Abraham Lincoln’s Little-Known Important Legacy

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2018-2019, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the April 2019 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

One stereotypical expression that is associated with a life-threatening experience is to say that his life flashed before his eyes. I cannot say for sure if that actually happens, but something similar that often happens after a person dies is that other people reflect on the dead person’s life and legacies. April is the month in which Abraham Lincoln died, so it is appropriate during the month of April to look at Lincoln’s legacies. Among Lincoln’s legacies are two that are very well known and rank among the greatest legacies in U.S. history: preserving the Union and ending slavery. It is difficult if not impossible to choose which of these legacies is more significant, so perhaps it is best to just quote the Black Knight from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail and simply say, “Alright, we’ll call it a draw.” But Abraham Lincoln has a little-known legacy that has had and continues to have an essential role in our country. While this legacy is by no means as significant as Lincoln’s two great legacies, this legacy is something for which Lincoln really should be more widely remembered. This underappreciated legacy has nothing to do with civil rights, the Constitution, or great oratory. This underappreciated legacy involves science.

Henry Wilson

On March 3, 1863, exactly four months before the day on which George Pickett led a futile attack on the Union position at Gettysburg, the Senate began discussion of a bill, then that bill was passed by the Senate, then it was passed by the House of Representatives, and then it was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln, all in the span of several hours. This is the kind of legislative swiftness that the U.S. government characteristically avoids. The legislation that Lincoln signed into law that day created the National Academy of Sciences. Senator Henry Wilson, who later served as vice president under Ulysses Grant, introduced the bill and indicated that the objective of the National Academy of Sciences was to “whenever called upon by any department of the Government, investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art.” The mission of the National Academy of Sciences, as indicated on its website, remains the same today, although the wording is somewhat different and reads that the Academy “is charged with providing independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology” and that the goal of providing this advice is to “inform public policy decisions.”

Abraham Lincoln’s interest in creating the National Academy of Sciences came from his realization that science and technology were playing a significant role in the Civil War and his understanding that a thorough grasp of science would contribute to victory. The Academy was modeled after similar groups in Europe and originally consisted of 50 distinguished scientists, who served as a readily available source of scientific insight whenever the government asked for advice on some problem related to science and technology. Since the time of its creation, the Academy has grown to become an organization of over 2,000 scientists, which gives the Academy a wide range of scientific knowledge. The Academy acts as something of a standing army of scientific expertise that can be rapidly mobilized to study and give advice on a science-related issue whenever the government asks for it. The Academy is non-profit and non-governmental, and its members receive no compensation for the work that they do for the Academy. One of the first problems to be addressed by the Academy was the operation of compasses on ironclad warships, because the iron of the ships interfered with the functioning of the compasses. After a few different possibilities were tested, the solution that was implemented in response to the Academy’s recommendation was based on studies performed by British astronomer George Biddell Airy, who carried out multiple detailed investigations of the operation of compasses on iron ships. With Airy’s results as a guide, members of the Academy supervised the positioning of bar magnets in suitable locations around the compass to counteract the local attraction due to the iron of the ironclad vessels.

Over the years, the Academy has advised the U.S. government on matters such as chemical and biological weapons, space exploration, the effects of atomic radiation on humans, computing and information, science education, and climate change. As an example of a policy that grew out of a National Academy of Sciences recommendation, the Academy proposed in 1986 that cigarette smoking be banned on airlines. In 1916, during World War I, President Woodrow Wilson requested that the Academy establish a group of specialists to advise the government. This led to the creation of the National Research Council, which has remained in existence as the operational arm of the Academy. In 1964 and 1970, respectively, the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Medicine were established as companion organizations to the National Academy of Sciences in order to provide separate, independent advisory organizations in the areas of engineering and medicine. The three organizations (the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the National Academy of Medicine) co-exist as the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and continue to play an advisory role for the U.S. government in policy decisions involving science, technology, and medicine.

