American Science in the Age of Jefferson

American Science in the Age of Jefferson

American Science in the Age of Jefferson

American Science in the Age of Jefferson

Excerpt

Historians of science have paid relatively little attention to American science in the early national period, largely because it was overshadowed and dominated by European scientific developments to which Americans made only modest contributions. The Jeffersonian era was nevertheless a formative one for American science. This was a time in which basic institutions and deep-seated attitudes toward science and its relation to the rest of American culture took shape, institutions and attitudes that were to guide the subsequent course of American scientific development. Of the existing literature about late eighteenth and early nineteenth century American science, a considerable part concerns Thomas Jefferson's scientific interests, but hitherto no one has provided a general account of American science in its European context against which Jefferson's activities as a promoter and practitioner of science could be evaluated justly. To provide such an account and portray Jefferson's role therein is the purpose of this book. In writing it, I have ignored the long-standing controversy between the "internalists" and the "externalists" among historians of science, preferring to depict both the social setting of science and its substantive achievements. The style is narrative, not analytic. Instead of generalizing about American science and illustrating the generalizations with examples, I have described what American scientists did and said, quoting extensively from their works and the writings of those who observed them and relying on the narrative itself to give the reader a true conception of the ideas and motives that animated them and the handicaps under which they labored. The misspellings and other peculiarities in the quotations are all sic, as in the case of Jefferson's "knoledge." In speaking of the human race, I have adopted the terms "man" and "mankind" in conformity with the usage of Jefferson and his contemporaries. As for the "men of science," the scientists of this period were indeed men, at least in America.

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