Science and Knowledge

Science and Knowledge: Keeping them Alive

During the early years of the United States, adults esteemed science and knowledge of mathematics as objects of learning. In addition, they loved asking questions about the natural world and the universe. Jefferson’s and Madison’s libraries covered universal subjects in many languages.

Thought in this period rested on what historians call the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. These were ideological shifts about the rights of man that led to the great revolutions of the eighteenth century. In the early 1800s Americans supported not only their revolution, but its ideological underpinnings.

Early Americans were interested in more than politics. Most importantly, they believed that “we the people” could pursue happiness by free inquiry and free thought in all fields. They knew the difference between facts and fiction, and valued systematically analyzed and understood facts. In sum, they admired and valued science; the U. S. Constitution guarantees patent rights to the innovative.

Very few universities existed and most of these focused on the instruction of ministers of religion. Thus, the educational establishment purveyed religion and morality; it did not conduct research and support free inquiry. However, the core curriculum in most universities included mathematics and some practical science. This practical core allowed The College of William and Mary to train and grant a license to George Washington to be a surveyor.

The Philadelphia Museum

None of the thirteen colonies housed museums, although there were several learned societies that pursued the science of the day and diffusion of knowledge. The Philadelphia Museum founded by Charles Willson Peale in 1784 was the first American museum. Peale, a well-known portrait painter, opened the museum with a display of forty- four “worthy persons” of the revolutionary era.

Peale hoped to get commissions for more portraits and charged admission to his museum.  At first, his collection occupied the upstairs space in his home. Here is one of Peale’s portraits of George Washington (now hanging at Washington’s home, Mount Vernon):

George Washington in Virginia Militia, 1772

 

 

The Philadelphia Museum began to attract donations of many items and soon had to expand from its original space. For example, displays included Martha Washington’s thimble, American Indian clothing, weapons, and various household objects.

In 1794 Peale moved the museum to the building of the American Philosophical Society, the country’s first scientific society, where Peale served as secretary. Peale, a scholar and student of botany and natural history, collected specimens of plants and animals. Interestingly, he found a place in his museum for a live menagerie including two grizzly bears, a monkey and a bald eagle.

Science and Knowledge of Natural History

The American Philosophical Society pursued science.  Members studied and systematically organized their knowledge.  They made their discoveries and artifacts available to the public.

In 1801 Peale led an expedition to Newburgh, New York where a farmer had found the skeleton of a large mastodon.  Peale and his son, Rembrandt, excavated and reassembled the skeleton and put it on display in the museum.  The mammoth caused a sensation and was the most popular item in the Peale collection. As a result of increased visitor interest and attendance, the following year the museum moved to the second floor of Independence Hall.

The Peale Collection was now a serious museum.  Visitors received a printed catalogue with collections organized according to a botanical order. Painted portraits hung over glass cases holding birds, reptiles, insects, minerals and fossils. The reassembled mammoth skeleton dominated the museum.

Restored Mammoth in Museum

 

The Smithsonian Institution: Origin and Early History

Similar to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, a group of Washington DC citizens organized the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences in 1816. The organization received a charter from the U. S. Congress in 1818 and elected some prominent members who served as officers.

The Institute proposed to study plant life, to create a botanical garden on the capitol Mall, to study the country’s mineral production, to improve the management and care of livestock, and to create a topographical and statistical history of the United States. In 1824 it occupied a permanent home in the capitol building and provided weekly presentations to members of Congress.

During the life of the society, eighty-five communications were presented to Congress, with more than half devoted to astronomy and mathematics. Of all the activities planned by the institute, two were implemented—the establishment of a botanical garden (it’s still there) and a national museum for the study of natural history. The Institute’s charter expired in 1838. The National Museum, based on the natural history holdings of the society and founded in 1840, later became part of the Smithsonian Institution.

 

Smithson’s Will

James Smithson was a well-to-do British scientist living in Italy. He died in 1829 leaving most of his estate to his nephew, Henry James Hungerford.  Smithson’s will stipulated that should his nephew die without heirs, the estate would pass “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” The nephew, Hungerford, died in 1835, childless and still in his twenties.

Nobody knows why Smithson did this. He had never visited the United States and knew nobody living there.

