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Abraham Lincoln on the Value of Science

By David J. Kent

Washington, DC

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Abraham Lincoln understood the value of science to ordinary Americans.

Lincoln’s life spanned one of the greatest periods of scientific and technological growth in our national history. Lincoln not only lived through it, he recognized and encouraged it. Most know he grew up on farms, but not how much science he learned there. Most know his formal education “did not amount to one year,” but not how his self-study led to an understanding and skill in mathematics far above his peers. Most know he completed two flatboat trips, but not the extent of his life on the waters. Many have heard he is the only president with a patent, but not how he pressed for technological improvements that would change the face of the Midwest, and in the process growing Chicago from a tiny lakeside hamlet into a pivotal hub for transportation and economic development. Some may know about his life as a lawyer on the circuit, but not how he set legal precedents critical to the future of westward American expansion. We know he emancipated enslaved people, but not how science and technology facilitated the expansion of slavery in the United States, and Lincoln’s struggles to contain it.

The state of science in early nineteenth century United States was far behind that of Europe. Most American men of science received their training by studying with the great scientists in Germany, England, or France. Science was the realm of the elite, wealthy men with the money and leisure time to spend hours studying what was often esoteric, of little value to the immediate needs of the majority of Americans. Most pure science never trickled down to the masses. In fact, Europeans and some eastern United States scientists saw little need to bring science to the public, who they felt were too ignorant and incapable to make use of it. Renowned scientists like James Hall, James Dana, John Torrey, and Asa Gray all preferred writing for other scientists only, the “ivory tower” in which scientific jargon limited comprehension only to those trained in the particular fields of endeavor. To satisfy the “vulgar appetites of the people,” James Dana complained, required science to be “diluted and mixed with a sufficient amount of the spirit of the age.” Some exceptions like mathematician Elias Loomis felt that the “scientific taste of the community” was important to cultivate. Others such as Louis Agassiz conducted public lectures, believing that education of the masses was an overall benefit to society. But mostly, science was a luxury of the leisure class.

Many politicians also thought America was becoming too democratic, that too much power was devolving to the masses. The aging Charles Carroll, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, warned Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831 that “a mere democracy is but a mob.” He disdained the masses and longed for the “old aristocratic institutions” that helped make him wealthy and politically powerful. Lincoln felt differently. While he would himself warn against the dangers of mob rule, he joined former president James Madison in his faith in the people’s power of self-government.

Lincoln was not a scientist. He was not even the first president to have an interest in science. Thomas Jefferson was more of an inventor, concocting everything from clocks, a revolving bookstand, a plow, and scientific instruments, although he never obtained any patents. Jefferson, like George Washington before him, did some surveying, a hobby that Lincoln would learn as a trade early in his adult life. Jefferson also kept meticulous records of the weather around Monticello, his Virginia estate. Jefferson’s scientific knowledge was unequalled in his time. But Jefferson believed the economy should be primarily based on agriculture. While he claimed to envision “the rolling out of a republic in which small independent farmers would become foot-soldiers of the infant nation and the guardians of its liberty,” in reality he owned a large plantation and enslaved more than six hundred men, women, and children in his lifetime. Slave labor enabled Jefferson the privilege of intellectual pursuit. Jefferson may have been more of a scientist than Lincoln, but Jefferson saw science as a benefit for the few while Lincoln saw its potential to benefit the many.

Lincoln had more in common with our sixth president, John Quincy Adams. Adams was not a scientist himself but wrote a treatise on the reform of weights and measures. His nearly religious promotion of astronomical observatories helped create the study of astronomy in America, pushing in an 1843 oration the practical value of astronomy. He reminded humanity to look “heavenward” as if “the special purpose of their creation” was “observation of the stars.” During his tenure as a congressman following his presidency, Adams fought against both anti-British and anti-federalist biases to get the Smithson bequest devoted to scientific research. Like Adams, Lincoln saw science and technology as something that could improve the lives of all Americans. He saw a mechanism by which all men could better their condition.

[Photo by David J. Kent at New Salem, IL]


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