a variety of familiar examples—e.g. George Washington's experience as a surveyor and plans for a complex canal system; Benjamin Franklin's scientific eminence; Thomas Jefferson's wide-ranging scientific interests; Tom Paine's less well-known design of an iron-span bridge; and John Adams' love of astronomy—to make a larger point. Acceptance of the scientific method of verification and experimentation played a central role in the Founding Fathers' confidence that they could build a new nation based on a radical vision of the rights of man. They were able to unify the population and its leaders in a shared worldview broadly defined by key figures of the Enlightenment. Shachtman reveals a direct connection between the political and scientific correspondence committees in the Colonies that laid the groundwork for coordinated action in the period leading up to the Revolution. Botanist Peter Collinson and others sponsored Americans for membership in the Royal Society. Collinson's networks promoted Benjamin Franklin's work and encouraged botanical research and astronomical observations in the Colonies. The scientists also fiercely debated the issue of small pox vaccination, and the author suggests, its adoption by George Washington avoided a potentially calamitous spread of the disease among soldiers. Shachtman also points to Jefferson's inclusion of the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” in his draft of the Declaration of Independence. The author traces it to a book on moral philosophy, The Religion of Nature Delineated, which was widely read in the Colonies and was authored by William Wollaston, who claimed that “the greatest happiness lay in the discovery of truth.”
A well-researched, lively entry into the current debate about the role of science in a democracy.