“In the Service of the Crown ever since I came into this Province”: The Life and Times of Cadwallader Colden

John M. Dixon,  The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden: Empire, Science, and Intellectual Culture in British New York (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016).

80140100162200LOn December 8, 1747, Gov. George Clinton (1686–1761) told a British statesman that the Assembly of New York “treated the person of the Governor with such contempt of his authority & such disrespect to the noble family where he had his birth that must be of most pernicious example.” He thought he might have to “give it [i.e., his position] up to a Faction.” The extant copy of this letter, held within Clinton’s papers at the William L. Clements Library in Michigan, was written by his most trusted advisor and ally—Cadwallader Colden, the subject of John M. Dixon’s first book, The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden: Empire, Science, and Intellectual Culture in British New York, published in 2016 by Cornell University Press.[1]

The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden is the first scholarly biography of Colden in over a decade. (And before that, Alice Mapelsden Keys’ 1906 Cadwallader Colden: A Representative Eighteenth-Century Official  was labelled in New York History a “classic example of how not to write a biography.”) Dixon’s work also adds to recent work on other colonial officials, including Andrew Beaumont’s Colonial America and the Earl of Halifax (reviewed here). Dixon argues that through Colden’s life we can better understand “colonial thought and culture on its own terms” (p. 7).[2] Indeed, Dixon continues,

In retracing Colden’s life, we find much scientific and philosophical activity that engaged with but also extended beyond the now well-documented liberal and republican ideologies, growing refinement of the colonial middling sort, and peculiar political battles of British New York.

His life was “local, colonial, and transatlantic” (p. 8). For Dixon, then, Cadwallader Colden’s life neatly illustrates and adheres to certain aspects of #VastEarlyAmerica.

Dixon’s main contribution to scholarship is his not only placing of Cadwallader Colden within the Enlightenment, but his illustration of how Colden played an active role in shaping it. In three parts and eight chapters, Dixon shows how Cadwallader Colden contributed to the advancement of “human knowledge” (p. 24) through his scientific and historical work; most notably, his The History of the Five Indian Nations, which remains a useful text, and An Explication of the First Causes of Action in Matter; and, of the Cause of Gravitation. Colden’s work was read by prominent Europeans such as Adam Ferguson, Abraham Gotthelf Kästner, Johan Frederik Gronovius, and Carl Linnaeus as well as Benjamin Franklin. Some Europeans even doubted Colden was the true author of Explication because of its “bold claims” (p. 114). As Dixon notes, Colden’s work “created debate” across the Atlantic world. His scholarship, particularly An Explication, “broke new ground as a colonial work of scientific theory” (ibid). Colden successfully revised Europeans’ views of scientific progress in colonial America. As an often-overlooked figure, Dixon’s work is of note and should appeal to a broad group of historians, including historians of science, ideas, New York, and the British Empire.

Dixon has relied on a considerable body of source material, most of which is taken from The Letters and Papers of Cadwallader Colden and The Colden Letter Books, both published by the New-York Historical Society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These materials are not well-used by historians, as shown by the relative lack of work on Colden. (If anything, this is also reflective of the field of early American history. Few people work on colonial British America, while many work on early America, which sometimes loosely translates to the early republic.) Dixon, however, shows us why more people need to use those sources, whether it is in their original hardback form or on-line. Equally important, though, he has also made great use of Colden’s “Unpublished Scientific and Political Papers and Notes,” held within his Papers at New-York Historical. Having used this collection before reading this book, I was pleased to see Dixon’s regular use of it.[3]

Dixon’s claims about Colden’s place within the Enlightenment are nicely written and well-argued. They are most fully developed in Parts I and II, Chapters 1 through 6, offering a new insight in Colden’s life and times. It makes for an enjoyable, easy read. (A great plus for me, given that I read most of this book on the train.)

However, there are some issues with The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden. Dixon’s focus on Colden’s Enlightenment results in only brief attention being given to his political career, including its most famous, or infamous moments, in Part III, “Politics,” and Chapters 7 and 8. In these chapters Dixon briefly and quickly discusses Colden’s relationship with Gov. George Clinton during the 1740s, his experiences with the Triumvirate of William Livingston, John Morin Scott, and William Smith Jr., the Forsey-Cunningham Affair, and the Stamp Act crisis of 1765 and its aftermath.

More work needs to be done in these areas, and I had hoped The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden might kick-start a historiographical discussion in the years to come. Unfortunately, however, the final chapters do not go into the level of detail required to further discussion on these aspects of Colden’s life. Many of the arguments are familiar. Similarly, Colden’s relationship with the Earl of Halifax and his desire to become one of Halifax’s colonial officials is not fully discussed. Colden sought Halifax’s patronage. He tried to use his Atlantic network to make it happen. This, in turn, affected how Colden behaved as an imperial official.

More significantly, though, toward the end of the book Dixon writes, “Political tensions in New York temporarily eased after the Colden-DeLancey coalition dropped its prosecution of [Alexander] McDougall” (p. 166). By this argument, New Yorkers’ partisanship was cooling from late 1769 onward. “Perhaps there was hope for enlightened culture after all” (ibid), he adds. Dixon claims the Battles of Lexington and Concord that “ended that optimism” (ibid). This was not the case. Partisanship was alive and well in New York throughout the early 1770s; people moderated their social lives through their political beliefs. Dixon thus also overlooks the Tea Act and its consequences, the ultimate rise of Alexander McDougall and his supporters, the formation of the Committees of 50, 51, 60, and 100 and collapse of the General Assembly, and the impact of the Continental Congress and the colony’s Provincial Congress. These are significant omissions.

Nevertheless, despite these issues—or perhaps because of it—John Dixon portrays Cadwallader Colden in a new light, not as the grumpy, conservative, inward-looking official who was ignorant of colonial opinion, but instead as a man committed to securing the British Empire in North America and advancing human knowledge across the world. This is an engaging book, one with which scholars of the Enlightenment, New York, and the British Empire will have to contend.


[1] Clinton to Pelham, Dec. 8, 1746, in George Clinton papers, Box 1, f. 10, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan. The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden is a revised version of Dixon’s dissertation: “Cadwallader Colden and the Rise of Public Dissension: Politics and Science in Pre-Revolutionary New York,” Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 2007.

[2] Alfred R. Hoermann, Cadwallader Colden: A Figure of the Enlightenment (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002). Seymour I. Schwartz’s Cadwallader Colden: A Biography (Amherst, N.Y.: Humanity Books, 2013) is of course more recent but it offers little new analysis, relying on Colden’s published papers. Also, in the table of contents, Chapter 2 is titled “The New New Yorker,” but on p. 23, it is titled “A New New Yorker.”

[3] I will add that during my time as a Schwartz Fellow at the New-York Historical Society, three researchers, including myself, ordered the same box from Colden’s unpublished papers. Given that the Patricia Klingenstein Library at New-York Historical isn’t large, it was quite the surprise to me, the other researchers, and the staff!


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