Irish Services to Education and Science in America

From A History of the Irish Settlers in North America by Thomas D'Arcy McGee

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Chapter XI.

Irish Services to Education and Science in America—Allison—Charles Thompson—David Ramsay—Fulton—Colles—Adrain—Matthew Carey

AMONG the first educational institutions of America, after its independence, was Pennsylvania College, over which Dr. Allison was chosen provost. He was a native of the north of Ireland, and had spent the best part of his life as a teacher in New London, New York, and subsequently, Philadelphia. He is frequently mentioned in the Biographies of the Men of the Revolution, as their master; as one who had a singular insight into character, and judgment in the management of pupils.

Charles Thompson's version of the Septuagint is a worthy landmark of colonial learning. He was a pupil of Allison's, and in his old age returned to the studies of his youth with renewed ardor. Every literary project of his times found in him a willing and able auxiliary.

David Ramsay, the son of Irish parents, was born at Lancaster, Pa., April 2, 1749. He settled early in South Carolina, and was one of the first advocates there for the Revolution. In 1782, he was sent to Congress, and presided over that body for a year. In 1796, he published his History of South Carolina; in 1801, his Life of Washington, and, in 1808, his History of the United States. The British government prohibited this last work from being sold in England or Ireland,—a high compliment to its truth and power. On May 8, 1815, Dr. Ramsay, in the discharge of his medical duties, was stabbed by a maniac, and almost instantly expired. He is buried at Charleston.

Governor Sullivan, of Massachusetts, the projector of the Middlesex Canal, and Governor De Witt Clinton, James Logan, and Bishop Berkely, deserve special mention in this place; but men with such connexions are not likely to have their honors mildew. We prefer to dwell rather upon the merits of men Jess known to the public memory, but not less influential in affecting the present prosperity of America.

Christopher Colles arrived from Ireland on these shores about the time Fulton was born. In 1772, he delivered a series of lectures "on the subject of Lock Navigation," at Philadelphia. "He was the first person," says De Witt Clinton, "who suggested to the government of the state (New York) the canals and improvements on the Ontario route. Unfortunately for him, and, perhaps, for the public," adds the same authority, "he was generally considered as a visionary projector, and his plans were sometimes treated with ridicule, and frequently viewed with distrust."[1] In 1784, 1785, 1786, and for several successive years, he petitioned the Legislature of that state, on the importance and practicability of uniting the western lakes to the Atlantic. He was, probably, the author of the letters signed "Hibernicus," on the same subject, which were published at New York about the beginning of this century. In 1774, he proposed to supply New York with water by aqueducts, such as now bring in the Croton, and of which he exhibited models at public lectures. During the war, of 1812 he was "the projector and attendant of the telegraph erected on Castle Clinton." He died in obscurity and poverty, while others were growing famous and wealthy upon the stolen ideas of his failing intellect.

Robert Fulton was born of poor Irish parents, at Little Britain, Lancaster county, Pennsylvania, in 1705. He early displayed artist tastes, and painted portraits for a subsistence, in Philadelphia, before he was quite a man. In 1786, he went to London, lived with Benjamin West, and took out several patents; in 1796, he went to Paris, and resided with the Hon. Joel Barlow till 1808, where, in 1803, after many delays and mishaps, he launched the first boat propelled by steam power, on the Seine. In 1806, he returned to America, and ran a more complete model boat on the Hudson. From this time forth, his fortune needed no patron's aid; but he did not live long to enjoy its sweets. He died February 23, 1815, in his 44th year, too soon for his country, though not too soon for history.

It is not now possible for us to estimate how much of the growth and greatness of America is due to the canals of Colles, and the steamboats of Fulton. In fifty years this nation has increased its territory ten fold, its population seven fold, and its wealth a thousand fold. Too seldom do we remember, when borne triumphantly on the tide of all this prosperous increase, that to these humble, studious men, stout-hearted wrestlers with formidable problems, patient bearers, for truth's sake, of ridicule and reproach, we owe so much of all we most boast of and most enjoy.

