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Jefferson and Science

July 5, 2005

A public radio commentary

Every Fourth of July I read the Declaration of Independence. I do this partly because I enjoy its eloquent phrases, partly because its lofty sentiments fill me with historical pride, but mostly I reread it to be a better citizen. It is, after all, the founding document.

Over the years I've detected, with my engineers eye, an unmistakable trace of science and math in the Declaration. It reads like a geometric proof with its "laws of nature" and its truths held to be "self-evident" like axioms. It first lays down axioms like "All men are created equal" and then derives, if you will, an indictment against King George the Third.

I've learned that there is more than an echo of scientific reasoning in the Declaration, phrases like "laws of nature" had deep meaning for the Founders. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, all members of the committee that wrote the Declaration, used science as a source for metaphors. They believed it to be the supreme expression of human reason. For no Founder was science more important than Jefferson, the Declaration's main author.

In a letter he revealed, "Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight." He filled his writings with discussions of plows, air pumps, compasses, canal locks, balloons and steam power. He stocked his library at Monticello with books on every aspect of science and technology. None more important to him than Euclid's geometry and Isaac Newton's great works on physics.

At Monticello Jefferson had a picture gallery of intellectual giants. He assigned a high place to three portraits, one of which was Isaac Newton. He esteemed Newton as one of the greatest minds the world had produced. Jefferson had both the Latin original and English translations of Newton's Principia in his library; he is surely our only president who's actually read it. So, when Jefferson opened the Declaration of Independence by asking the American people to assume the powers of the Earth "to which the Laws of Nature .... entitle[d] them." he meant more than natural law - the supreme moral law known to humankind through reason.

To Jefferson and the other Founders, the words "Laws of Nature" had a deeper resonance: They evoked a picture of Newton's laws of motion, of the universe as one great harmonious order obeying mathematical laws. A world in which it was natural that humans have inalienable rights.

How does all this help me today to be a better citizen? Well, in hindsight, the Founders too glibly made a leap from the laws of gravity to the laws of human interaction. In reading the Declaration one can easily forget that the dignity and "the rights of man" are neither a self-evident axiom, nor an inalienable right, but instead a hard-earned acquisition that we must continually work to keep.

Copyright 2005 William S. Hammack Enterprises