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The Revolution Whisperer

Detail from portrait of William Small, by Tilly Kettle, c. 1765

One August afternoon, on a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, the Virginia skies opened up without warning; a rainstorm struck like none I had ever experienced.

Growing up in Oklahoma’s tornado alley and living the past 30 years in Seattle, I knew something about stormy weather. My daughter and I found shelter beneath a porch near the Governor’s Palace, and for an hour we stood there with another family whose tour also was cut short. There was no other place to go. Standing there on an 18th Century portico, the town seemed to drift back in time. There were no vehicles, no lights, and no sounds, except for the bellows of a few cows in an adjacent pasture. I began to imagine Thomas Jefferson, then just a teenager, making his way from the campus of William and Mary to an afternoon dinner, where he might play his fiddle and debate with his distinguished mentors, which included America’s first law professor, George Wythe, and the Royal Governor, Lord Fauquier.

That night, back at the hotel, I couldn’t sleep without better understanding who those Jeffersonian mentors were. On my Kindle, I managed to find an obscure book, Jefferson’s Godfather, the man behind the man: George Wythe, mentor to the founding father by Suzanne Harman Munson. We had visited the Wythe household just hours earlier. I went on reading and found an intriguing passage:

Dr. Small, his first mentor, took a personal interest in the youth, introducing his precocious pupil to prominent adults, and setting him on a strong academic course for two years before sailing for England, never to return. Professor Small acquainted his pupil with the works of great scientists like Sir Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon and introduced him to the principles of an ordered universe. From Dr. Small, Jefferson said that he received ‘first views of the expansion of science and the system of things in which we are placed.’ At the time, mathematics was the ‘passion of my life,’ Jefferson recalled. This training would be invaluable later as Jefferson developed his skill as master architect, transforming the landscapes of Virginia and beyond.

Jefferson’s first mentor? More important than Wythe or Franklin? Who was this Dr. William Small? I could see that he was a mathematician, scientist, and philosopher. True enough, Jefferson was a founding father keenly interested in math, science, and innovation. But Jefferson is remembered primarily as the founding father who championed states’ rights and religious freedom. He is now, rightly so, being reassessed for his role as author of the Declaration of Independence while also being a slaveholder.

My mind was racing. What was the linkage between the Scottish Enlightenment in which Small had been steeped and the revolutions still to come? Given my own background in Seattle tech, I asked if there could be similar traits and a common bond between William Small, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates? After all, there is a direct link between the digital geniuses of today and the Industrial Revolution. That link of course is Babbage’s steam-engine powered computer.

I asked my friend Walter Isaacson, author of celebrated biographies on Ben Franklin and Steve Jobs, if he had any thoughts on this mysterious William Small. Walter responded right away. Small had a lot of interesting friends, he wrote, and merits a full life biography. I needed no further encouragement.

On October 13, 1734, William Small was born in Carmyllie, Scotland, to the minister James Small and his wife Lillias Scott. Just 7 miles from the North Sea, the rural town known for its sandstone quarries had a moderate, if windy, climate. Records show rainfall that year was below average. We can imagine a gray fall day in the 40s. His brothers James and Robert and sister Anne were no doubt excited, and their father, who had been given a church just three years earlier, was preoccupied with thoughts of mid-week services and the tasks of shepherding his flock. Carmyllie is a day’s journey north of Edinburgh and Glasgow and south of Aberdeen. It was distant and somewhat protected from the political upheaval that had swept Great Britain for the past 50 years – British civil wars, the Glorious Revolution and the Act of Union.

Arguably this is among the most intense periods of change in human history. In my mind, to be born in Scotland in the early 18th Century might be compared to being born in Silicon Valley in the mid-20th Century. David Hume, Adam Smith, Erasmus Darwin and other great thinkers walked those streets.

Around 1750, Small began his higher learning at Marischal College, “one of the most scientifically and philosophically advanced institutions in the most liberal section of one of the most educationally enlightened counties in Europe.”

One scholar’s writing continually caught my eye, Martin Clagett. He wrote: “This period between 1750-1775 represents the rise of a middle class reading public. Scotland becomes a center for printing and publishing. Just south of there, Birmingham became a center for industrial revolution and a refuge for dissenters, according to Schofield’s Lunar Society of Birmingham.”

