In the summer of 1804, as Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr prepared to take their bitter political differences to the dueling ground, there was at least one thing they could agree on. The doctor in attendance at the duel would be David Hosack, family physician to both the Hamiltons and the Burrs.
Hosack was the best-trained and most innovative doctor in New York City. In 1797, after returning from medical studies in London and Edinburgh, he had earned Alexander and Eliza Hamilton’s trust by saving the life of their 15-year-old son Philip, with the help of a powerful medicinal plant (Cinchona officinalis). This success moved Hosack to act on an idea he had been nursing for three years. He bought 20 acres of Manhattan farmland and founded the first public botanical garden in the United States.
Many people now think of a botanical garden as a beautiful place to spend a day, but Hosack’s garden had more in common with today’s NIH, CDC or CRISPR laboratories. He trained a generation of American doctors and botanists there and conducted some of the earliest systematic pharmaceutical research in the United States. Today, Hosack’s former land is the site of Rockefeller Center.
I’ve spent the past eight years on the trail of this visionary American scientist through more than two dozen archives in the United States and Europe. Looking at the early republic through Hosack’s eyes for the first time gives us a fresh portrait of the founding generation—men we think of above all as political animals, but who in fact shared a profound commitment to American science. Hosack’s life story also reveals how far we have strayed from the founders when it comes to science in our contemporary politics.
Politics in the early republic could be every bit as vicious and partisan as our national struggles today. Leaders such as Adams, Hamilton and Jefferson, along with their enthusiastic supporters, hurled cruel, sometimes graphic, insults that would blend in very nicely among today’s tweets. But when it came to science, Americans who disagreed about virtually everything else—military funding, centralization of finance, foreign policy, slavery and voting rights—could agree that supporting the nation’s scientific institutions was a deeply patriotic act.
Science, Hosack wrote with satisfaction, “knows not party politics.”
Today, though, Americans’ politics seem to dictate whether we support or sabotage the nation’s scientific institutions. The CDC, the EPA, the NIH, the NSF and many research universities are the subject of funding cutbacks and politicized attacks. Scientists worry about being able to carry out their projects and fulfill the critical public missions of their institutions. Climate researchers regularly receive death threats.
The founding generation saw the relation between scientific research and nationhood differently. Whether you were a Federalist or a Democratic-Republican, a Virginia planter or a New York City lawyer, curiosity about the natural world felt absolutely central to the national interest. Crop research would increase the nation’s self-sufficiency. Medical research would save American lives. Research on the continent’s forests would foster stewardship of the land and produce materials for building and manufacture. Scientific achievement in every field would elevate the young nation in the eyes of disdainful Europeans convinced that the American experiment was bound to fail.
Political leaders could and did disagree about the merits of funding particular institutions, of course, particularly as a new war with Britain loomed in the first decade of the 19th century. Yet the mere pursuit of scientific research did not supply the fuel for the nation’s political fires the way it does today.
In Philadelphia in the early 1790s, Treasury Secretary Hamilton and Secretary of State Jefferson battled for the soul of the new nation and for President George Washington’s approval. Jefferson observed that he and Hamilton were “daily pitted in the Cabinet like two cocks.” But when they went down the block from Congress Hall to the American Philosophical Society, they were simply enthusiastic members of the oldest scientific institution in North America, founded by Benjamin Franklin and others in 1743 to foster “Experiments that let Light into the Nature of Things.”
Jefferson was also the board chair of the nation’s first museum of natural history, founded by the painter and naturalist Charles Willson Peale a few blocks from the American Philosophical Society. The fact that Jefferson was in charge didn’t stop Hamilton from setting aside politics in the national scientific interest and joining the board himself. On at least one occasion, Hamilton ran a meeting for Jefferson when the latter couldn’t make it.
Elsewhere in Philadelphia in the 1790s, the man who was soon to become Hamilton’s greatest nemesis, Burr, was also pursuing his longstanding love of natural history. Burr was particularly skilled in medical botany. He considered this field so critical to the education of his young daughter, Theodosia, that while he was serving in Philadelphia as a U.S. Senator, he mailed her study questions about medicinal plants—sometimes even writing them out as he sat in the Senate chamber. Burr was also a passionate horticulturist who lavished money and attention on the grounds of Richmond Hill, his country estate north of New York City (in today’s SoHo district).
Hamilton, too, was fascinated by medical botany, about which he knew a great deal, and horticulture, about which he knew almost nothing. When he was laying out his own country estate near the village of Harlem in northern Manhattan in 1802, he joked to a friend that horticulture was a pursuit “for which I am as little fitted as Jefferson to guide the helm of the UStates.” Hamilton sometimes stopped at his friend Hosack’s botanical garden for plant cuttings and gardening advice.
As Hosack amassed a spectacular collection of plants from around the globe, he earned the support of Federalists and Democratic-Republicans who were otherwise at one another’s throats. For Hosack and his politically heterodox circle, the natural world meant the grandeur and beauty of the new nation’s forests, mountains and prairies, but it also meant the immeasurable benefits to be gained by studying botanical treasures that might treat a deadly disease. When Lewis and Clark pushed off in their boats in May 1804 for the Pacific Ocean, two volumes on Linnaean botany, stowed in Lewis’s luggage, went floating along the Missouri with them. Their expedition was funded by Congress, and Americans across the political spectrum, including Hosack, waited anxiously for their safe return and their scientific discoveries.
Even politicians about to duel to the death could agree on the importance of supporting the nation’s scientific institutions. As I studied the relationship between Hamilton and Burr from the perspective of their mutual friend Hosack, I made a surprising discovery. Their shared interest in the natural world allied them with Hosack in an effort to help launch the first scientific museum of natural history in New York City. The museum campaign unfolded from May 1804 to early July 1804—thus exactly the weeks when Hamilton and Burr were embroiled in the war of words that would lead to their duel on July 11. While their seconds raced back and forth bearing increasingly heated letters, Burr and Hamilton were on the same side when it came to advancing American science.
Burr’s political and personal anger at Hamilton ultimately prevailed, of course. Hamilton died on July 12, 1804, the day after Burr shot him at Weehawken. Hosack was deputized to perform the autopsy on his admired friend. But devastated as he was at Hamilton’s death, Hosack’s own principle of political neutrality when it came to medicine and science permitted him to stay close with Burr for the rest of their lives.
As the disgraced Burr retreated from the national political stage, his longstanding interest in science blossomed. After he fled to Europe in 1808, he made stops at many of the continent’s great gardens. In Uppsala, Sweden, Burr made the ultimate plant-lover’s pilgrimage. He toured the home of the great 18th-century naturalist Carl Linnaeus, the man responsible for our two-word naming system of plants and animals as well as for thousands of the scientific names we still use today—including for ourselves: Homo sapiens. When Burr moved to Paris, he arranged for specimens from the Jardin des Plantes to be sent to Hosack for his botanical garden in New York.
As Hosack and his famous friends and correspondents lent their enthusiastic support to science in these early years, they were laying the foundations for future American successes in biology, chemistry, medicine, physics and technology. They thus helped the United States toward its place among the most scientifically accomplished nations of the 19th century and toward international dominance in the 20th century.
Today, Americans embroiled in our political wars often invoke particular founders—Jefferson on individual liberty, for example, or Hamilton on national defense—to support their entrenched positions. It’s time to remember what brought the founders together above all else: their commitment to the national project and their belief in the vital role of science in that project.