Today we welcome a guest post from Cameron B. Strang, author of Frontiers of Science: Imperialism and Natural Knowledge in the Gulf South Borderlands, 1500-1850, just published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and UNC Press.
Frontiers of Science offers a new framework for approaching American intellectual history, one that transcends political and cultural boundaries and reveals persistence across the colonial and national eras. The pursuit of knowledge in the United States did not cohere around democratic politics or the influence of liberty. It was, as in other empires, divided by multiple loyalties and identities, organized through contested hierarchies of ethnicity and place, and reliant on violence. By discovering the lost intellectual history of one region, Strang shows us how to recover a continent for science.
Frontiers of Science is available now in both print and ebook editions.
What’s so American about American Science?
Americans love pondering how things in the United States differ from those in other countries. The answer—for topics ranging from politics to art—is often something like “liberty,” “freedom,” or “democracy.” American science is no exception. After reading every book about science in the early United States I could get my hands on, I found most authors agreed that it was a post-independence context of freedom and democratic government that, for better or for worse, set American science off on its own path.
But such a conclusion depends on some pretty bold (if nevertheless widely accepted) assumptions. It assumes that U.S. territory was a place defined primarily by liberty and democracy. It assumes that the American people studying nature were free and independent citizens. And it therefore tends to assume that the only truly American intellectuals were white Anglo men living on the eastern fringe of the continent.
This narrow vision of which people and places mattered to American science—and American intellectual life more broadly—is not simply a problem of historiographic myopia. A large swath of American voters today are eager to literally wall off seemingly un-American peoples and places from the United States. At the core of this exclusionary dream is the notion that Hispanics and other non-Anglos have never really been part of the big story of America, a story in which liberty inspired greatness in arenas like business, technology, and science. Never mind that Hispanic entrepreneurs and men of science studied and profited from American nature long before any Anglos; never mind that Anglos in the early republic sought the expertise of Spanish American men of science as they worked to expand their nation; never mind that learned Anglos dreamed of building national scientific institutions based on Spanish models.
My point here (and one of the points I make in my new book Frontiers of Science: Imperialism and Natural Knowledge in the Gulf South Borderlands, 1500-1850) is that we have a deeply flawed understanding of science in early America because we continue to believe that the intellectual world of eastern Anglos was somehow separate from, and incomparably superior to, a vaster early America populated by Native Americans, Hispanics, French creoles, and diverse African-descended men and women (among others). All of these American peoples studied the natural world, but it was not liberty or democracy that most influenced their intellectual pursuits. It was inequality and imperialism. Imperial expansion, and the violence and hierarchies that accompanied it, began shaping natural knowledge in America when the first Spanish conquistadors arrived in the early 1500s, and it continued to do so as France, Britain, and—after 1776—the United States advanced their own territorial claims. This context of imperialism in no way made the more western parts of the continent unique; it also affected the scientific work of Anglo-American men in eastern spaces like Philadelphia and Boston. In short, U.S. expansion ensured that American intellectual life remained as thoroughly shaped by imperialism as it had been under British, Spanish, and French rule.
So, what’s so American about American science? I’d suggest that it has less to do with the influence of liberty and democracy than with the persistence of empire and inequality.
Cameron B. Strang is assistant professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno.