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Saturday, July 04, 2015

Is The Declaration of Independence A ‘Scientific Paper’? by Joe Romm

Photo: Joe Romm
Joe Romm, Senior Fellow at American Progress and a Ph.D. in physics from MIT reports, "Most people don't understand just how deeply steeped in science the founding fathers were."

Photo: ThinkProgress

Nearly twelve score years ago, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Interdependence:
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Okay, the Declaration of Interdependence sounds a lot like the Declaration of Independence.

By saying that it is a self-evident truth that all humans are created equal and that our inalienable rights include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, our Founding Fathers were telling us that we are all in this together, that we are interdependent, that we have a moral duty to protect these inalienable rights for all humans. President Lincoln, perhaps above all others, was instrumental in making clear that the second sentence of the Declaration was “a moral standard to which the United States should strive,” as Wikipedia puts it.

The double appeal to “Nature” — including the explicit appeal to “the laws of Nature” in the first sentence — is particularly salient. For masters of rhetoric like the authors of the Declaration, a repeated word, especially in an opening sentence, is repeated for the singular purpose of drawing attention to it.

Some argue that the phrase “laws of nature” meant something different to Jefferson than it does to us (see here).

Title page of Principia, first edition (1686/1687). 
Photo: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

But I don’t think most people understand just how deeply steeped in science — and Sir Isaac Newton’s “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica” — the founding fathers were, particularly Jefferson. Because the connection between science and politics is so important today, I’ll do a post discussing this point in detail later.

It’s worth noting now that for nearly two decades — including the entire time Jefferson was Vice President and President of this country — he was also President of The American Philosophical Society, the nation’s oldest scientific society, which was founded by the great American scientist Ben Franklin. “Natural Philosophy” was the phrase used for the natural sciences back then, which is why it’s in the title of Newton’s famed Principia.

In his book, “Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence,” the historian Gary Wills calls the Declaration a “scientific paper,” and explains that “the Declaration’s opening is Newtonian. It lays down the law.” The Principia, of course, famously lays out Newton’s 3 laws of motion, which many at the time called the “laws of nature.”

How familiar was Jefferson with the Principia? Very. Newton’s masterpiece was widely revered among the founding fathers. But Jefferson in particular had studied it closely, and he even wrote a letter identifying what he calculated to be a tiny mathematical error in it.

Source: ThinkProgress

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