Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from George Baron, 21 December 1801

From George Baron

West Point State of New York Dec 21st. 1801


I humbly solicit your perusal of a hint concerning the dissemination of scientific knowledge in the United States.

Many institutions have been formed in this country for the instruction of youth in the Mathematical Sciences and it is much to be lamented that these institutions have not produced the desired effect. Some Mathematicians and philosophers in Europe finding that notwithstanding the various Seminaries of scientific instruction in the United States the Elementary principles of these sciences still remain almost unknown; have concluded the genius of the American people much inferior to that of Europeans. Four years experience in teaching these sciences in the United States, however, fully demonstrates to me the falsity of that rash opinion. The want of abilities in the teachers and professors is a cause that certainly does exist and naturally accounts for the slow progress of scientific knowledge. To remedy this evil is no easy task as the people are not sensible of the impositions of the teachers to whom they entrust the instruction of their children, and many of the teachers are not themselves aware of the ill effects their want of ability produces. The ignorance of schoolmasters has fixed a kind of stigma on that useful and honourable profession and we seldom hear of a young man studying with the intention of becoming a schoolmaster. A certain course of study is thought absolutely necessary in every other profession but very little attention is paid to the instruction of a teacher. An unsuccessful person in any other line of life generally has recourse to turning schoolmaster, and it is no uncommon thing for such a one who can only cast accounts, to consider himself as a mathematician. The columns of our newspapers abound with the advertisements of such teachers of Mathematics and many a young man pays for learning what he conceives to be Mathematics, when in reality he has not been taught one mathematical principle. The mathematical Sciences are of vast importance to civilized man and without them we might perhaps have been yet in the savage state. Philosophers demonstrate the good effects of these Sciences on the minds of young people and contend that the dissemination of science is the best way of fortifying the liberties of a free people. Surely then the Legislature of the country will no longer overlook these sciences. They have already enacted Laws to prevent impositions of all kinds, the education of youth excepted. The wisdom of the Legislature will no doubt find out means to promote the progress of science and to defend the citizens against the impositions of teachers.

Convinced sir of your paternal regard for the prosperity and improvement of the Citizens of these states, and conceiving some Legislative Act highly necessary at this time, to regulate and accelerate the progress of Scientific knowledge; I have addressed you as the friend and protector of these Sciences. Should your opinion agree with mine on this Subject I shall be happy in laying before you a sketch of a simple plan for disseminating Scientific knowledge in the United States; but if not I most humbly crave your pardon for the liberty I have taken

I am with profound respect Your Excellency’s most humb. Servt.

Geo. Baron

RC (DLC); addressed: “His Excellency Thos. Jefferson President of the United States of America Washington City”; franked; postmarked Peekskill, 25 Dec.; endorsed by TJ as received 30 Dec. and so recorded in SJL.

George Baron (1769–1812), an English native and mathematics teacher, emigrated with his wife and family to the United States in 1797 and served as the tutor for the children of Benjamin Vaughan in Hallowell, District of Maine, prior to moving to New York City, where he conducted a private academy. In April 1801, Secretary of War Henry Dearborn offered him a job as a mathematics instructor at the military academy then forming at West Point. Baron initially turned down the offer in hopes of getting higher compensation but later accepted the 6 June 1801 post, with the president’s “especial trust and confidence” in his skills and integrity, and became “Teacher of the Arts and Sciences to the Artillerists and Engineers.” During a short-lived and stormy tenure at West Point, Baron, a civilian, received Dearborn’s support but clashed with both the military administration, which had been appointed under Federalist leadership, and with insubordinate students. A court of inquiry held over the last two weeks of January 1802 explored charges against Baron for fomenting mutiny, accusing officers of theft, attempting the murder of his wife and children, and cohabiting with a prostitute. Baron asked Aaron Burr to appeal to TJ on his behalf but on 6 Feb. 1802, TJ declined to comment on the matter and chose not to intervene. Baron was dismissed on 11 Feb. 1802 “for his conduct as a man, and as a public officer.” He returned to New York City, where he was a member of the Clintonian Theistical Society and editor-in-chief, from 1804 to 1806, of the Mathematical Correspondent, the first U.S. periodical devoted exclusively to mathematics (Emma Huntington Nason, Old Hallowell on the Kennebec [Augusta, Me., 1909], 89; New York Daily Advertiser, 24 Apr. 1799; New-York Herald, 25 Sep., 6 Oct. 1802; New York Commercial Advertiser, 18 June 1812; Henry Dearborn to George Baron, 11 Apr., 27 May, 6 June, 30 Oct., 2 Dec. 1801, 13 Jan., 11 Feb. 1802 in DNA: RG 107, MLS; Kline, Burr description begins Mary-Jo Kline, ed., Political Correspondence and Public Papers of Aaron Burr, Princeton, 1983, 2 vols. description ends , 2:674; Theodore J. Crackel, West Point: A Bicentennial History [Lawrence, Kans., 2002], 304; Thomas N. Baker, “Trouble at West Point: The Stormy Tenure of George Baron, Teacher of Mathematics,” unpublished paper presented at the Bicentennial Celebration of Mathematics Journals in America symposium, American Philosophical Society, 30 Apr. 2004; Vol. 34:87; TJ to Aaron Burr, 6 Feb. 1802).

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