Alexander Dallas Bache

Building the American Nation through Science and Education in the Nineteenth Century

Axel Jansen


The Curious Case of Alexander Dallas Bache

In the history of American science, Alexander Dallas Bache (1806-1867), great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin, occupies a singular and unparalleled position. More than anyone else in his generation and in perhaps any generation before or since, he embodied the American scientific profession, directed its development, and shaped its institutions. Most major national scientific institutions and organizations between 1830 and 1865 relied on his support or leadership: In the 1830s, Bache was the principal organizer of Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, then the most prominent research organization in the United States. In 1843, he became the superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey, the country's largest government-run scientific enterprise with more scientific employees than any other contemporary science-related institution including Harvard University. From 1847, Bache helped instigate and direct the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the country's first national platform for science. He was one of the regents of the Smithsonian Institution and helped secure the post of secretary (i.e. director) for his colleague Joseph Henry in 1846. Finally, Bache helped found the National Academy of Sciences and became its first president in 1863. In view of this ubiquitous role, A. Hunter Dupree considers him (with physicist Joseph Henry and geologist John Wesley Powell) among the three "great hierarchs of federal science" in the nineteenth century, and Robert V. Bruce has concluded that Bache spoke "more authoritatively for antebellum science than anyone else."

While Bache was the acknowledged leader of mid-nineteenth century American science, however, the authority for his leadership remains enigmatic. One problem is that Bache was less pioneering in his research than in his institutional efforts. In a symposium in honor of Bache's legacy, organized by the American Philosophical Society in 1941, Frank B. Jewett conceded that while Bache's contributions to science "dealt largely with … [scientific problems] of recognized fundamental importance," they nevertheless concerned "departments of physics which neither then nor later could be regarded as spectacular or especially productive." In his more recent assessment, Bruce perhaps overemphasizes this point by arguing that as "a scientist, Bache fell far short of both his famous ancestor [Benjamin Franklin] and his friend Professor [Joseph] Henry." These observations reflect the fact that while Bache plays a prominent role in accounts of the institutional development of American science in the nineteenth century, he is less prominent in accounts of the development of the cognitive content of science in that period. This has left Bache with a somewhat ambivalent reputation. Bache was well connected through relatives in Pennsylvania and in federal politics. Was he not much more than an apt administrator, an institutional booster with good connections and a knack for federal fundraising?

Another aspect of Bache's career complicates matters, and that is his involvement in education before 1842. While historians of American science have focused on his institutional role and his leadership in the professional community, historians of education have focused on Bache's role as president of the Girard College for Orphans and as first principal of Central High School in Philadelphia. In 1836, Bache gave up his professorship at the University of Pennsylvania in order to assume these and other educational activities. How do such efforts fit into the pattern? Was Bache interested in cultural control, a Whiggish interest in "moral and intellectual discipline" both in his educational and in his professional leadership, or was his educational involvement an extension of his administrative interests?

In the absence of a comprehensive biography of Alexander Dallas Bache, and considering his extensive involvement and leadership in mid-nineteenth century American science, any attempt to clarify such issues will provide insights relevant well beyond the immediate task of identifying the motivational coordinates of his career. Bache's singular role in American science is of particular significance when considered in the context of recent developments in theories of the professions.

2. The Revised Theory of Professionalization

Historians have most commonly discussed Bache's career in the context of the emergence of the American scientific community. In his pioneering work on the history of American science, A. Hunter Dupree had focused on the history of science as a development leading to the federal support of research by the twentieth-century activist state. In the 1970s, historians shifted their emphasis toward explaining the emergence of professional institutions in the United States. George Daniels suggested that the American scientific profession got started between 1820 and 1840 as it moved from gathering facts to developing "esoteric" knowledge, a process that culminated in the public acceptance of science before the Civil War. Sally Kohlstedt's classic work on the Formation of the American Scientific Community views the founding of the AAAS in 1848 as a decisive moment. She provides a detailed account of the struggles that led to the organization's founding and of conflicts within the profession. The historiographic focus altered slightly in the 1980s with authors such as Hugh R. Slotten who stressed "boundary work," and that scientists used a particular ethos to facilitate social and cultural control. His work was receptive to views that stressed the role of individual and group interests.

The historical evidence suggested that as a profession, science was somehow distinct from other occupations, and sociological theories seemed to offer the best mode for explaining what it was that scientists were doing and how it was similar to and different from other activities.

