Bits and pieces from Empire of Liberty

I just finished Charles S. Wood's Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. It's an awesome book, and since I don't think any American history from this period stuck in my head from school more than "blah blah XYZ affair blah blah Hamilton Burr duel blah War of 1812" I really needed to read it.

Three unrelated quotes struck me enough to preserve. The first is Madison's description of Jefferson, which I think could apply to half the genius geeks I know. (Or me, excepting the genius part.)

Madison knew his friend and knew that Jefferson's fanciful and exaggerated opinions were usually offset by his own very practical and cautious behavior. As Madison later remarked, Jefferson had a habit like "others of great genius of expressing in strong and round terms, impressions of the moment." Indeed, it was often the difference between Jefferson's impulsive opinions and his calculated behavior that led many critics to charge him with hypocrisy and inconsistency. (p. 150)

Expressing in strong and round terms, impressions of the moment. Awesome. I love that.

The next bit starts by relating the fad of calling things "mammoth" and ties it in to a subject that will be slightly familiar to West Wing fans, the Big Block of Cheese. (I say slightly familiar because this story relates to the Jefferson cheese, and the West Wing episode to the follow-up Andrew Jackson cheese.)

The most exciting scientific find of the period was Charles Wilson Peale's exhumation in 1801 near Newburgh, New York, of the bones of a mastadon, or mammoth. Peale displayed his mammoth inhis celebrated museum and in 1806 painted a marvelous picture of what was perhaps the first organized scientific exhumation in American history. Peale's discovery electrified the country and put the word "mammoth" on everybody's lips. A Philadelphia baker advertised the sale of "mammoth bread." In Washington a "mammoth eater" ate forty-two eggs in ten minutes.  And under the leadership of the Baptist preacher John Leland, the ladies of Cheshire, Massachusetts, late in 1801 sent to President Jefferson a "mammoth cheese," six foot in diameter and nearly two feet thick and weighing 1,230 pounds. The cheese was produced from the milk of nine hundred cows at a single milking, with no Federalist cows being allowed to participate. The president welcomed this gift from the heart of Federalism as "an ebullition of the passion of republicanism in a state where it has been under heavy persecution" (p. 393)

I do not know how the cows were checked for Federalism. Perhaps their stalls were checked for copies of the New York Post. (Did you know the New York Post was founded by Alexander Hamilton?)

I can also recommend A Big Cheese for the White House: The True Tale of a Tremendous Cheddar to folks with kids who'd like to learn more about this important cheese incident in our nation's history. It's a great book with awesome illustrations, and totally answers any practical questions you might have re: how you make a cheese that size and transport it.

Finally, a bit that tells us American politicians weren't always enemies of science:

When am American captain seized a British ship with some thirty volumes of medical lecture notes, Washington sent them back to England, saying the United States did not make war on science. (p. 544)

One thought on “Bits and pieces from Empire of Liberty

  1. Thomas Pynchon borrowed Washington’s words (or perhaps they both took them from a third source?) for a French warship captain who decides not to destroy a ship carrying our heroes early in Mason & Dixon: “La France ne fait pas le guerre contre les sciences.” This being a Pynchon novel, the characters turn the comment into a jazzy little song. (Page 40 of the hardcover edition; I’m not going to try to replicate his layout in a comments box.)

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