David Spanagel, DeWitt Clinton and Amos Eaton: Geology and Power in Early New York

David Spanagel, DeWitt Clinton and Amos Eaton: Geology and Power in Early New York (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 2014) 288 pp. $54.95 Hb. ISBN: 9781421411040

In DeWitt Clinton and Amos Eaton, David Spanagel offers biographical treatments of the well-known New York politician DeWitt Clinton and the lesser-known geologist Amos Eaton and politician Stephen Van Rensselaer. Eaton and his achievements have been largely undervalued and unexamined in the historiography. Nevertheless, his relationships with Clinton and Van Rensselaer, both champions of natural history, provided Eaton with powerful connections, facilitated his research, and allowed him to open Rensselaer School at Troy, New York. Naturalists employed by Clinton and Van Rensselaer, men like Amos Eaton, initiated a program to comprehend the natural history of New York and set an example for subsequent generations of scientists. In sum, the natural history embraced by these three New Yorkers 'played a critically valuable role in the intellectual and political life of New York State' (11) and, more broadly, in the United States.

The book is divided into three sections of three chapters each. The first section discusses the geography of New York and introduces Clinton, Eaton, and Van Rensselaer. New York’s geography, particularly Niagara Falls and the Mohawk Valley, made people wonder about the history of the Earth. Furthermore, 'the geological promise of New York’s magnificent natural phenomena was clear enough to early nineteenth-century observers,' Spanagel observes, 'but the fulfillment of this promise was going to require substantial investment of material social, economic, and political energies' (35). DeWitt Clinton became a forceful proponent of the natural sciences. Clinton was no dilettante. He had a deep and abiding interest in natural history and discovered, among other things, an unfamiliar variety of wild wheat in Oneida County. This discovery won him memberships in the prestigious Linnaean Society of London and the Royal Horticultural Society of Great Britain. Clinton cultivated an extensive network of scientific correspondents and kept an eye open for intellectuals with whom he could share ideas. Clinton, in other words, cared deeply about New York’s natural history and did his best to support and inspire natural historians like Eaton. Despite ideological, ethnic, class, and educational differences, Clinton and Van Rensselaer shared the vision that New York’s natural potential was waiting to be tapped and that scientific knowledge was the key to prosperity. Van Rensselaer had access to tremendous financial resources and, to further this vision, became the patron of many natural scientists, including Eaton. After a stint in prison for a crime he did not commit, Eaton came to Clinton’s notice and, shortly thereafter, to Van Rensselaer’s.

The second section explores how publicly and privately funded scientific research 'fulfilled the practical demands of knowledge and skill that were needed to build a regional infrastructure for transportation and commerce' (12). This was a period marked by enthusiasm for internal improvement. New York was no exception. Some New Yorkers, particularly Clinton, caught canal fever. Clinton was unquestionably the driving force behind the Erie Canal, the banner canal project of the antebellum era, which was sometimes derided as 'Clinton’s Big Ditch.' The Erie Canal allowed Clinton to develop homegrown engineering talent. Furthermore, as construction proceeded, workers unearthed a native lime rock. Upon experimentation, it produced superior hydraulic cement. Therefore, 'a geochemical experiment had ensured that a critically needed ingredient would be cheap and plentiful. In Clinton’s view, this was precisely how science was supposed to work' (91). Because Clinton and Van Rensselaer were champions of natural history, fieldwork and construction occurred simultaneously. Once he gained Van Rensselaer’s patronage, Eaton conducted significant field research along the canal’s route. This was important because Eaton then offered explanations for mysterious natural features and was 'poised to influence all subsequent scientific discourse about New York’s natural history' (101). Eaton also proposed to Van Rensselaer a 'Rensselaer Institute' at Troy. His patron proved enthusiastic and this school became the first civilian school of engineering sciences in the United States. Eaton’s embrace of practice-based pedagogy dramatically altered science education and his service at Troy allowed him to train many future scientists.

The third section examines how the knowledge produced by New York’s geologists influenced writing, the arts, and religion. In one chapter Spanagel focuses on the relevance of natural history practices to Washington Irving, William Cullen Bryant, and James Fennimore Cooper. Irving 'was highly capable of utilizing that landscape painter’s eyes, if not a finely trained scientific vocabulary, to render vivid observations of the kinds of scenery that contemporary naturalists found so intriguing' (159). Bryant, who considered Eaton a scientific mentor, spent time travelling with Eaton. The investigations they undertook 'must have added a scientific perspective on the transitoriness of human existence to the many other influences the poet had already imbibed' (168-169). Cooper probably never met Eaton but they lived 'within overlapping temporal, geographic, and social milieux' (179). All three writers found geology a 'provocative and worthy source of intellectual inspiration' (184). Painters, specifically the artists of the Hudson River School often engaged with geological ideas. Artist Thomas Cole’s ideology and methodology strongly paralleled Eaton’s ideas. Interestingly, despite the new geological findings during this period, many people’s basic religious convictions were not altered in any way whatsoever. The popular image of bitter warfare between science and religion, Spanagel asserts, is clearly in need of revision 'because the champion of geology was not necessarily an enemy of religion' (211).

DeWitt Clinton and Amos Eaton is an unfailingly interesting and informative book. It provides excellent insight into antebellum New York and neatly details how Clinton, Van Rensselaer, and Eaton had a profound impact on the intellectual and political life of New York. It also does an excellent job outlining the relationships between science and politics as well as science and religion in the early republic. This is a book that should be read by anyone interested in antebellum U.S. history or the history of science. It will appeal to a variety of academics and should be very useful in graduate seminars.

Evan C. Rothera, The Pennsylvania State University