Name

Jonathan Williams

Career

Science

Region

NA/Mid-Atlantic region

Era

Maritime Republic (1751-1815)

Born

1750

Died

1815

Source

ANB

Text

Merchant, lay scientist, and first superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy� [he studied] under the aegis of his great-uncle Benjamin Franklin� In July 1788 Franklin sponsored his membership in the prestigious American Philosophical Society and he became a lifelong member.

Franklin's tutelage indelibly impressed scientific research on Williams and, in 1799 he published the tract Thermometric Navigation, whose findings were long utilized� Following Franklin's death in 1790, Williams delved into mathematics, botany, and medicine� On 16 February 1801 Williams fulfilled a longheld ambition by obtaining a major's commission in the Second Regiment of Artillery and Engineers from President John Adams. In this capacity he oversaw translation of two European treatises, Elements of Fortification (1801) and Tadeusz Kosciuszko's Manoeuvers for Horse Artillery (1808). These efforts and his rise to the vice presidency of the American Philosophical Society brought Williams to the attention of another lay scientist, President Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was then attempting to flesh out the army's cadre with scientifically minded officers and appointed Williams inspector of fortifications and superintendent of the military post at West Point on 14 December 1801. When Congress established the nation's first military academy there the following spring, he also assumed responsibilities as its first superintendent.

Williams, initially enthusiastic, grew disillusioned with his charge. The fledgling academy consisted of but ten cadets, was underfunded and poorly staffed, and lacked a meaningful curriculum. Furthermore Williams, though senior officer present, exerted little actual control over the garrison. Line officers refused to follow his orders on the archaic grounds that he could only command fellow engineers. When Jefferson failed to ameliorate these difficulties, Williams resigned on 20 June 1803. Before departing, however, he made a significant contribution to the intellectual life of West Point by founding the U.S. Military Philosophical Society. Williams intended it to function as a conduit for the latest European writing on military science and a vehicle to disseminate useful knowledge.

Fortunately for the academy, Jefferson persuaded Williams to reenlist as a lieutenant colonel of engineers on 19 April 1805, although only after his control of West Point had been assured. For the next five years he struggled to manage his intellectual enclave with minimal funding and political support, but he did manage to replace a classical curriculum with a modern one stressing scientific methodology. Williams was also responsible for the erection of fortifications around New York City, including Castle Williams on Governor's Island. When hostilities with Great Britain erupted in June 1812, he requested command of that post but was denied for conflicting authority between artillerists and engineers. Outraged, Williams resigned a second time on 31 July 1812 and became brigadier general of militia defending New York harbor. His service proved uneventful, but the exigencies of war forced the U.S. Military Philosophical Society to disband on 1 November 1813� Shortly before peace was concluded, Williams relocated to Philadelphia to supervise defensive preparations. He subsequently ran for Congress as a representative in 1814 but died in Philadelphia before taking his seat.

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