John Dixon is Assistant Professor of History at the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York. This interview is based on his new book, The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden: Empire, Science, and Intellectual Culture in British New York (Cornell University Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden?
JD: As a graduate student at UCLA, I became interested in the Enlightenment and, more specifically, in the circulation of scientific knowledge around the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. I identified and started to analyze a cohort of Scottish-trained physicians in British North America and the Caribbean. Cadwallader Colden was one member of that group, and I quickly discovered that he was by far the most interesting of the bunch. His life, which conveniently spanned the Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution, was a fascinating mix of ambition, success, controversy, and failure. It also interwove politics and science to an unusual and intriguing degree. As a learned Scottish immigrant who adeptly used his intellectual interests and activities to advance his social standing, gain influence, and win patrons, Colden shaped colonial and imperial politics. At the same time, he pioneered the use of Linnaean botany and Newtonian natural philosophy in British America, and was instrumental in establishing scientific and print networks that enabled intercolonial and transatlantic cultural exchange in the mid-eighteenth century. What was it like to be an intellectual in British New York? How did Colden’s political and intellectual lives overlap? Was Colden a reformist or a reactionary? These sorts of questions drove my research and ultimately led me to write The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden?
JD: Standard narratives of early New York and early American history have grossly understated Colden’s significance and complexity as a historical figure. By putting him at the center of the story, we more readily see that elitism, conservatism, and imperialism were essential facets of eighteenth-century New York society and culture, and of the Enlightenment.
JF: Why do we need to read The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden?
JD: For a sense of enjoyment, I hope. I tried to write The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden so that it would appeal to a wide array of specialist and non-specialist readers. That said, my book raises significant historiographical issues. It suggests that scholars have construed colonial New York too narrowly as a proto-modern colony defined by its remarkable degree of social diversity and political factionalism. I don’t deny those features, but I do argue that historians need to pay more attention to British New York’s importance as an imperial hub and as a center of transatlantic scientific and philosophical activity. Likewise, my book complicates current notions of the American Enlightenment by highlighting paradoxical intersections of tradition and reform.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JD: I became an American historian through a process of gradual evolution. While growing up on a small island in the English Channel, I somehow got hooked on American literature and jazz music. In this sense, F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Coltrane must shoulder some of the blame. BA and MA degrees in American Studies followed. I contracted the itch to be a historian along the way, though I cannot now recall exactly when. After a brief spell working in the publishing industry in London, I moved to the U.S. and entered the Ph.D. program in American History at UCLA. The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden is a heavily-reworked version of my doctoral dissertation.
JF: What is your next project?
JD: I currently hold a research scholarship at the Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History, New York University. I am using this award to write a sweeping history of Jews in the early modern Atlantic World.
JF: Sounds great. Thanks, John!