Science and Technology - The early republic



In the earliest years of the American Republic, the ideas of natural philosophy informed the world-view of the framers of the American Constitution. The most educated of them, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin, were familiar with the ordered clockwork universe that the greatest of Enlightenment scientists, Isaac Newton, had created, and metaphors and analogies drawn from the sciences permeated their political discourse. But the pursuit and practice of science was seen as part of a transnational "Republic of Letters," above the petty politics of nations. When a group of Harvard scientists sought to observe an eclipse in Maine's Penobscot Bay at the height of the revolutionary war in 1780, British forces not only tolerated them but provided safe passage. Similarly, while Franklin was a singularly well-known scientist, widely revered in France as the founder of the science of electricity, he served as the new nation's emissary to Paris on account of his similarly impressive skills in diplomacy and familiarity with French centers of power. While a number of institutions responsible for scientific research emerged within several decades after the nation's founding, including the Coast and Geodetic Survey and the Naval Observatory, none dealt directly with areas of national policy. Alexis de Tocqueville over-looked significant pockets of learning when he declared in Democracy in America (1835) that "hardly anyone in the United States devotes himself to the essentially theoretical and abstract portion of human knowledge," but he was astute in observing that the "purely practical part of science"—applied technology—was what stirred the American imagination.

Still, adroit statesmen recognized that the apolitical "republic of science" could be a helpful tool in aiding foreign policy ambitions, a value connected with scientific research that would grow dramatically in later years. Exploration and geographic knowledge were important elements in contests for empire, and the nascent United States did support several successful exploring expeditions prior to the mid-nineteenth century. When President Thomas Jefferson sought to send Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on an expedition to the Pacific northwest, but lacked funds to provide military escort, he asked whether the Spanish minister would object to travelers exploring the Missouri River with "no other view than the advancement of geography." But in his secret message to Congress in January 1803, Jefferson emphasized the value the Lewis and Clark expedition would have in aiding United States control over this vast territory. By insisting that Lewis and Clark make careful astronomical and meteorological observations, study natural history, and record Indian contacts, Jefferson underscored an important relationship between science and imperialism. A similar set of concerns motivated the U.S. Exploring Expedition (Wilkes Expedition), which between 1838 and 1842 visited Brazil, Tierra del Fuego, Chile, Australia, and the East Indies and skirted 1,500 miles of the Antarctic ice pack (providing the first sighting of the Antarctic continent). Pressure to fund the expedition had come from concerned commercial and military groups, including whalers, who saw the Pacific as important for American interests. They did not sail empty waters, for this U.S. expedition over-lapped with the voyages of the Beagle, the Antarctic expedition of Sir James Clark Ross of England, and the southern survey by Dumont d'Urville of France, and thus owed to nationalistic as well as scientific rivalries. Yet government-sponsored expeditions in this era remained infrequent.

By contrast, technological concerns were very much on the minds of American leaders. The industrial revolution was well underway in Britain at the time of the American Revolution. Stimulated by the depletion of forests by the early eighteenth century as wood was consumed for fuel, Britain had developed coal as an alternative energy source, accelerating technological development through the steam engine (the crucial invention of the first industrial revolution) and the construction of water-and steam-powered mills. By the time of the American Revolution, British industries were supplying the American colonies with manufactured goods, spun cloth, textiles, and iron implements employed in farming. The former colonists' victory created a dilemma for the newly independent states, as Britain sought to forbid the export of machines or even descriptions of them to maintain its trading advantage. While the war in fact only temporarily cut off the United States from the output of the burgeoning industrial mills in Birmingham, Manchester, and London, and resumed migration after the war allowed mechanics to transfer technical knowledge across the Atlantic, government leaders still faced the question of what kind of material society the United States would attempt to create.

Americans at the turn of the nineteenth century agreed on one matter: they did not wish the United States to acquire the "dark satanic mills" that had made Manchester and Birmingham grimy, filthy cities, with overflowing sewers, wretched working conditions, widespread disease, and choking smoke. But American leaders also realized that a rejection of mill technology raised fundamental questions about what standards of material comfort the United States would aspire to reach, and the means, domestic and foreign, it would need to adopt to achieve those ends. Since sources of power were needed to increase living standards, how and what ways the former colonies would develop means of production or acquire finished products would help to shape the future economic, political, and social structure of the nation.

