What if we expected science literacy in our presidents? Reflections on the anniversary of DeWitt Clinton’s birth (March 2, 1769)

Guest post by David Spanagel

On 12 December, 1822, Thomas Jefferson opened a letter to the sitting governor of New York State as follows: “I thank you dearly for the little volume sent me on the Natural History and Resources of N York. It is an instructive, interesting and agreeably written account of the Riches of a Country to which your great Canal gives value and issue, and of the wealth which it created from what without it would have had no Value.” The letter’s recipient, DeWitt Clinton, still remembered as the mastermind who managed to launch and sustain the public construction of an artificial waterway that would commercially connect the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, was far more than just a fellow Jeffersonian politician: he had a kindred feeling for science.

Clinton himself had authored the gift that Jefferson’s note acknowledges, a widely respected publication chock full of scientific information. The book analyzed New York’s natural wealth and potential for development and prosperity, featured detailed geological descriptions, and included reports of previously undocumented plant, bird, and fish species in New York. Clinton had gathered notes and observations a dozen years earlier, while serving on a commission charged to investigate the feasibility of building an “Erie Canal.” The intervening years provided tantalizing support for Clinton’s conviction that scientific knowledge of the land and its resources could work hand in hand with infrastructure improvements to transform American life and drive economic growth.

Events might have provided Clinton with a national, rather than just a regional, opportunity to carry out his bold experiment. Exactly a decade before Jefferson’s letter (in 1812), Clinton had come within one state of wresting the Presidency of the United States away from an incumbent seeking his second term during wartime (a circumstance that has recurred only once in the subsequent 200 years, with John Kerry in 2004). Had Clinton triumphed over Jefferson’s Virginian successor James Madison, one can imagine how both the course of the War of 1812 and the intellectual character of the office of the Presidency might have been dramatically altered. Clinton would have had a bipartisan mandate, as a Jeffersonian Republican with strong New England Federalist support, to negotiate a ceasefire with Great Britain. Military and diplomatic historians could debate whether the consequences would have differed much from the ultimately ambiguous outcome of two more years of fighting.

But just imagine the legacy that might have been established by elevating another accomplished naturalist to the presidency during its formation as a new political institution. Had Clinton, vigorous canal proponent and accomplished practitioner of botany, zoology, and mineralogy, served as America’s fifth head of state, Jefferson’s extraordinary brand of leadership would not have been unique in the early republic. Americans would instead have been able to renew and reinforce their experience of national leaders who were well-equipped as statesmen-scientists.

Jefferson continued his 1822 letter by exploring and assessing Clinton’s achievement: “N York has anticipated, by a full century, the ordinary progress of improvement. This great work suggests a question both curious and difficult, as to the comparative capability of nations to execute great enterprises. It is not from greater surplus of produce, after supplying their own wants, for in this N York is not beyond some other states; is it from other sources of industry additional to her produce? This may be; or is it a moral superiority? a sounder calculating mind, as to the most profitable employment of surplus, by improvement of capital instead of useless consumption? I should lean to this latter hypothesis, were I disposed to puzzle myself with such investigations; but at the age of 80, it would be an idle labor, which I leave to the generation which is to see and feel its effects, and add therefore only, the assurance of my great esteem and respect.”

From our vantage point two centuries later, it seems quite extraordinary to see how these early national leaders possessed such comprehensive social visions, personal intellectual acuity, and capability to mobilize scientific knowledge and practice on behalf of public policy, albeit within a framework of moral consideration. If contingencies had played out differently, these could have become “ordinary” attributes to be expected of our nation’s leaders.

spanagelDavid Spanagel is the author of DeWitt Clinton and Amos Eaton: Geology and Power in Early New York. He teaches history at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.