American Science and the Pursuit of Useful Knowledge in the Polite Eighteenth Century

Doctoral Dissertation


In this thesis, I will examine the promotion of science, or “useful knowledge,” in the polite eighteenth century. Historians of England and America have identified the concept of “politeness” as a key component for understanding eighteenth-century culture. At the same time, the term “useful knowledge” is also acknowledged to be a central concept for understanding the development of the early American scientific community. My dissertation looks at how these two ideas, “useful knowledge” and “polite character,” informed each other. I explore the way Americans promoted “useful knowledge” in the formative years between 1775 and 1806 by drawing on and rejecting certain aspects of the ideal of politeness. Particularly, I explore the writings of three central figures in the early years of the American Philosophical Society, David Rittenhouse, Charles Willson Peale, and Benjamin Rush, to see how they variously used the language and ideals of politeness to argue for the promotion of useful knowledge in America. Then I turn to a New Englander, Thomas Green Fessenden, who identified and caricatured a certain type of man of science and satirized the late-eighteenth-century culture of useful knowledge. He criticized what he saw as a certain culture of useful knowledge by turning to the polite ideals of benevolence and open conversation.


Attribute NameValues
  • etd-04132010-110126

Author Elizabeth E. Webster
Advisor Christopher Hamlin
Contributor Gail Bederman, Committee Member
Contributor James Turner, Committee Member
Contributor Don Howard, Committee Member
Contributor Christopher Hamlin, Committee Chair
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline History and Philosophy of Science
Degree Name PhD
Defense Date
  • 2010-03-01

Submission Date 2010-04-13
  • United States of America

  • Charles Willson Peale

  • Thomas Green Fessenden

  • scientific satire

  • american medicine

  • Benjamin Rush

  • american astronomy

  • David Rittenhouse

  • University of Notre Dame

  • English

Record Visibility Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

Departments and Units


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