In 1753, Marischal College abandoned its “regenting system.” Regenting is a process by which a set of students progresses through the curriculum with the same professor for four years; the professorial system is one in which there are four professors each with their own area of expertise and the students progress through this set of professors rather than with them. Small’s stay at Marischal came right in the middle of this transition, so that he had both the experience of a generalist as well as that of a specialist. This was a talent that served him well in Williamsburg when the whole curriculum of the College was placed on his shoulders alone for almost all of Jefferson’s education.

Aberdeen, which included Marischal and King’s Colleges, was a hotbed of Scottish Enlightenment ideas. Although Small matriculated at Marischal, his mentor, the Scottish Enlightenment physician and moralist John Gregory, taught at nearby King’s College. It is likely that Small studied medicine and interned for Gregory while at Aberdeen and it has been suggested that Small may have even roomed at Gregory’s house. William Duncan, the author of the influential Elements of Logick, was Small’s third year professor of Natural Philosophy (science) and, according to several scholars, he was influential in the logical argumentation set out in the Declaration of Independence. The intimate connection between the two colleges means, perhaps, that the faculty often made decisions in conjoint faculty meetings and that students from one institution could attend classes or professors in the other.  There was even a serious attempt to unite the two institutions at this time. Although the attempt did not succeed, it would happen in the next century.

We know that William Duncan’s work influenced Jefferson in writing the Declaration of Independence. But how?

Turns out that enlightenment stoked the brain, but Virginia tobacco lit the pocketbook. Scotland was on its way to cornering the early tobacco trade, thus accelerating a pathway for the Scottish Enlightenment to spread to the Americas.

Still, the journey was long and treacherous. Around this time, on Feb. 22, 1758, a fleet of 158 British Royal Navy warships, under the command of Admiral Edward Boscawen, departed from Plymouth, England, toward North America in an effort to conquer the French Canadian territories of New France. Many of the sailors died of nutritional deficiencies along the way, including the scurvy that killed 26 of the crew of HMS Pembroke, captained by future world explorer James Cook on his first long voyage.

William Small seemed determined to make his way from rural Scotland to colonial Virginia. No small feat. The Bishop of London had put out a call to fill an academic post in Virginia, and Small’s mentor, John Gregory, likely recommended his protégé for the post. In 1758, William Small was recruited and arrived at William and Mary, where he was appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy. Thanks to a robust tobacco trade between Scotland and Virginia, there was no lack of transportation from the old world to the new.

On October 18, 1758, Small was approved by the W&M board of visitors and sworn in. As he settled into his colonial career, the countdown to revolution in America had begun. Just 23 years later and a dozen miles down the road from William and Mary, George Washington would defeat the British at Yorktown.

On his first Christmas in America, Small may have watched Halley's Comet appear for the first time in recorded history. Soon King George III would ascend to the throne, taking his place among Lin Manuel Miranda’s future musical characters.

If all the world is a stage, the stage was set.

On March 25, 1760, Thomas Jefferson set out on horseback from the Virginia piedmont into the bustling city of Williamsburg to begin his education. Jefferson would celebrate his 17th birthday a few weeks later, and our William Small was all of 26. One of the great mentorships in history was about to begin.

Thinking I would be the one to write the biography of William Small, I set out to read everything I could, spanning Small’s time in Virginia before the American Revolution and later in Great Britain during the Industrial Revolution. I read Jon Meacham, John B. Boyles, William T. Walker, Jack McLaughlin, Jenny Uglow, William Rosen, Robert E. Schofield. Similarly, many other eminent historians mention or footnote our hero.

But one writer, the novelist and one-time Hemingway pal, John Dos Passos, goes deeper on the Jefferson and Small relationship. Perhaps best known for his U.S.A. trilogy, Dos (as his friends knew him) published The Head and Heart of Thomas Jefferson in 1954.

Max Eastman, Hemingway’s celebrated editor, writes on the book’s first edition flap copy that this discerning study of Jefferson and an era reveals the influences which created the most extraordinary mind in the early days of the Republic.

