Oration delivered February 24, 1775


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Oration delivered February 24, 1775


RITTENHOUSE, David. An Oration Delivered February 24, 1775, before the American Philosophical Society, Held at Philadelphia, for Promoting Useful Knowledge. Philadelphia: Printed by John Dunlap, 1775. Slim square quarto, 18th-century three-quarter straight-grain brown morocco rebacked, marbled boards, uncut; pp. 27. Housed in a custom clamshell box.

First edition of this oration by Revolutionary War scientist and statesman David Rittenhouse, “the most prominent American astronomer… a synthesis of his views upon the development of science,” with his dedication to the Second Continental Congress dated “September 30th, 1775,” and delivered earlier that year to Franklin’s American Philosophical Society by Rittenhouse, longtime friend of Thomas Paine, Jefferson and Franklin, and a Renaissance figure whose scientific innovations were heralded by Jefferson as achievements exhibiting “as great a proof of mechanical genius as the world has ever produced.”

The many dimensions of esteemed Philadelphia scientist and Revolutionary War statesman David Rittenhouse “made him a unique figure, appealed to on many counts and projected into many areas of public service.” (Hindle, Scientific Writings, 12). As an intimate friend of Thomas Paine, Franklin and Jefferson, Rittenhouse “played an important role in the American Revolution. He participated in formulating the radical Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 and served on the Board of War” (DSB). This exceptional first edition of Rittenhouse’s Oration, an exemplary work on the history of science, was published the same year he began serving as an engineer for the Council of Safety, playing “an important political role on top of his specialized service in planning river defenses, making saltpeter and equipping officers with telescopes” (Hindle, 12). As Rittenhouse states on dedication page of this Oration, dated September 30, 1775, he had a vision for America that reached beyond its immediate break from England. Here he pays tribute to “the Delegates Of the Thirteen United Colonies, Assembled in Congress, at Philadelphia; To whom the Future Liberties, and Consequently the Virtue, Improvement in Science and Happiness, of America, Are Intrusted,” thereby expressing his conviction (shared by Franklin, Jefferson and Rush) that America would lead the world not only in its modeling of a new republic, but also in its dedication to charting scientific advances.

“One of Rittenhouse’s most celebrated achievements was the design and construction of a complex mechanical device, run by clockwork, his own improvement of what was known as an orrery, a kind of planetarium… It was in reference to the orreries which Rittenhouse designed and manufactured, rather than to his clocks, that Jefferson described him in the Notes as ‘an artist’ (that is, an artisan), who ‘has exhibited as great a proof of mechanical genius as the world has ever produced… He has by imitation approached nearer its Maker than any man who has lived from the creation to this day” (Cohen, 80). Drawing on those scientific insights and his papers on the transit of Venus in 1769, Rittenhouse’s Oration is fundamentally a “synthesis of his views upon the development of science and upon its political and humane implications… The most prominent American astronomer… Rittenhouse felt the importance of the scientific enterprise emotionally and possessed an almost moral attachment to it. This he expressed in his statements on the history of science, holding such figures as Archimedes and Newton and great historical figures and displaying nothing but contempt for lesser men who did not understand or who misinterpreted their works. In his Oration Rittenhouse presented his best declaration of faith in the beneficence of science, its noble past and its expanding future, and in the essential goodness of man. His was the faith of the American Enlightenment” (Hindle, 9-13). Rittenhouse would follow Franklin as president of the American Philosophical Society and after his death was succeeded by Vice-President Jefferson. Rittenhouse also served as Treasurer of Pennsylvania and as the first Director of the U.S. Mint (1792-95). First edition, printed by John Dunlap in the same type used by him the following year to produce the first broadsides of the Declaration of Independence. Evans 14432. Sabin 71588.

Some soiling and chipping to fragile text, some expert repair to rear two leaves. Very good condition.

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