Date of Award

Fall 2000

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Jan Golinski


This dissertation explores how men and women deployed the mathematical and experimental science of Isaac Newton and the new science based upon his work as the framework for a "Newtonian culture" in New England between 1727 and 1779, which established our modern view of the natural world and the authority of science. Their endeavors often involved co-opting the authority, and the cachet, of Newton's name and redirecting it toward new ends that involved both the affirmation and challenge of prevalent cultural, religious, and social values. This study examines the uses of Newtonian natural philosophy within the context of the cultural transformation, or anglicization, of colonial society as it became rationalized and refined. The Newtonian philosophy was an inclusive and flexible system, explored here according to the behavior and motives of Mid-eighteenth-century men and women. Fostering its popularization were other cultural practices: piety (to enhance religious belief and practice), politeness (to evince polite learning and refined living), and power (to reinforce or challenge existing hierarchies).

Investigating how ordinary and elite New Englanders encountered the Newtonian universe through print and material culture, this study finding new faces and sites in the history of early American science. Newtonian science was discussed, disputed, displayed, and demonstrated in front parlors, gentlemen's studies, women's correspondence, and the newspapers, as well as social libraries, church pulpits, and lecture halls. A new genre of "Newtonian literature" appeared among the core titles of booksellers' and social library catalogues, available for consumption by Anglo-Americans aspiringing to the polite culture of metropolitan London. Available to elite and vernacular audiences were domestic publications (almanacs, sermons, newspapers, demonstration catalogues, and poetry) featuring the new science. Public demonstrations and at-home observations by men and women, inspired by new discoveries in natural philosophy, occurred in a "sociable sphere" that mediated between public and domestic spheres. Although an uneven process often checked by opposing forces, by the end of the 1770s a Newtonian natural philosophy, with an accretion of metaphysical concepts, became a subtle force within the popular culture of New England, much as Newton's "Subtle Fluid" or "aether" permeated the whole of the natural world.