The 9th Science-Friendly President: John Quincy Adams

February 25, 2014 | 3:03 pm
Deborah Bailin
Former contributor

If you voted in our recent “most science-friendly president” bracket challenge in honor of Presidents Day and your guy didn’t happen to be the winner, Teddy “The Naturalist” Roosevelt, you’re not alone. As I wrote earlier, Abraham “The Inventor” Lincoln—one of our final four—was my favorite to win because of his big-picture view of innovation. Lincoln lost to Jimmy “the Engineer” Carter in that round, and many of you responded to my post by expressing your support for Carter.

TR on horseback

President Theodore Roosevelt on a horse in Colorado; Photographer unknown; Around 1905. Credit: National Park Service.

While there may be no scientific way to determine the president who most stood up for science, there is history, and I can’t help but wonder how our two finalists, Roosevelt and Carter, would hold up in another 200 years. Will their impact on the future of science be as great as Lincoln’s was in founding the National Academy of Sciences? What about Jefferson’s role in financing the Lewis and Clark Expedition, contributing to the Library of Congress’s collection, and founding the University of Virginia?

When in doubt about the evidence of history, ask a historian

A few months back when we were planning the contest, I asked eminent presidential historian Richard Norton Smith for his thoughts on the most science-friendly president. At the time, Professor Smith graciously answered my inquiry by naming Teddy Roosevelt as his pick. Since Roosevelt made it to our finals last week, I followed up to see if he would comment further.

Before all those of you who helped Roosevelt win hold your collective breath for Smith’s validation of your choice, I must confess I was pleasantly surprised when he replied instead, upon more reflection, that he had changed his mind. Smith said:

“I’d name John Quincy Adams as the most science friendly president. He’s regarded by many as the legislative father of the Smithsonian. He took great heat politically for proposing a national observatory—a ‘lighthouse of the skies’ in his lovely, hugely disputed phrase—and he was an amateur scientist/botanist himself … a true intellectual who had a broad vision of government’s responsibilities to promote the pursuit of knowledge.”

Although I know many of you diehard Roosevelt and Carter fans may not be persuaded to change your votes, I appreciate Professor Smith’s emphasis on the long view. How do we ensure not only that we take a science-informed approach to today’s most pressing problems but that science informs the solutions to tomorrow’s problems, too?

Our sixth president and a science-based vision for the future

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams, President of the United States, painted by T. Sully; engraved by A.B. Durand. John Q. Adams, full-length portrait, seated in library, circa 1826. Credit: Library of Congress.

John Quincy Adams did not make our shortlist of eight, I believe, because we placed a greater weight on policy achievements linked to issues of pressing, present-day concern. National parks established through the policies of Roosevelt and Carter, for example, are today threatened by climate change, a reminder both of the importance of their conservation policies and the new challenges to conservation that science must now address.

However, the further back in our national past that we look, the harder it may be to see the long-lasting impact of science-friendly leadership because we take for granted so many things that have been achieved.

During his presidency, John Quincy Adams took a science-based approach to the issues of his day. He was not fighting climate change or dealing with an energy crisis, but he did express strong support not only for an observatory but for a national university and a uniform system of weights and measures. And instead of creating national parks, he remarked in his first annual message on how far from the imagination such an endeavor must have been for Americans of his generation:

“The interior of our own territories has yet been very imperfectly explored. our coasts along many degrees of latitude upon the shores of the Pacific Ocean, though much frequented by our spirited commercial navigators, have been barely visited by our public ships … I would suggest the expediency of connecting the equipment of a public ship for the exploration of the whole north-west coast of this continent.”

John Quincy Adams, in other words, viewed science as a matter of national pride and saw the advancement of scientific knowledge as an “improvement” of the human condition. He knew the government had a key role to play in supporting scientific research, too, recognizing that so much “lie[s] beyond the reach of individual acquisition, and particularly to geographical and astronomical science.”

John Quincy Adams and the Smithsonian

Although Adams only served one term as president, he was promptly elected to Congress in 1830 and continued to promote science as a representative from Massachusetts. Coincidentally, just a few months after he left the presidency in 1829, James Smithson, a chemist, mineralogist, and the illegitimate son of an English Duke, died and—pending the subsequent death of his nephew in 1835—willed

“the whole of my property … to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.”

Some in Congress distrusted Smithson’s motives. Others, amidst the brewing North-South divide, disputed the location. Still others thought the money should be used for other things—teacher training, public schools, a national library.

Dinosaur Bones, National Museum of Natural History

Dinosaur bones, National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C. Credit: Library of Congress.

John Quincy Adams championed Smithson’s original idea from the start and pushed tirelessly for years to see it realized. Today, over seven million visitors annually pass through the National Museum of Natural History. How many of them do not leave without a sense of wonder over the age of our planet and the evidence for evolution? Over eight million annual visitors experience the National Air and Space Museum. Who among them, especially the children, does not dream, at least for a moment, about being a rocket scientist?

And these are just two of the Smithsonian’s museums—museums that play a major role in promoting public science literacy. What an amazing legacy for a president and congressman who envisioned the future of our democracy intertwined with science, had the passion to do something about it, and died a decade before Darwin published The Origin of Species and a half century before the Wright brothers first took flight.

UPDATE, Feb. 27, 2014—Acclaimed Teddy Roosevelt scholar Douglas Brinkley weighs in on our winner:

No American has done more to promote science education than Theodore Roosevelt did during his time in office. He actively pushed for biology and chemistry to be prerequisite courses in public schools, and regularly invited scientists to the White House to discuss their fields of interest. Two of his greatest heroes were Charles Darwin and Julian Huxley.

To TR, scientists were the truth-sayers of modern American life. His belief was that scientific experiments should dictate the “acceptable” amount of toxins discharged by corporations and inform hunting regulations, forestry laws, and sanitation treatment protocols. He was our No. 1 science-minded president.