Historians do not generally remember Colden as a young risk-taker. It is more usual for scholars to recall him as a cautious and aged establishment figure. The standard image of Colden is that of an inept Lieutenant Governor of New York besieged by rioters during the Stamp Act Crisis of 1765. Colden has long been cast in the mold of a Tory villain. But that characterization is unfair. Even though Colden’s reputation as a gruff, stubborn, uncaring and out-of-touch defender of crown prerogative is not entirely without grounds, it is an overly-reductive interpretation of one man’s long life and complex character.
The same figure who struggled in the 1760s and early 1770s to manage colonial protest and discontent enjoyed extended periods of material and political success throughout his life. Indeed, Colden’s time in New York got off to a particularly impressive start. Within a few months of arriving in Manhattan as a physician with little wealth or power in 1718, Colden held the post of colonial surveyor general, a seat on the provincial Council, and a 2,000-acre parcel of land in Ulster County. This ascent to gentility and financial security in New York was achieved with a rapidity all the more remarkable for the fact that it followed several years of fruitless endeavor in Philadelphia and, before that, London. It also occurred during an age of patronage and fierce partisanship in New York when social and political advancement had to be earned through skillful political and social maneuvering.
With considerable determination, Colden managed to befriend and impress ruling New York elites after 1718 even though he was an unnatural schmoozer. Contemporary accounts suggest he possessed an aloof and serious personality. He certainly disliked urban life and preferred corresponding in writing over conversing in person. Nevertheless, he was well aware of the importance of making strong personal connections to persons in power. In addition, he had the advantage of arriving in New York with a clear plan: he intended to use his scientific knowledge to demonstrate his education and gentility, as well as to integrate himself into the social and political circles of New York’s learned colonial governor.
Colden’s interest in science can be traced back to his university days. Colden gained some knowledge of Newtonian natural philosophy while a student at Edinburgh. Newtonian ideas thereafter informed his medical career. In particular, Colden’s understanding of the human body leaned heavily in the 1710s and 1720s on the writings of a Scottish Newtonian physician, Archibald Pitcairne, who had pioneered a heavily-mathematized form of medicine in the 1690s.
Colden came to appreciate not only the explanatory power and intellectual prestige of Newtonian theory, but also the polite sociability of eighteenth-century scientific culture. In 1710 he temporarily gave up on medicine and crossed the Atlantic in order to establish himself as a trader. During the five years he spent as a lesser merchant travelling between Philadelphia and the Caribbean, he developed several friendships with other educated Scottish merchants in the colonies. One of these was Alexander Arbuthnot, a University of Aberdeen alumnus who became Colden’s business partner in Philadelphia. Another was Hugh Graham, a Utrecht-trained Scottish doctor who would soon move back to London. Both Arbuthnot and Graham had personal ties to prominent scientific figures in the British capital.
When he returned to Britain in 1715, primarily to marry the fiancé he had left behind in Scotland five years earlier, Colden used his friendships with Arbuthnot and Graham to gain access to metropolitan intellectual life. By the time he returned with his new wife to Philadelphia in 1716, Colden had established connections to the astronomer Edmund Halley, Newton’s publisher William Innys, the talented mathematician William Jones, and a future secretary of the Royal Society, John Machin. Colden’s important transatlantic scientific network had begun to take shape. It would grow over time to include such European scholars as the botanists Carl Linnaeus and Johan Frederik Gronovius.
Boosted by his experience in London, Colden managed to build an impressive medical practice in Philadelphia in 1716 and 1717. He seemed to be well on his way to achieving the high degree of wealth and gentility he desired. However, his ascent ended suddenly when the Pennsylvania Assembly refused his request for a government-salaried appointment as a public physician. Angry and frustrated, Colden responded to this particular upset as he had responded to past disappointments — by moving to pastures new.
Philadelphia’s loss proved to be New York’s gain. Letters between Philadelphia statesman James Logan and New York Governor Robert Hunter indicate that Colden visited Manhattan in 1717 and almost immediately resolved to move north. Logan and Hunter were provincial intellectuals who had separately enjoyed the literary and scientific culture of London, and who now jointly sought to recreate some semblance of it in North America. In late 1717, Logan complained in a letter to Hunter that Colden had become obsessed with New York since returning from a visit to that town. Colden’s obsession with Manhattan evidently grew. Within a few months, the unhappy physician gave up his Philadelphia medical practice and uprooted his family.
Colden had good reason to believe that he might leverage his scientific knowledge to advance his social status and wealth in New York City; Hunter, after all, was a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. As things turned out, however, Hunter did not last much longer in America. Colden may have been left in the precarious position of being stranded in a new town without a patron. Fortunately, the incoming governor who landed in New York in 1720 proved to be a perfect match for Colden. William Burnet, the son of a famous Scottish historian, was an internationally-recognized mathematician and protégé of Isaac Newton. He shared Colden’s Scottish background and scientific interests. The physician and governor swiftly became political allies and close friends.
As often as he could, and especially when he fell out of political favor, Colden left New York City and travelled the sixty miles or so up the Hudson River to his farm. From there, he commonly informed his correspondents that he was happily ensconced in “philosophical retirement.” He enjoyed his most productive intellectual period in the 1740s, when he completed works on history, physiology, mathematics, natural philosophy, and moral philosophy. Yet, even in his most contemplative moments, Colden never retired completely from politics. He remained on the provincial council and over time became the most senior member of that body. Consequently, following the sudden death of Lieutenant Governor James DeLancey in 1760, Colden assumed control of New York as the acting administrator of the colony and returned to Manhattan. The following year, he was formally appointed as DeLancey’s successor and he settled into a new life at Fort George on the southern tip of the island. Colden had reached the pinnacle of New York politics at the age of seventy-three. Sadly, he did so at a time when he was largely isolated. Most of his longstanding friends and political allies were dead. In part for this reason, the imperial crisis that developed after 1760 proved unmanageable for Colden.
The dramatic 1760s and 1770s deserve our attention, of course. Yet, so do the earlier years of Colden’s life in New York. Historians should not overlook the social and political success that Colden enjoyed in the 1720s and during other periods of his life. Certainly, much can be learned from his ordeal as Lieutenant Governor. But we can also glean rich insights into the past from his many achievements, which among other things reveal how colonial elites used their intellect to make friends and win influence in British New York.
John M. Dixon teaches history at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York
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