“I think John Dos Passos has done a great service to his country and the free world by lending his talents to this task,” Eastman writes. “He has revived the heart and mind of Jefferson not by psycho analytical lubrications or soulful gush but in the main by telling story after story of those whose lives and thoughts impinged upon his. And Jefferson’s mind and heart are so livingly related to our problems today that the result seems hardly to be history.”

Early on in The Head and Heart of Jefferson, a chapter entitled, “A Philosophical Education at College,” Dos Passos writes that the faculty at William and Mary were torn apart by a wrangle over the Two Penny Act, an early act in American Independence. A future president, Jefferson had just turned 17.

Years later, an old man, Jefferson wrote this in his autobiography,

“It was my great good fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life that Dr. William Small of Scotland was then Professor of Mathematics. A man profound in the most of the usual branches of science, with a happy talent of communication, correct and gentlemanly manner, and an enlarged and liberal mind. He, most happily for me became soon attached to me, and made me his daily companion when not in school; and from his conversation I got my first views of the expansion of science and of the system of things in which we are placed. Fortunately, the philosophical chair became vacant soon after my arrival at college and he was appointed to fill it per interim and was the first whoever gave in that college regular lectures on ethics rhetoric and Belles Letters,”

A Breakthrough

The plot thickened. In late January 2019, I made a trip to the UK for several purposes, but notably to visit Birmingham. A friend and former BBC producer, Gideon Joseph, had hopped a train north and visited Small’s home at 9 Temple Row, and St. Philip’s Cathedral across the street where Small is buried in an unmarked grave. We also visited Soho House, a taxi ride away. That evening I walked the grounds of the cathedral, soaking in the atmosphere as I had in Williamsburg, Virginia. Next day, I visited the Library of Birmingham archives where I was able to review documents and do primary research, seeing Small’s hand for myself.

Still, I needed more. And what I discovered, after long, enjoyable hours of research in libraries on two continents, was that someone had been on this trail for a very long time; someone, who like Small, had been hiding in plain sight.

Dr. Martin Clagett, a researcher, historian, Greek and Latin teacher seemed to be as tenacious   as his protagonist.

I briefly set aside Dr. Small and began to research Dr. Martin Clagett. His name had come up often in my research time and time again, and yet he proved elusive. I contacted other early American researchers. Some had known him or even worked with him, but they had no idea how to reach him. Finally, I found reference to a Latin teacher near Richmond, and took a chance. I called and left a message.

A few days later, a Virginia area code brightened my cell phone and rather than send it to voice mail, I took a chance. On the other end was none other than Martin Clagett. A native of Richmond, Virginia, with an accent as smooth as the James River to prove it, Claggett has investigated the connections between the Scottish Enlightenment, the American Revolution and the Industrial Revolution for several decades. I couldn’t wait to tell him that I’d read everything he'd written, which delighted him for a few seconds, at which point he began to quiz me on papers and topics I had not yet read. Our phone conversation lasted for a few hours as we compared notes on William Small. At one point I asked him, “do you have a manuscript?” He did. Though not completed, he had drafted a biography of the full life of William Small, just as Isaacson had recommended.

Clagett’s research, as author and historian Garry Wills writes in the foreword to Clagett’s forthcoming biography, A Spark of Revolution, has been a two-continents’ job with extended periods of time in the archives of America, England and Scotland. In the course of his investigations Clagett received a grant from the Earhart Foundation; he was a Visiting Scholar to the James Wilson Programme at St Andrews; named a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia; appointed as the Gilder-Lehrman Fellow at the International Center for Jefferson Studies in Charlottesville, and; served as the Omohundro Scholar in Residence at the College of William and Mary. Among his written works have been William Small and James Wilson: The Scottish Connection, a Study in the Influences of the Scottish Enlightenment (Charlottesville: Robert H. Smith Center for Jefferson Studies, 2007), The Portrait of William Small by Tilly Kettle. Privately Printed (Richmond: Dietz Press, 2007), Scientific Jefferson: Revealed (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009), “Jefferson and Science,” Dictionary of Virginia Biography (2013), “James Wilson—His Scottish Background: Corrections and Additions,” Pennsylvania History” A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, Vol. 79, No. 2 (Spring 2012), and “Thomas Clapp and the Scottish Enlightenment,” The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of the American Enlightenment,” Vol. 1 (New York: Bloomsbury Academic Publishing, 2015).

