Science and Freedom

“Freedom, the first-born of science.” — Thomas Jefferson

To Monsieur d’Ivernois. In Thomas Jefferson, Richard Holland Johnston, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association of the United States, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 19, iii.

On this day when we celebrate independence and freedom, I thought it would be interesting to share some insights from our founding fathers on science and society. We are thankful that these men concentrated their efforts establishing our democracy, but several of them had strong opinions on science as well.

“Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight. But the enormities of the times in which I have lived, have forced me to take a part in resisting them, and to commit myself on the boisterous ocean of political passions.” — Thomas Jefferson

Letter to Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours (2 Mar 1809). In Thomas Jefferson and John P. Foley (ed.) The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia (1990), 766.

I wonder if Jefferson would view our modern scientific enterprise as a ‘tranquil pursuit?’ I’m sure most assistant professors would disagree. I have no doubt he would still consider government a ‘boisterous ocean of political passions.’ Adams viewed mathematics and the physical sciences as an intermediate step between war and the arts.

“The science of government is my duty. … I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” — John Adams

Letter to Abigail Adams, (1780). In John Adams and Charles Francis Adams, Letters of John Adams, Addressed to His Wife (1841), 68.

The founding fathers clearly knew the power of scientific investigation to benefit humanity. I hope Washington’s sentiment below will prevail in our federal government today as budgets and appropriations bills are finalized.

“There is nothing which can better deserve your patronage, than the promotion of Science and Literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of publick happiness.” — George Washington

First Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union (8 Jan 1790).

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” – Benjamin Franklin

As true visionaries, they also marveled at the future made possible by scientific discovery.

“Indeed, we need not look back half a century to times which many now living remember well, and see the wonderful advances in the sciences and arts which have been made within that period. Some of these have rendered the elements themselves subservient to the purposes of man, have harnessed them to the yoke of his labors and effected the great blessings of moderating his own, of accomplishing what was beyond his feeble force, and extending the comforts of life to a much enlarged circle, to those who had before known its necessaries only.” — Thomas Jefferson

From paper ‘Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Fix the Site of the University of Virginia’ (Dec 1818), reprinted in Annual Report of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia for the Fiscal Year Ending May 31, 1879 (1879), 10. Collected in Commonwealth of Virginia, Annual Reports of Officers, Boards, and Institutions of the Commonwealth of Virginia, for the Year Ending September 30, 1879 (1879).

“I always rejoice to hear of your being still employed in experimental researches into nature, and of the success you meet with. The rapid progress true science now makes, occasions my regretting sometimes that I was born so soon: it is impossible to imagine the height to which may be carried, in a thousand years, the power of man over matter; we may perhaps learn to deprive large masses of their gravity, and give them absolute levity for the sake of easy transport. Agriculture may diminish its labour and double its produce; all diseases may by sure means be prevented or cured (not excepting even that of old age), and our lives lengthened at pleasure even beyond the antediluvian standard. Oh! that moral science were in as fair a way of improvement; that men would cease to be wolves to one another; and that human beings would at length learn what they now improperly call humanity!” — Benjamin Franklin

Letter to Dr Priestley, 8 Feb 1780. In Memoirs of Benjamin Franklin (1845), Vol. 2, 152.

Wait, did Benjamin just envision hover cars? I guess humanity has been waiting around for that mode of transportation longer than I thought. Also, yes, I’m on a first name basis with him. It seems some topics like agriculture and medicine will always be studied, but the specific subject doesn’t really matter because there is always something new to learn.

“To inquisitive minds like yours and mine the reflection that the quantity of human knowledge bears no proportion to the quantity of human ignorance must be in one view rather pleasing, viz., that though we are to live forever we may be continually amused and delighted with learning something new.” — Benjamin Franklin

In letter to Dr. Ingenhouz. Quoted in Theodore Diller, Franklin’s Contribution to Medicine (1912), 65.

It seems that the pursuit of knowledge by scientific inquiry is inextricably linked to the pursuit of happiness, driving us forward into some future that is better for all of us. I can only hope that we continue to uphold the ideals of both science and democracy espoused by our founding fathers.


Quotes today from Today in science history


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