The need for credible scientific advice in shaping governmental policy was expressed by an eminent U.S. scientist in 1837, 26 years before the creation of the National Academy of Sciences. This comment was in a letter from Joseph Henry to Alexander Dallas Bache, who later became, respectively, the second and first presidents of the Academy. Henry had just returned from Europe and wrote in a letter to Bache, “The charlatanism of our country struck me much more disagreeably when I first returned than before or even now. I often thought of the remark you were in the habit of making that we must put down quackery or quackery will put down science.” Regrettably, the problem of scientific charlatanism still exists in our country almost 200 years later, and a sentiment similar to that in Joseph Henry’s letter was recently expressed by noted astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. In a more jocular comment than Joseph Henry’s grim statement, Tyson said, “I have to chuckle a little bit when I’m approached by anybody, but in particular journalists, and say ‘Are scientists worried that the public is in denial of science or is cherrypicking?’ And I chuckle not because it’s funny, but because they’re coming to me, as a scientist, when they should be going to everyone. Everyone should be concerned by this!” John F. Kennedy made a similar statement in the commencement address to Yale University on June 11, 1962, and Kennedy’s statement is remarkably predictive of the aversion to facts that permeates our society today. Regarding the practice of consciously clinging to erroneous and factually unsupported assertions, Kennedy said, “We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

Some of the issues on which the Academy has provided advice are controversial, such as climate change and the teaching of evolution in schools, and there certainly are people who disagree with the Academy’s advice. Because the U.S. is facing a number of very complex science-related issues, there currently exists a clear need for objective scientific expertise. In a video about the National Acedemy of Sciences, Neil deGrasse Tyson indicated the critical importance of the Academy’s advisory role in contemporary America when he noted, “The role of informed scientific policy is greater than ever before.” Tyson also expressed very well the non-partisan nature of science when he said, “Science has no political party…When you establish an objective truth with the methods and tools of science, it is true no matter what political party you are.” In an article that appeared on the Forbes Magazine website, Paul M. Sutter, who, like Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist, expressed a similar opinion in an incisive and clever way, and Sutter’s comments in this article about the proper role of science should serve as a message to people along the entire spectrum of political ideology. Sutter wrote, “The process of science simply doesn’t care what the answer is. Sure, individual scientists may and will have their individual biases and preferences and hopes for a result. But in science the ultimate arbiter is the universe itself. The data we collect decide the outcomes, despite our individual preferences…Instead of forming a belief and then searching for a result or study to back you up, let the studies and results guide you. Remember that the world is a very complex place, and in many cases fundamental understanding is only found buried deep under layer after slippery layer of confused searching. Science is a tool, yes, but not a tool for backing you up. It’s not a weapon to wield. It’s a framework for understanding nature, no more, no less.” While it is stereotypical to associate science denial with the political right, this is not a left-right, liberal-conservative issue, because a sizable number of people on the political left reject certain elements of mainstream science, such as genetically modified foods and childhood vaccinations. Because some science-related issues are controversial, it is important to have, as stated in the mission of the National Academy of Sciences, “independent, objective advice…on matters related to science and technology.” Thanks to Abraham Lincoln, an organization exists to provide that advice.

The first page of Abraham Lincoln’s patent

Abraham Lincoln has some notable nicknames, such as Honest Abe and the Great Emancipator. But in the pantheon of nicknames, the nickname Bill Nye the Science Guy will never be supplanted by the nickname Abraham the Science Man. Nevertheless, on March 3, 1863, in the pivotal year of the greatest crisis in our nation’s history, Abraham Lincoln signed one of the most important pieces of science-related legislation ever signed by any president and in so doing added the National Academy of Sciences to his legacies. It is appropriate that Lincoln has a legacy that involves science, because he is the only U.S. president to hold a patent. Lincoln was granted patent number 6,469 on May 22, 1849 for an inflatable bellows to lift boats over shallow water. Although Lincoln’s device was never put into use, the National Academy of Sciences, which Lincoln was instrumental in creating, has been available for over 150 years for guidance on a wide range of issues that involve science. As our nation faces increasingly complex science-related issues, the Academy continues to provide authoritative, evidence-based, politically untainted advice about issues which sometimes are politically charged. Abraham Lincoln had no way of knowing the complexity and contentiousness of the science-related issues that would be faced by the organization that he helped create. But fortunately for contemporary America, one of Abraham Lincoln’s legacies is a scientific organization which is tasked with fostering governance that is of the facts, by the facts, and for the facts.