Our History: Ben Franklin: Friend of Flushing’s Colden
What is not generally known is Colden's close relationship with Benjamin Franklin, which is revealed in a recent biography of Franklin. In 1743 Franklin printed his "Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge among the British Plantations in America." He had the crucial advantage of being a printer and he could communicate his ideas to the public, an advantage which his friend Colden did not have. Others, including the botanist Bartram, faced the same problem. They could only communicate their studies and ideas to others by correspondence.Franklin had the advantage of being able to reach thousands through his printing and felt that the "drudgery of settling new colonies which had confined the attention of people to mere necessities was pretty well over." He felt that now was the time to cultivate the finer arts and "to improve the stock of knowledge." He then proposed "The American Philosophical Society" to be in Philadelphia, which itself was close to the center of the colonies. It was to encompass "all philosophical experiments that let light into the nature of things, tend to increase the power of man over matter and multiply the convenience and pleasure of life."Colden wrote to Franklin that "I long to hear what you have done in your schemes erecting a society for promoting of useful arts and sciences in America" and went on to offer his assistance any way in which he could be helpful.Franklin was greatly encouraged because Colden was viewed as a man with outstanding and successful interests in science and other fields of knowledge, much as was Franklin. Colden devoted much of his life to correcting what were the "mistakes" of Isaac Newton. He also wrote a history of American Indian Tribes,a taxonomy of flora and corresponded with the botanist Linneaus. He also wrote many philosophical treatises and medical accounts of major diseases including yellow feverColden's reputation was well-known to Franklin and he was flattered by his attention and they initiated a serious correspondence covering several scientific topics.Colden was the progenitor of a distinguished family which played a role in New York history and had a home in Flushing. After he received his degree from the University of Edinburgh, he showed a proclivity for another pursuit and followed his strong inclination to study medicine.He emigrated at the age of 22 and came to Philadelphia and practiced medicine. After his marriage to a Scottish lass, Alice Christie, in 1715, he moved his family to New York . He caught the attention of the governor general who was impressed by his knowledge and reputation and who had promised him the position of surveyor general of the colony. This appointment was to be the beginning of Colden's long political career. He was influential in the administration of George Clinton, whose official papers and addresses were in a large part prepared by him.He was appointed to the Governor's Council and in 1761 became lieutenant governor of the colony of New York, an office he held through historic and turbulent times until his death in 1776Throughout his career he never relinquished his other pursuits. Intellectually the scope of his interests showed him to posses a remarkably versatile mind, and he was considered one of the most learned men in the colony, as evidenced by his. correspondence not only with Franklin but also Samuel Johnson, and Linnaeus.Colden served as acting governor of New York from 1760 to 1762, and again from 1763 to1765, and finally as governor from 1769 to 1771. probably the oldest British governor of New York Colony.One of Colden's chief joys was the study of physics and he published two important works, one of which was considered his "Magnum Opus." In 1751 this brought much counter criticism in London, which Benjamin Franklin attributed to the "reluctance of Europeans to learn from Americans." It is he who is credited with bringing Newtonian and Linnaean science to the New World and with being the catalyst who brought together the naturalists in the various colonies.In 1775 he retired to his home in Flushing. Throughout his lifetime he communicated regularly with Franklin and they continually discussed their inventions and discoveries. He also furnished to Linnaeus an account of nearly 400 plants found in America, about 200 of which were described by the fined European botanist.Colden's daughter is considered the first woman botanist and Colden's distinguished descendents have played a part in our history in Queens down through the ages.Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and free-lance writer.
Updated 6:58 pm, October 10, 2011
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