Among the most distinguished mathematicians of this continent, Robert Adrain holds a conspicuous place. He was born in Carrickfergus, September 30, 1775, and was, in 1798, a United Irishman. After the failure of that memorable insurrection, he emigrated to America, poor and undistinguished. His success on these shores we transcribe from the record made by another hand:—

"Robert was the eldest of five children, and lost both his parents in his fifteenth year. He was an excellent mathematician and linguist, and taught school at Ballycarry when only in his sixteenth year. Mr. Mortimer, a gentleman of great wealth and influence in Cumber, engaged him as an instructor of his children; but when the Irish people made an effort, in 1798, to shake off their ancient oppressors, Robert Adrain took the command of a company of the United Irish, while Mr. Mortimer, being an officer of the English authorities, was offering a reward of fifty pounds for his capture. At the battle of Saintfield, Mr. Mortimer received a mortal blow. But it so happened that Mr. Adrain, having refused his assent to some measure proposed in his division of the army, received a dangerous wound in the back from one of his own men the day before the battle, and was reported to be dead. This stopped further search after him, and after several narrow escapes from the hands of Ireland's enemies, he found a refuge in New York, then suffering from the yellow fever. He first taught an academy at Princeton, N. J., then became principal of the York County Academy, next took charge of the academy at Reading, and became a valuable contributor to Baron's 'Mathematical Correspondent,' and afterwards editor of the Analist, which he continued for several years in Philadelphia.

"In 1810, he was appointed Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy in Queen's (now Rutger's) College, New Brunswick, had the degree of Doctor of Laws conferred on him, and was soon after elected a member of the philosophical societies in Europe and America. He edited the third American edition of Hutton's Course of Mathematics, and made important corrections, adding many valuable notes, and an elementary treatise on Descriptive Geometry.

"On the decease of Dr. Kemp, Dr. Adrain was elected, in 1813, Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy in Columbia College, New York; soon after which he published a paper on the figure and magnitude of the earth, and gravity, which obtained for him great celebrity in Europe. He contributed to the periodicals of the day, edited the Mathematical Diary in 1825, and was looked up to as having no superior among the mathematicians of America. The ease and facility with which he imparted instruction, his fluency in reading the Greek and Latin authors, and extensive acquaintance with general literature, his social disposition, strong understanding, and high conversational powers, caused the students and professors greatly to regret his resignation of his office in 1826. The senior mathematical class had his portrait taken by the distinguished Irish artist, Ingham; an admirable likeness.

"After leaving New York, he held for several years a professorship in the University of Pennsylvania, of which institution he was vice-provost. Towards the close of his life, his memory and other faculties of his mind suffered decay. Through life he was a sincere Christian, and few theologians could better explain the more difficult passages of Scripture. His strong and powerful intellect, and pure and fervent piety, were cited as a refutation of the sentiment that the study of the abstruse sciences tends to infidelity."[2]

Nor must we omit to mention here the name of Mathew Carey, one of the first American writers on Political Economy. Mr. Carey was born in Ireland, in the year 1761, and removed to Philadelphia, about the period of the Revolution. From 1785 till 1830, he was an unwearied student of questions affecting trade, emigration, banking, wages, public schools, benevolent societies, and the public health. He was, we believe, the first to propose a monument to Robert Fulton. He was also a consistent friend of liberty everywhere, of which his "Vindicae Hiberniae," "Olive Branch," and "Case of the Greeks," remain as ample evidence. He died at a good old age, in Philadelphia, having reared up a numerous family, full of hereditary ability, who seem destined still further to dignify the name of Carey.[3]

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[1] O'Reilly's History of Rochester. Mr. Charles King's Memoir of the Croton Aqueduct.

[2] McKenzie's Illustrious Irishmen, Part II. In our own time, we are not wholly unrepresented in Irish science. Henry O'Reilly, a native of Cavan, still in the prime of life, has been the most active and successful perfector of the electric telegraph in North America.

[3] Henry C. Carey, the distinguished political economist, is the son of Mathew Carey. Many of his essays on wages, trade, &c., have been translated in France, Germany, and Sweden.

* See Appendix No. V