New-York Historical Society

“The Science of Government” and the U.S. Constitution

"The first Lecture in the Sciences of Geography and Astronomy", Universal Magazine, London, 1748. PR 68, Subject File

“The first Lecture in the Sciences of Geography and Astronomy”, Universal Magazine, London, 1748. PR 68, Subject File

While preparing for a presentation about the intellectual foundations of American political thought, I consulted Donald Lutz’s book A Preface to American Political Theory which offers an interesting introduction into an extremely complicated aspect of American history. Among several things that piqued my interest was Lutz’s discussion of the Enlightenment origin and conception of “political science,” a term we use regularly despite the fact that we rarely associate politics with science directly. As it turns out, understanding the term is a great way to appreciate something of how members of our founding generation saw the government they established.

When we learn about the history of western civilization in school, we’re accustomed to hearing about how Isaac Newton articulated laws describing natural phenomena, including his law of gravity. Even today, the ultimate goal of scientific observation and experimentation — hallmarks of the Enlightenment worldview — is a statement or “law” offering a definitive explanation of an aspect of the natural world. It seems unlikely though that many people feel similarly in the context of politics and government, yet that is precisely how many Enlightenment figures thought.

Rufus King, PR

Rufus King, PR

According to this perspective, the method employed by Newton and his cohorts should apply generally, meaning that the objective of political science was a law explaining the governance of people. It should come as no surprise then that the word science is fairly common in the Federalist Papers, even popping up in phrases such as “science of politics” and “science of government”, conveying their close connection in the minds that generation.

In discussing the integral relationship between science and political theory, Lutz explicitly refers to a juncture in the debates leading to the United States Constitution, where Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson analogizes to explain the nature of the proposed federal system, that offers an overt example of the Enlightenment mind’s influence.

This I found especially intriguing given that the New-York Historical Society holds notes of John Lansing and Rufus King, both of whom were representatives at the convention, for New York and Massachusetts respectively. Because the Constitutional Convention established rules prohibiting public disclosure of the proceedings, these records are exceedingly scarce.

Naturally, I was curious to see if either Lansing or King made specific note of Dickinson’s analogy, and sure enough, on June 7, King notes:

We cannot abolish the states and consolidate them into one Govt. Indeed, if we could I [would?] be against it. Let our Govt be like that of the solar system; let the Genl. Govt. be the Sun + the states the Planets repelled, yet attracted, and the whole moving regularly + harmoniously in their respective Orbits.

Rufus King's "Notes on the Committee of the Whole" 7 June 1787. MS 1660, Rufus King Papers

Rufus King’s “Notes on the Committee of the Whole” 7 June 1787. MS 1660, Rufus King Papers

Given the innumerable variables at work, the idea that government can be boiled down to a “law” in the same way gravity was may sound nothing short of absurd to us. But the more critical lesson this tells us is the intellectual environment in which the founders conceived the American political system, and perhaps revealing something of how they envisioned it functioning.

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