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Science and experimentation were at the heart of the Founding Fathers' philosophies and actions. The Founders relentlessly tinkered, invented, farmed by means of scientific principles, star-gazed, were fascinated by math, used scientific analogies and scientific thinking in their political writing, and fell in love with technologies. They conceived of the United States of America as a grand "experiment" in the scientific meaning of the word. George Washington's embrace of an experimental vaccination for smallpox saved the American army in 1777. He was also considered the most scientific farmer in the country. John Adams founded a scientific society and wrote public support of science into the Massachusetts constitution. The president of another scientific society, Thomas Jefferson, convinced its leading lights to train Meriwether Lewis for the Lewis and Clark expedition; his Declaration of Independence was so suffused with scientific thinking that it was called Newtonian. Benjamin Franklin's fame as an "electrician" gave him the status to persuade France to help America win the Revolutionary War. Thomas Paine invented smokeless candles, underwater bombs, and the first-ever iron span bridge. In Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries, Tom Shachtman provides the full story of how the intellectual excitement of scientific discoveries had a powerful influence on America's Founding Fathers.
The "American Experiment" was not a metaphor in the eyes of our Founding Fathers, according to journalist Shachtman (Rum-springa: To Be or Not to Be Amish) in this lively history of 18th-century science. Retiring early after making his fortune, Benjamin Franklin took up scientific tinkering and his groundbreaking discoveries about electricity made him world-famous. He used his celebrity status to lobby Parliament to address colonial grievances and, when that failed, to persuade France to aid the Continental Congress. Science played a minor role in the Revolution itself, although one major event was Washington's courageous 1777 decision to inoculate his troops against smallpox a public health milestone that may have preserved his army. As leaders of the new nation, presidents Washington and Adams aggressively encouraged science, invention, and technological advances, but Jefferson, a man of science himself, outdid them. His administration sponsored several extensive information-gathering expeditions (Lewis & Clark's being the most notable), supported fossil collection, and promoted vaccination. Shachtman makes an ingenious and convincing case that "science-based thoughts and actions were critical to the nation's birth and early health far more so than were religious doctrine or economic considerations."