Finally,  Congress officially accepted the legacy and pledged the faith of the United States to the charitable trust on July 1, 1836.  President Andrew Jackson sent Richard Rush to England to collect the bequest, and Rush returned with 105 sacks containing 104,960 gold sovereigns. That amounted to about $500,000 at the time; in today’s dollars, approximately $220 million.

What did Smithson Mean by Science and Knowledge?

President James K. Polk in 1846 signed legislation establishing the Smithsonian Institution as a trust instrumentality of the United States. The law created a Board of Regents and a Secretary of the Smithsonian who would administer the institution.

Smithson’s will did not specify what he meant by diffusion of knowledge, and the Smithsonian’s first Secretary, Joseph Henry, wanted the institution to become a center for scientific research. At the same time, it became the depository for various U. S. Government collections.

In 1838 the United States navy embarked on an exploration that would circumnavigate the globe and last four years. The expedition, conducted by a navy crew and nine civilian scientists, sailed on six small ships.

The exploring expedition amassed forty tons of samples of natural history. Artifacts included thousands of zoological specimens, 50,000 plant specimens, thousands of shells, corals, fossils and geological specimens.  In addition, the  expedition collected a few thousand ethnological curiosities, including 450 weapons. The crew evidently participated in deadly battles with Fijian warriors and collected many intricately carved war clubs.

Fijian War Club

 

Housing Science and Knowledge: The Castle

The vast collection brought back by the exploring expedition was catalogued and displayed at the U. S. Patent Office. As a result of the expedition, Congress debated the need for a building on the Mall, to both fulfill Smithson’s wish and to house all of the newly amassed objects. At the time, Washington DC was a small city and the Mall served as its center.

Money was appropriated and construction began in 1849. The building, designed by James Renwick, Jr., imitated a Norman castle.  The Smithsonian opened its building, known widely as the Castle, in 1855, completing the requirements of Smithson’s will.

The Smithsonian Castle

Today the Smithsonian Institution is a giant repository of knowledge and science in Washington DC, a city dominated by politicians and politics. While rhetoric, exaggeration, and obfuscation comprise most of what politicians say, they know where science and knowledge come from. They support the Smithsonian with their budget every year.

Free and open to the public, the Smithsonian has been that way from its beginning. Today it consists of nineteen museums as well as the National Zoo.  Eleven of the museums are located on the National Mall along with the National Botanical Garden.  In addition, the Smithsonian supports 168 affiliated museums in 39 states, Panama and Puerto Rico.

Still true to the requirements of science, the Smithsonian Institution supports some twenty research centers. Several are connected to affiliated Smithsonian museums.

In 2020, the federal budget and appropriations by Congress for the Smithsonian amounted to $1 billion, or 62 percent of total expenditures. The rest comes from trusts and private donations.  Smithson’s legacy still operates.

Science and Knowledge: Magic at the Smithsonian

My family lived in Washington DC during the years my children grew to adulthood.  We visited the Smithsonian frequently and one year both my children enrolled in a Smithsonian course on magic.

Christian the Magician acted as professor and he was well known in my neighborhood for presentations at birthday parties. For six weeks he met with his small class teaching them not only the tricks, but how to present them.

The final exam consisted of a performance by the students for an audience of parents and grandparents, held in a small auditorium in the Castle. We sat in a semi-circle on platforms built to serve as seats (no chairs) and could view the small stage from above.

My children managed to demonstrate a display of a complete newspaper page after they had shown the crowd that they had torn it up and shredded it.  We cheered loudly as did all the other parents and grandparents.

After the performance I asked the children how they did it. They refused to answer. They had done the work and were keeping the knowledge and science to themselves.

 

 

Learning About History: The Place of Women

Why do people care about history? What do they think knowledge about the old days will tell them? Men and women look at history a little differently.  They imagine what the world might have been for each of them.

After several years as a docent at Jamestown Settlement and fielding questions from people from all age groups and parts of the country, I think I understand what we, both men and women, want to learn about history. Jamestown Settlement is a living history museum commemorating the arrival of three English ships in 1607.