The question of whether to import the factory system to America or to encourage the growth of the United States as an agrarian nation emerged as the initial critical struggle over the role of technology in American foreign policy. It fanned intense political passions in the nascent nation, and helped shape its first political parties. Thomas Jefferson favored limiting the import of technological systems and manufactured goods. Jefferson wanted a republic primarily composed of small farmers, who as independent landowners would enhance "genuine and substantial virtue." The growth of large cities, he feared, would lead to a privileged, capitalistic aristocracy and a deprived proletariat. Jefferson's vision of an agrarian republic represented an ideal in early American political thought, popularized by such works as Hector St. John de Crevecouer's Letters from an American Farmer in 1782. While Jefferson was not adverse to all forms of manufacturing and would later soften his opposition to it even more, he initially envisioned a republic in which American families produced needed textiles at home and traded America's natural resources and agricultural output to secure plows and other essential artifacts. His foreign policy thus sought autonomy at the cost of more limited energy production and a lower standard of living.

Opposition to Jefferson's vision came from Alexander Hamilton, the New York lawyer and protégé of President George Washington who served as the young nation's first secretary of the treasury. Hamilton favored a diversified capitalistic economy, backed by a strong central government and import tariffs designed to nurture fledgling American industries. In his influential Report on Manufactures in 1791, Hamilton argued that "The Employment of Machinery forms an item of great importance in the general mass of national industry." Fearing a lack of social order from over-reliance on an agricultural economy, Hamilton declared that the development of industry would encourage immigration, make better use of the diverse talents of individuals, promote more entrepreneurial activity, and create more robust markets for agricultural products. Hamilton's prescription for nationalism and his support for technology gained favor from Franklin, Washington, and John Adams, although fears of Jeffersonian Republicans that virtue followed the plow still held sway among many Americans.

By the 1830s and 1840s, Hamilton's ideas had gained the upper hand, and the federal government became a firm supporter of technological development as a promising means to promote national prosperity. Jefferson's embargo of 1807 and the War of 1812, which illuminated the vulnerability of relying on Britain for manufactured goods, helped spur this development, but another critical factor was American success in developing technologies that increased agricultural output, including the invention of the cotton gin and the mechanical harvester. The abundance of powerful rivers in New England allowed manufacturers to develop textile mills that relied on water power, initially allowing new manufacturing centers like Lowell, Massachusetts, to avoid the industrial grime of Manchester. No less important, the rapid advance of canals, river boat transportation, and especially railroads provided a model for the integration of hinter regions and seat of the nation, a means for insuring economic development and the sale of manufactured goods and products to foreign markets. For many, like the influential legislator William Seward, technology was the key to securing American domination over the continent and advancing trade. After Seward helped reinterpret patent law to insure that U.S. inventors would profit from their creations, patent numbers swelled. Patents granted rose from an average of 646 per year in the 1840s to 2,525 in the 1850s. Dreams of a global commercial empire were similarly behind American efforts to open Japan to U.S. trading after 1852, as Japan possessed the coal needed by steamships bound to ports in China. These arguments became an enduring component of American perceptions about its global role, finding expression in Alfred T. Mahan's influential late nineteenth-century work on the influence of sea power on history.

Events in the middle decades of the nineteenth century reinforced American acceptance of technology as central to national progress. U.S. manufacturing advantages became even more evident after the invention of the sewing machine and Charles Goodyear's patenting of a process to vulcanize rubber in 1844. The invention of the telegraph encouraged additional trade and opened new markets, and citizens heralded the completion of the first transcontinental telegraph cables in 1861 as a new chapter in establishing an American identity. Already ten years earlier, Americans had delighted at the positive reception British and European observers gave to U.S. built technological artifacts exhibited at the Crystal Palace exhibition in London. The Civil War forcefully focused national attention on the production of guns and steel, but even before the war American citizens had become convinced of the value of embracing new technological systems. National desires to develop a transcontinental railroad were sufficient to overcome nativist American attitudes toward foreign labor and open the doors to the over 12,000 Chinese laborers who completed laying Central Pacific track to create the first transcontinental railroad. By the time the Centennial International Exhibit opened in Philadelphia in 1876, visitors flocking to Machinery Hall were already convinced, as Seward had argued in 1844, that technology aided nationalism, centralization, and dreams of imperialistic expansion.



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