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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersBecoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Theme: GrowthTheme: PeoplesTheme: EconomiesTheme: IdeasTheme: American
Theme: Ideas

Winthrop's telescope
Winthrop's telescope
- The Christian "philosopher": Rev. Cotton Mather compiles the scientific knowledge of the day, 1721 (PDF)
- Electricity, light, and pokeweed: Benjamin Franklin and Cadwallader Colden correspond on science, 1750-1753 (PDF)
- Venus "crossing the sun": Prof. John Winthrop reports on the transit of Venus, Newfoundland, 1761 (PDF)

In 1704, the first continuous newspaper in British America, the Boston News-Letter, published its first issue. Headline events in that year included the Indian massacre in Deerfield, the attack on Spanish settlements in Florida by Carolina colonists, and the first school for enslaved blacks in New York. The fact that 1704 saw the publication in England of Isaac Newton's particle theory of light (two decades after his theory of gravity) may seem incongruous at first, until we reset our mental maps of European and American history. Here we'll see how the discoveries of European astronomers, physicists, chemists, and biologists influenced the colonial American enthusiasts of "natural philosophy," i.e., science.
  • Mather compiles the scientific knowledge of the day. Cotton Mather, the Puritan minister who published hundreds of sermons and theological works, also produced the first American compilation of scientific knowledge, The Christian Philosopher (1721). For Mather, science was an "incentive to Religion" that fostered reverence and moral insight. "Theologians had long studied nature in order to understand the will of God," asserts historian Winton Solbert. "Now they and their allies welcomed scientific advances that explained how God's Providence advanced divine purposes in the physical universe. Mather always saw harmony rather than conflict between science and religion."1 Here we read a representative sampling of Mather's review of scientific knowledge—the "Works of the glorious God exhibited to our View." The brief excerpts from each chapter reveal Mather's scientific inquiry and his spiritual devotion in response to the natural world.
    • - Rev. Cotton Mather, The Christian Philosopher, 1721, excerpts.

  • Franklin and Colden discuss their scientific ideas. Franklin's kite-flying experiment is part of hallowed Americana, but it likely never occurred (he did write an article proposing the experiment). Franklin's voluminous writings on science and invention include his correspondence with like-minded Americans and Europeans, including Cadwallader Colden, a physician and botanist who, like Franklin, experimented with electricity and was captivated by the implications of Newtonian physics. Here we read selections from their letters in which they discuss electricity, magnetism, gravity, light, astronomy, and cancer among other topics, and describe their own experiments in electricity.
    • - Benjamin Franklin and Cadwallader Colden, correspondence on science, selections, 1750-1753.

  • Winthrop observes the transit of Venus. In June 2012 you'll be able to watch a small black dot move across the sun's surface. It is the planet Venus, its transit will take about eighteen minutes, and it won't happen again for a over a century, in 2117. It also occurred in 1761, visible in North America only in Canada and the Spanish west, and the only American scientist who made the arduous trek to observe it (in Newfoundland) was Harvard professor John Winthrop (great-great grandson of the first Massachusetts Bay governor). Why bother? Because the mathematical calculations answered a host of questions, and, besides, it gave the "high satisfaction of seeing the most agreeable Sight, VENUS ON THE SUN."
    • - John Winthrop, Relation of a Voyage from Boston to Newfoundland for the Observation of the Transit of Venus, June 6, 1761, 1761, excerpts.

Consider these readings with those in #1: Religion and Reason, and #4: Learning, and with the texts in Theme V: AMERICAN, #3: Rights. How did British America adapt the Enlightenment pursuits of philosophy, religion, science, and political theory? (31 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. What perspective does each of these four American men—Mather, Franklin, Colden, and Winthrop—bring to the study of science?
  2. How would each man answer the question "Why bother?"
  3. How does each man's scientific interests and religious views intersect in his overall worldview?
  4. Consider these readings with those in #1: Religion and Reason. For these men, are religion and reason allies or antagonists?
  5. How do these men's attitudes toward science and invention differ from those of European scientists?
  6. To what extent do they represent an emerging "American" outlook on science?
  7. What different impressions do you get of Benjamin Franklin, John Winthrop, and Cotton Mather by comparing their writings in this section and others in this theme, IDEAS?
  8. Create a dialogue with one of these men and another writer in this theme, IDEAS, perhaps the lawyer John Adams, the poet Martha Brewster, or clergymen George Whitefield or Thomas Prince. Determine what question they will discuss.
  9. From the writings in this theme, describe eighteenth-century perspectives on these issues: the purpose of creation, the purpose of studying creation, the relation of scientific study and ethical insight, and the relationship of religion and science.

Framing Questions
  •  What central ideas distinguished the eighteenth- from seventeenth-century American colonies?
  •  How were these ideas shaped, and how did they influence the colonists' perception of themselves and their relationships with God, with each other, and with Britain?
  •  How did their concepts of liberty, rights, equality, and independence change in this period?
  •  To what extent were the shaping ideas "American"?

Mather, The Christian Philosopher: 13
Franklin & Cadwallader on science: 13
Winthrop on the transit of Venus:  5
TOTAL 31 pages
Supplemental Sites

Promoting Science through America's Colonial Press (Franklin and the Pennsylvania Gazette), from Archiving Early America

Benjamin Franklin: An Extraordinary Life, An Electric Mind (PBS/TPT) Franklin's experiments with "electrical fire," in online exhibition Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World, from the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary Commission

Franklin's lightning rod , from the Franklin Institute

The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, from the American Philosophical Society and Yale University

Cotton Mather, brief biography in Fire and Ice: Puritan and Reformed Writings, personal website of Bill Carson

Chasing Venus: Observing the Transits of Venus, 1631-2004, from the Smithsonian Institution

The Most Noble Problem in Science: The Transit of Venus in the 18th Century, from the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford, UK

Transit of Venus, comprehensive website from Chuck Bueter, Fellow of the Great Lakes Planetarium Association

1 Winton U. Solberg, ed., in introduction to Cotton Mather, The Christian Philosopher, 1721 (University of Illinois Press, 1994), p. xxxiii; citing R. P. Stearns, Science in the British Colonies of America (University of Illinois Press, 1970), pp. 150-161.

- Gregorian reflecting telescope by Benjamin Martin, used by John Winthrop in 1761 to observe the Transit of Venus in Newfoundland, photograph. Harvard University, Collection of Historic Scientific Instruments, on longterm loan from the Science Museum London (SM-1911-293). Reproduced by permssion.
- Transit of Venus across the sun, 8 June 2004, photograph by Michael Wilce, London, England ( Permission pending.
- John Winthrop: Oil portrait by John Singleton Copley, ca. 1773 (detail). Harvard University Art Gallery. Permission pending.
- Benjamin Franklin to Jan Ingenhousz, manuscript essay on the effects of lightning, including drawing of piece of tin foil hit by lightning, 1777 (detail of page). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division.
- Benjamin Franklin's lightning rod, ca. 1750, photograph. The Franklin Institute. Permission pending.
- Cotton Mather, The Christian Philosopher, 1721, title page. Digital image from the online database Eighteenth Century Collections Online from Gale (Cengage Learning). Permission pending.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. Religion I   2. Religion II   3. Religion III
4. Learning   5. Communication   6. Science
7. Health

TOOLBOX: Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Growth | Peoples | Economies | Ideas | American

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