In historical writing about the professions, it has proven to be of little benefit to use the term "profession" as one found it at large, because adopting the term from historic sources was to associate it with any occupation claiming professional status. This is why more recent theories have tried to explain the peculiar characteristics of some occupations, such as the tendency by professions to invoke autonomy from outside social and political interference and to organize their own affairs. Very broadly speaking, there have been two sociological positions relevant for historians. A structural-functionalist approach (Talcott Parsons, William J. Goode) stressed the profession's role in developing, preserving, and using esoteric knowledge considered to be an important cultural value. One problem with this idea was that it could not explain why the professions successfully insisted on autonomy and how they had averted control by outside experts or administrators. Another approach focused on the profession as an interest group (Terence J. Johnson, Magali Sarfatti Larson). It considered the profession's claims of representing esoteric knowledge as an ideological tool for establishing market control in order to protect pecuniary interests and advantages. Neither of these two theoretical perspectives addressed the issue of whether professions pursue a specific type of activity different from other activities that do not require autonomy and exclusive organization.
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Alexander Dallas Bache war der Architekt des amerikanischen Wissenschaftssystems im 19. Jahrhundert, ein amerikanischer Wilhelm
von Humboldt. Als die USA im Bürgerkrieg zu zerbrechen drohten, gelang Bache 1863 die Gründung der »National Academy of Sciences«. Im Namen der Wissenschaft schuf Bache damit ein Zeichen für den Fortbestand der Nation. Auf originelle Weise verknüpft Axel Jansen Biografieanalyse mit Wissenschafts- und Politikgeschichte.

"Axel Jansen's writing is exemplary in its deployment of close readings and literary perspectives to rethink large issues in the history of American science and the American state."
Theodore M. Porter, UCLA

"This challenging new perspective is a must-read for anyone interested in the various roots of modern science and professionalism."
James C. Mohr, College of Arts and Sciences Professor of History and Philip H. Knight Professor of Social Sciences, University of Oregon

"This is a book historians will not fail to read."
Thomas Haskell, Rice University

"Jansens Buch liefert ein wichtiges Stück der Wissenschafts(organisations)geschichte der USA und verhilft zu neuen Fragen - in beidem liegt kein geringer Verdienst seiner Studie.", Amerikastudien/American Studies, 01.01.2013

"Jansen gelingt eine lesbare, interessante Studien, die spannende Informationen über die Professionalisierung der Wissenschaften in einer wichtigen Phase der US-Gesellschaft liefert und dank durchdachter Gliederung sowie eines gründlichen Index sich dem Leser leicht erschließt.", Historische Zeitschrift, 01.06.2013

Axel Jansen, PD Dr., lehrt an den Universitäten in Tübingen und Frankfurt am Main.


Einband Taschenbuch
Erscheinungsdatum 14.02.2011
Verlag Campus
Seitenzahl 353
Maße (L/B/H) 21,7/14,4/3 cm
Gewicht 471 g
Sprache Englisch
ISBN 978-3-593-39355-1

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  • Table of Contents

    Acknowledgments 9

    1. Introduction
    The Curious Case of Alexander Dallas Bache 11
    The Revised Theory of Professionalization 14
    Science as a Profession and the American Nation-State 18
    Approach and Methodology 21
    Investigative Agenda 25

    2. Family Background
    The Franklin and Bache Families 27
    The Dallas Family 33
    Tertium Quid 37
    Sophia Dallas Bache 41
    Richard Bache's Failure 45

    3. A Career in Science?
    West Point 50
    The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 59
    National Purpose 64

    4. Early Research and Institutional Development
    Scientist or Administrator? 66
    Bache at the University of Pennsylvania 67
    The Urban Setting 70
    The Franklin Institute's Raison d'Être 73
    The Report on Steam Boiler Explosions 79
    Weights and Measures 92
    The Debate on Meteor Showers 105
    Research Interests and Institutional Development:
    Common Denominators 117

    5. Girard College and Central High School, 1836-1842
    Girard College as a Political Symbol 126
    The Design and Ambition of Greek Revivalism 133
    Bache's European Trip and the Bache-Biddle Correspondence 137
    More on Bache's European Tour 150
    Central High School 159
    Bache Ejected 166

    6. Bache's Program for National Consolidation I
    Bache's 1842 Address on "American Manufactures" 173
    American Mythology 174
    Prospects for Consolidating the American Nation 183
    "This Most August Sovereign" 189
    Elites in the American Republic 194

    7. Bache's Program for National Consolidation II
    The United States Coast Survey 197
    The National Institute 205
    Bache's Speech at the 1844 Meeting of the National Institute 209
    European Conditions 215
    Developing American Science 218
    Guarding the Palladium 222
    American Science by an American Union 231

    8. Bache's Program for National Consolidation III
    The American Association for the Advancement of Science 236
    Bache's 1851 Speech as Outgoing AAAS President 238

    9. Bache, Benjamin Peirce, and the Lazzaroni in 1854
    A National Club 248
    "The Dark Prospect Appalls Me" 251
    "A Victory for the Evil One" 275
    President of an Invisible National Academy 281

    10. The 1863 Founding of the National Academy of Sciences
    The Timing 285
    The Bache-Lieber Correspondence 287
    "Ignorant of Scriptural Injunctions" 294
    More on the Bache-Lieber Correspondence 306
    The Founding of the National Academy of Sciences 308

    11. Conclusion
    A New Paradigm for Writing the History of Nineteenth-Century American Science as a Profession 315
    Coordinates of Alexander Dallas Bache's Career 320

    List of Figures 327

    Selected Bibliography
    Manuscripts and Archival Material 328
    Printed Primary Sources 329
    Books and Articles 333

    Index 345