In his Spark, Martin Clagett writes that William Small was an accidental apostle of the Scottish Enlightenment, bringing its methods and philosophical foundations to a nation being born.

“He helped transform the abstractions of Newtonianism into an early manifestation of logical positivism, and he was also an active agent in transforming Britain from an agrarian society into an industrial one by means of intellectual, scientific, and collegial engagement. Through these actions, Small was a part of an international cooperation in philosophy and literature known as the Republic of Letters.”

If a movie were ever made, actors portraying Thomas Jefferson and James Watt might be candidates for best supporting actor. As Clagett writes,

“Small had a profound impact on a young Thomas Jefferson, shaping his scientific and philosophical worldviews and, by extension, Jefferson’s contributions to science, politics, and governance. He would later encounter a brilliant but despondent James Watt, a man buffeted by a series of misfortunes and unlucky turns of timing, helping him to develop his unfinished design for an improved steam engine. The most notable consequences of these intersections of time, place, and personality resulted in enduring and profound relationships with two men of consequence and impact, the first, Thomas Jefferson, who would revolutionize government with his Declaration of Independence, and the second, James Watt, whose invention of the practical steam engine would transform the world from an agrarian into an industrial society with all the implications— good and bad—that that metamorphosis would entail. For Small to have been a player in such seemingly disparate events seems remarkable; for him to have had such a central role in the fates and fortunes of both men (who in turn had such extraordinary impacts on the course of history) stretches credulity.”

The relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his teacher-slash-mentor, William Small, would justify a thorough biography on its own. So would the fact that William Small returned from his elite perch in Colonial Virginia to play a major role in Birmingham, England, on the verge of birthing the Industrial Revolution. In Williamsburg, Small’s Partie Quarree was the mechanism for scaling enlightenment philosophy. In Birmingham, it was the Lunar Circle, later the Lunar Society. Clagett describes its imminent gathering of minds as “a core group of founders for the society and, then by inviting disparate and diverse corresponding members (in a very democratic fashion) to join in and contribute in the areas of their expertise to great advantage. Small’s penchant for recruiting and gathering together people of divergent backgrounds and talents was his second great ability and a major part of the reason for his important place in history.”

Clagett writes that the departure of a professor at William and Mary left Small as Jefferson’s sole professor. He had his young student read Homer, Euripides, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Seneca, Plutarch. They read moral philosophy, rhetoric, logic, criticism – “the philosophy of the human mind and the sciences that depend on it—which included politics and law, and what we now call psychology.” He read Caesar, Cicero, Classis Homerica and poetry, especially Ossian who turned out to be Small’s old classmate, James MacPherson.

In Williamsburg, Jefferson thrived but Small seemed to grow restless.

In 1764, after competing unsuccessfully for the presidency at the College of William and Mary, Small returned to England, presumably to purchase and return to Virginia with scientific equipment. He never returned to the colonies, but he did commence an unlikely second act. Benjamin Franklin, whom he’d met during one of the founding father’s visits to Williamsburg, wrote a letter of introduction to fellow scientists in London. As the King’s Stamp Act was being proposed in America, Small traveled north to Birmingham, the cradle of England’s burgeoning Industrial Revolution. There he met the Scottish engineer James Watt, who would go on to improve the Newcomen steam engine at his Soho factory. Matthew Boulton and Small (Watt joined later) formed a new Partie called the Lunar Society, an impressive monthly gathering of intellects and wealth that I suggest was a forerunner of today’s venture capital firms. In addition to Watt, Boulton and Small, Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestly and Josiah Wedgwood were among its members. Together they dreamed of and funded networks of canals for commercial transportation and a wide range of innovations. Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men tells the story in wonderful detail of “the friends who made the future.” William Rosen’s The Most Powerful Idea in the World focuses specifically on the story of steam, industry and invention.

The late 1760s and early 1770s were a period of blissful innovation and success for Small. In addition to maintaining his own medical practice, he worked closely with Watt and Boulton to receive Patent 913 for a “method of lessening the consumption of steam and fuel in fire engines.” In 1773, Small’s own interest in orology led to a patent for a one-wheeled clock.