Children learn the history: warfare, Pocahontas, starvation, lots of murky action.  Jamestown Settlement is a park, a fort, an Indian village, and a dock on the James River holding replicas of the three ships.   Children enjoy playing outside where chickens and wild turkeys roam and crafts are demonstrated in the Indian village.

But adults don’t come to Jamestown simply to entertain the children.  When they enter the museum they ask questions. They want to know where they fit into the mosaic that makes up American history.  Did their ancestors arrive in Virginia four hundred years ago?  Unlikely, in physical terms, for most people asking. But they still feel an affinity with the first settlers; somehow they feel a connection.

Susan Constant docked on James River

History and the Need for Women

The first settlers were young men and boys who spent a lot of time fighting with everyone, including themselves. After all, they came to fight, and thought they would fight the Spanish. Sometimes they succeeded in killing each other.  These people didn’t have descendants.

So when does American history begin? In my opinion, it happened when the first young settlers realized that to survive, they couldn’t rely on rescue ships from the mother country. To thrive in the new world, they needed to build more than a lonely fort.  They needed a place to live and begin families. For that, they needed women.

In the beginning, the only women around Jamestown came from the native tribes who lived in the area.  Archaeology tells us that native women did a lot of the cooking in Jamestown fort.  Historians estimate that about a third of the original settlers who arrived on the first ships married Indian women.

Indian Cooking Site outside Jamestown Fort

 

After a hundred years or so, with substantial intermarriage with the Indians and the arrival of some women from Europe, Virginia developed a family structure.  The wealthy landowners created plantations on which they raised and sold tobacco. There were very few towns; religion was observed in small parish churches paid for and controlled by local parishioners who lived on plantations. Though the colony received a charter to establish a university in 1622, Virginia didn’t get around to accepting that idea until 1693.

Virginia tobacco was highly prized in the mother country and all over Europe, and Virginia planters became wealthy.  From 1619 they were also self-governing by an elected House of Burgesses.  The mother country sent over governors who were advised by an appointed Governors Council; the more raucous elected House of Burgesses passed all legislation, including tax bills.

Women in Colonial Virginia

This is all basic stuff, but think.  What and who were represented in the Virginia House of Burgesses? After about a hundred years the colony numbered about fifty thousand people.  Two representatives were elected from each borough and they, all men, represented the plantations.

The plantation was Virginia’s basic unit of society. It contained everything that was necessary for life and the beginning of a family structure:  the plantation raised the food, prepared it, made the furniture and the tools necessary for the crops, and sold the product. It also provided security from bandits and incursions by foreign tribes. A representative of a plantation spoke for everyone living there: rich, poor, male, female, free, indentured or slave.

Tobacco brought wealth and nice houses located on the rivers from which tobacco was shipped. Tobacco traded internationally; Virginia credit purchased many products for the use and enjoyment of the plantation residents. It also paid for tutors for the children.

Because the men went out to the fields and served in the local militia, Virginia plantations often were run day-to-day by women. Women frequently outlived their husbands and powerful, wealthy women operated in international trade.  Women were important participants in deciding who their children should marry, and Virginia plantation society featured close family ties. Many members of the Governor’s Council and the House of Burgesses were closely related. It was a government of cousins who knew each other well.

History Continues: Women still Watch out for the Children

Is that so different from what we have today?  Women still write a lot of the checks and run most households.  They have the children and raise them.  They also run a lot of small businesses, as they did in colonial Virginia.  When a tourist visits Colonial Williamsburg he and his family can eat in a number of restaurants in the colonial area.  Historically, almost all of them were owned and operated by women.

Women exercised their property rights early, and generally they did so to protect their children. Jamestown Settlement’s museum displays a legal document from the 1650s which describes what today would be described as a prenuptial agreement.  In it, Mrs. Hannah Bennett Turner Tompkins Arnold states that she will marry her third husband, but that certain parts of her acreage will be set aside for her children. She buried three husbands and kept her farm and property together for her heirs by legal deed.

This is all detailed to a certain extent in my book, The Wealth of Jamestown. The star of that book is, of course, Sarah Harrison, daughter of a great planter, who in her marriage ceremony to the Rev. James Blair, clearly stated “No obey” when asked if she would love, honor and obey him.  From that, the plot thickened.

Women didn’t often get their names and dates recorded, but they were there. We’d have no history without them.