- Historic Sites
Science, Learning, And The Claims Of Nationalism
We have come a long way from the philosophy of the Enlightenment...a shift that represents a retreat rather than an advance, argues the noted historian.
April 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 3
The new United States in turn drew upon European artists and architects for her needs. Consider the creation of our national Capitol, and indeed of the capital city itself. Was there ever a more cosmopolitan enterprise? The particular name of the city was Washington, but the generic name was Latin, and, as it turned out, the architecture was Roman and the art almost entirely Italian. The work of laying out the capital was originally entrusted to a Frenchman, Major L’Enfant, who had come to America with Lafayette and made himself part of the New World even while remaining French. Soon L’Enfant was joined by James Hoban, who was born and trained in Ireland. He was chiefly responsible for the White House, for he rebuilt it after the disastrous fire of 1814. Next, Stephen Hallet took over. He was born and raised in France and had come to America in 1789 to set up a school of art in Richmond; alas, it never materialized, but some of his other plans did. More valuable was William Thornton—the architect most responsible for the original design of the Capitol building, with all its drawbacks. Born in the Virgin Islands—his father had been governor of Tortola—he studied medicine at Edinburgh and architecture in Paris; then, ever restless, he travelled on the Continent with the naturalist Count Audriani. Only after this varied career did he come to America, where he joined forces with poor John Fitch in making the first steamboats to float on American rivers; onetrf Fitch’s steamboats was named The Thornton . It was while he was on his honeymoon in the West Indies that he submitted the winning design for the national Capitol; not content with that (and after the original decision, few were), he also designed the Octagon House, which still stands, and probably Homewood in Baltimore. One of his coworkers on the Capitol was George Hadfield from England. He was actually born in Italy, had studied painting with the American Benjamin West, and was brother-in-law to Maria Cosway, who had so charmed Thomas Jefferson.
Most colorful of all was Benjamin Latrobe, a product of Huguenot France and Moravian Germany, though born in England. Trained to the ministry in Germany, he had happily turned to art, practiced briefly in England, and then migrated to Virginia, where he was an instant success. He designed a penitentiary, surprised that the New World should need one; he helped with the construction of the state capital in Richmond, which won him Jefferson’s esteem; he helped improve the navigation of the James; he designed a new city water system for Philadelphia—what did he not do? Jefferson brought him to Washington and soon he was in charge of almost everything, for he was a man of cascading energy and endless resourcefulness. With the aid of Thornton—and of Jefferson’s old friend Philip Mazzei—he imported a small army of sculptors and decorators from Italy. …
Or consider those two remarkable presidents of the Royal Society, itself dedicated to the pursuit of science and learning for the benefit of all mankind: Sir Hans Sloane and Sir Joseph Banks. What an international figure was the first great president, Hans Sloane. Born in Ireland, he studied medicine under the German Nicolaus Staphorst; then off to France for his formal training at Paris and Montpellier and, just to even things up, at the long-defunct Protestant University of Orange. He sailed for the West Indies and botanized there, and the whole scientific world rejoiced when he brought back a cargo of botanical specimens from Jamaica. At his handsome mansion in London, Sloane kept open house, just as his successor, Sir Joseph Banks, was to do. … Sloane corresponded with botanists everywhere in the Western world, not least with Americans, who sent over thousands of specimens to the royal gardens; with William Byrd of Dividing Line; with Mark Catesby, who wrote A Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands , duly printed in English and French, in German and Latin; and with the elder Bartram, who presided over the most famous botanical garden in English America.
But Dr. Sloane did not confine himself to America; he had his agents everywhere. He acquired the Cunningham botanical collection from China, the Kamel collection from the Philippines, the Herman collection from South Africa, and from Engelbert Kaempfer a collection of specimens and of manuscripts on Japanese medicine and history. How well that story illuminates the workings of the community of science in the eighteenth century. Here is young Dr. Kaempfer, with nothing to do in the little town of Lemgo, in Westphalia. He had studied at Danzig and at Cracow and at Königsberg; he was a man of learning, and he was restless. He betook him to Uppsala, where Olof Rudbeck—he had “proved” that Plato’s Atlantis was located in Sweden—had created the first botanical garden in the Kingdom. Soon he was secretary to the Swedish embassy in Persia; then on to Arabia Felix, to Ceylon, to Batavia, where he took service with the Dutch East India Company and was thereby able to get to Japan. He learned Japanese; he studied Japanese medicine, with due attention to acupuncture and moxabustion;∗A medical treatment based on cauterizing the skin with burning leaves of Chinese wormwood. he collected botanical specimens and manuscripts and books. He returned to Germany with his collection, and a sixteen-year-old bride, and settled down to write a voluminous history of Japan. One of Dr. Sloane’s agents bought the manuscript and the specimens for eighty pounds; a scholar from Zurich translated the history into English; it was published in London and soon in a dozen other places; and it all went, eventually, to Sloane’s creation, the British Museum.