Small’s mind, however, was stronger than his health. He had contracted malaria while in Virginia, and complained of a mysterious ennui and a nebulous “putrid fever.”

The final days of Small are incredible for their dramatic scenes. Clagett takes us back to Feb. 25, 1775, when our Dr. Small, lay shivering and nauseated in his deathbed, feverish to the point of delirium. Small, a Scotsman, assured his closest friends gathered about him that he would recover. But they knew better, even if they did not know the cause of his illness.

His friend and partner in the steam engine, James Watt was not there at his bedside. The inventor was in London on patent business. With Dr. Small’s careful and precise help, Watt was within weeks of being granted a 25-year extension on his steam engine patent, a span of time that would ensure both his success and his place as a central figure in the Industrial Revolution. But Matthew Boulton, Watt’s financier, was there along with Mrs. Boulton, the Fothergills, Erasmus Darwin and James Keir.

In his febrile hallucinations that night, did Small imagine the commercial and mechanical applications that would emerge from Watt’s design? Did he envisage the industrial, political and social implications to Great Britain and the world? Or was he thinking of the verdant stretches and cool breezes of the North Sea and the simple pleasures of his youth, or of his invigorating days at Marischal College; or of his friends and students in the far-off colony of Virginia?

There, thousands of miles away in distant Virginia, the sabers of war were rattling. Congress’ decision to declare independence was quickly approaching. The week before Small died, George Washington had been named as a delegate to the Second Virginia Convention at St. John’s Church in the backwater town of Richmond, representing Fairfax County. Patrick Henry would be there to deliver his rallying cry, “give me liberty or give me death.” And seated on a pew nearby, no doubt quietly observing it all, was Thomas Jefferson, who just thirteen years earlier had studied math, science and philosophy under William Small. A few weeks after Small’s death, on April 18, 1775, Paul Revere rode through the streets of Boston heralding the next day’s battles in Lexington and Concord.

Fittingly, the last tribute to Small upon his death came from his old protégé from Virginia. A little more than two months after Small’s death (the typical span of time for a commercial vessel to cross from America to London), a package and a letter arrived from Thomas Jefferson. Not knowing Small’s fate and hoping that the bonds that they had forged in peace would not be broken apart by the events of the impending conflict, Jefferson gathered up a store of fine Madeira wine that he had purchased three years after Small departed from Virginia, carefully packed the wine in crates, and sat down and wrote what was to be his final letter to his old friend. He sent the bundle off by way of Captain Aselby of the True-Patriot. Jefferson was unaware that Small had already died before he shipped off his gift and an expression of his wishes. He closed his letter with the following:

But I am getting into politics tho’ I sat down only to ask your acceptance of the wine, and express my constant wishes for your happiness. This however seems secured by your philosophy and peaceful vocation. I shall still hope that amidst public dissension private friendship may be preserved inviolate, and among the warmest you can ever possess is that of Your obliged humble servant.                       

Th: Jefferson

Just after Small’s death, the British parliament extended Watt’s steam engine patent from 1769 to 1800, ensuring its revolutionary impact. Watt died in 1819 at the age of 83, and Jefferson in 1826, outliving his mentor by 51 years.

History has mostly overlooked the remarkable story of Dr. William Small, the polymath who died that winter’s day at age 41 just on the cusp of two revolutions that he helped to foster—the Industrial Revolution and the American Revolution. Even in historic Williamsburg, where Jefferson, Governor Fauquier, George Wythe and other central characters in the founding of America are remembered, Small is, like his namesake, easy to overlook. Even Benjamin Franklin, who visited Williamsburg from Pennsylvania on occasion, is proudly remembered there.

If Walter Isaacson’s Franklin winks at us over the centuries, Dr. Small plays hide and seek. His name is there on the science building at William & Mary, and there one can imagine him having a quiet evening with George Wythe on the Palace Green or participating in discussions, dinners and musical interludes at the Governor’s Palace or astounding and amusing his students with his scientific demonstrations.

The Spark of Revolution by Martin Clagett illuminates the fact that not all revolutions begin atop a soap box. They don’t all begin with flash-bangs and loud slogans. Some begin – and endure -- with a whisper.