“We have taken the liberty to add to this manual, a kind of classic legislative tablet, or memorandum. It will serve for private use, by methodising the most interesting points of the legislature. You may help your memory and do good, if you can thereby shew the necessity of filling the blanks in the assembly with a due portion of the classic information and assistance requisite for the business of the day: sometimes you will find you have too few commercial men, or too few agriculturalists, and often too few LIBERAL AMERICANS, who may embrace correct views for the interest of the whole of the union…” [More]
|Source: Samuel Blodget Jr., Economica: A Statistical Manual for the United States of America (Washington, D.C., 1806) from hathitrust.org|
But Samuel Blodget, Jr. knew how to dream big dreams. His contemporaries had a word for his type: a “projector.” An epithet as well as an honorific, it translates roughly to “entrepreneur,” although projectors’ goals did not have to end in a company, as modern usage assumes. Blodget’s dreams touched the worlds of government, of education, and of finance. Threaded between these dreams ran twin cords of commerce and Enlightenment.
The young veteran made a sizable fortune in the next decade through the so-called East India Trade, although he doesn’t appear to have ever made it to China himself. He did travel to Europe twice—at the Hague he began designing the National University in earnest, a work that continued when he visited Oxford. He also found the time to sit (prance?) for John Trumbull, garbed as a revolutionary rifleman.
|Portrait of Captain Samuel Blodget in Rifle Dress, by John Trumbull. Source: The Athenaeum.|
Amidst all these trials and activities, Blodget launched one more project, one designed to rationalize legislation and reform the political system that had already so frequently troubled him. He began informally, distributing his thoughts on political economy and his compellations of government census data among Washington friends, many of whom sat in Congress. In 1806, unable to subsidize a free newsletter, he published Economica: A Statistical Manual for the United States of America, promising that any profits would go to the national university. The book opened with an epigraph from Aristotle: “The legislature ought to make the people happy.” Blodget thought that Congress could achieve that goal if it applied the rules and rationality of commercial arithmetic to the practice of governance. In that faith, he trod a path worn by absolutists like Louis XIV’s minister Colbert and more liberal monarchists like William Petty and other British proponents of “Political Arithmetick.” Achieving such a goal in a republican government meant cultivating widely the habits of keeping accounts and thinking with numbers, a realization that fueled broader efforts to teach arithmetic in America as a means of teaching reason. That explains all the blank pages and empty forms in Blodget’s text, left “to be filled with a pen, with the result of future years.” [More] Blodget led a life suffused with numbers and committed to keeping accounts of data—he dreamed that his country would follow.
The War of 1812 struck Blodget hard on several fronts. The Insurance Company of North America, primarily a marine insurer, struggled to adapt to the dangers posed to shippers by the on-going Napoleonic wars and America’s fight with Britain. And the British invasion of Washington D.C. added insult to Blodget’s financial injury in that city. He died in April of 1814, his fortunes so battered (perhaps even to the point of bankruptcy) that he failed to leave the bequest for a national university that had so long been his dream. (In 1806, Blodget prepared a plea to Congress to donate to the National University a sum equivalent to the losses he sustained in his Washington speculations—and in working as the agent of the city’s superintendents. His arguments failed to loose Congress’s purse-strings.)
The United States never founded a national university. But even as Blodget failed personally, his other projects survived him. The Insurance Company of North America and Economica lived on, each in its own way a manifestation of Blodget’s enlightenment dreams acted out in the idiom of commerce.
My thanks to Hannah Farber, who knows more about Blodget than anyone else, for her comments and suggestions.
On Blodget’s early life and family, see:
- Lorin Blodget, “Samuel Blodget, Jr.,” in Horace Wemyss Smith, Life and Correspondence of the Rev. William Smith, D.D. (Philadelphia: Ferguson Bros. & Co., 1880), vol. II, 514-519.
- “Biography of Honorable Samuel Blodget,” The Farmer’s Monthly Visitor (Manchester, NH) 12, no. 6 (June 1852) 161-164 [paywall].
For more on the “Tontine Gentry” and the fascinating interlinkages between struggles for cultural and economic power in early national Boston and Philadelphia, see Heather S. Nathans, “Forging a Powerful Engine: Building Theaters and Elites in Post-Revolutionary Boston and Philadelphia,” Pennsylvania History 66, (1999): 113-143, esp. 121-123 [paywall].
On the Universal Tontine and the Insurance Company of North America, see:
- A History of the Insurance Company of North America of Philadelphia: The Oldest Fire and Marine Insurance Company in America (Philadelphia: Press of Review Publishing and Printing Company, 1885), 9-12.
- Marquis James, Biography of a Business, 1792-1942: Insurance Company of North America (New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1942), 11-14.
- Jacob Soll, “From Note-Taking to Data Banks: Personal and Institutional Information Management in Early Modern Europe,” Intellectual History Review 20, no. 3 (2010), 355-375.
- Patricia Cline Cohen, A Calculating People: The Spread of Numeracy in Early America (New York: Routledge, 1999), 130-138.
- Julian Hoppit, “Political Arithmetic in Eighteenth-Century England,” Economic History Review 49, no. 3 (1996): 516-540.