Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Washington’s Disappointment

Washington’s Disappointment

In the midst of a pandemic that has already taken more American lives than the Vietnam War, we are witnessing organized protests calling for businesses to reopen and preventive actions to be lifted in direct contradiction to medical and scientific expertise. Mobs, including demonstrator brandishing firearms and confederate battle flags, are demanding that states ignore the best advice from the most qualified experts because their freedom is evidently more precious than the health and safety of the general populous.

Serendipitously, I recently received an anthology of Richard Hofstadter’s writings as the newest installment in my subscription from Library of America. This collection begins with his book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, for which he won his second Pulitzer Prize in history.

It is fascinating examination of how the “red scare” of in the middle of the 20th century had deep roots in American history. Anti-intellectualism was the common thread over time. Hofstadter posits that knowledge and intellectual capacity became “unpopular” because they represented power.

“The Founding Fathers were sages, scientists, men of broad cultivation, many of them apt in classical learning, who used their wide reading in history, politics, and law to solve the exigent problems of their time.”[1] He notes that soon after the United States was formed, political challengers orchestrated campaigns that drew an imaginary divide between the intellectual and the practical.

Hofstadter cites a letter Charles Carroll wrote to Alexander Hamilton, in which he says Jefferson was, “Too theoretical and fanciful a statesman to direct with prudence the affairs of this extensive and growing confederacy.” Hofstadter notes, “Even in its earliest days, the egalitarian impulse in America was linked with a distrust for what in its germinal form may be called political specialization and in its later forms expertise.”[2]

It is astonishing that a nation founded by intellectuals has been so frequently shaped by widespread rejection of expertise. The Founding Fathers of this nation were also the founders of the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. We are all well aware of the experiments and inventions of Jefferson and Franklin, but Adams, Rush, Madison, and Washington were actively engaged in the scientific discourse and discovery of the time.

Washington was one of the most scientifically advanced farmers in the colonies. He designed a variety of agricultural devices and systematically planted test beds for each crop, experimenting with different mixtures of seeds, fertilizers, and planting techniques, using the most successful models to increase the productivity of his plantations.[3]

As a young man, Washington had contracted small pox in Barbados. He nearly died, but upon recovery, was immune. This protected him from outbreaks during the Revolutionary War, but in 1777, that disease was as much a threat to the Continental Army as the British.

Washington consulted the expertise of his Medical Director, John Morgan, to determine if variolation, a then controversial process by which individuals were inoculated by being scratched with thorns exposed to the pustules of small pox suffers, could protect his troops from an outbreak. The application produced significantly reduced sickness than the actual disease followed by immunity. Washington ordered 40,000 troops to be variolated. In one year, the infection rate among his army dropped from 17% to 1%. It may well have won the war. [4]

Just as he recognized that engaging the best expertise was critical to his success as a military leader, Washington believed that the development of experts was paramount to the advancement of the new republic.

In his final “Annual Message to Congress,” Washington called for the creation of a national military college, which came to fruition, and a national university that did not. He was an important benefactor in the founding of two liberal arts colleges that bear his name: Washington College in Maryland and Washington and Lee University in Virginia. Our first president believed in the importance of these “Seminaries of learning,” but he believed that the scale of achievement he dreamt for our nation would require an investment that only a nation could make.

The Assembly to which I address myself, is too enlightened not to be fully sensible how much a flourishing state of the Arts and Sciences, contributes to National prosperity and reputation. True it is, that our Country, much to its honor, contains many Seminaries of learning highly respectable and useful; but the funds upon which they rest, are too narrow, to command the ablest Professors, in the different departments of liberal knowledge, for the Institution contemplated, though they would be excellent auxiliaries.

Amongst the motives to such an Institution, the assimilation of the principles, opinions and manners of our Country men, but the common education of a portion of our Youth from every quarter, well deserves attention. … In a Republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? and what duty, more pressing on its Legislature, than to patronize a plan for communicating it to those, who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the Country? [5]

The Founding Fathers were as flawed as they were foresighted. They brought forth the Bill of Rights, but they also implemented the Alien and Sedition Acts. They established a democratic republic in which only a minority held suffrage and in which slavery was tolerated, but they had the foresight to create a government that had the capacity to evolve toward a better ideal.

They also recognized that the successful evolution of their political experiment would require leaders well versed in the all the liberal arts: the sciences, humanities, the fine arts, and social sciences. They sponsored the creation of many of our leading colleges to foster the next generation of leaders; they founded leading intellectual societies to review and disseminate the best scientific knowledge of the day; and they dreamed that the United States would develop the intellectual expertise necessary for their young republic to flourish.

Were he to witness these recent demonstrations refuting the collective guidance of our best experts, imagine Washington’s disappointment.

[1] Hofstadter, Richard: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Uncollected Essays 1956-1965, edited by Sean Wilentz, 163. New York: Library of America, 2020.
[2] Ibid., 168-169.
[3] Tom Shachtman: Gentlemen Scientist and Revolutionaries: The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment, 8. New York: St. Martin’s, 2014.
[4] Ibid., 101-112.

[5] George Washington: “Eighth Annual Message to Congress,” 7 December 1796.


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