The Edinburgh Influence

Based on a review of Colden’s writings as a physician, scientist and politician during the years following his Edinburgh education, we can deduce that he perhaps focused on natural philosophy and politics, and paid less interest to the the day-t0-day norms.   A number of books popular at that time could be considered examples of what he may have read and discussed with other academicians during his years at Edinburgh.  Each of these books in turn may also be related to the essays Colden wrote later on about the basic and reformed natural sciences, philosophy and natural philosophy, politics and religion, and a number of other social issues that his generation would have to deal with.   Such events related to the Enlightment Period did not occur once in Colden’s life, but rather numerous times.  When Cadwallader Colden removed to Philadelphia, New York City, followed by Orange County, New York, he would time and time again have to face some of the issues he faced while at Edinburgh.   During his earliest years Cadwallader was mostly an engineer, scientist and politician, but once he removed from New York City to Orange County, his transformation into a natural philosopher more than a politician would be completed in just a few years.

An interesting part of the natural history of Colden’s property may be related to his transforatmion during his later years.  Regarding the Great Flood, there was an important piece of evidence later uncovered on his own estate.  On Colden’s own land was found an entire carcass of a mammoth, preserved for tens of thousands of years.   Throughout the local setting there were numerous rocks, fairly round and polished due to glacial activity and melt.  These were also very rich in fossils, and tended to stand out due to their unique form and color.   Just north of Colden’s estate were fossils contained in rock beds, such as the quartz-pyritized fossils formed in parts of the region, but especially at the borders of Stony Ridge, a place where rocks were cut from cliffs and used to construct local homes.  These natural history sightings in no way prevented Colden from continuing his pursuit of the natural sciences, even at the risk of becoming likened to an atheist in the near future.  In the least he had several other scholars in the colonies to share this distinction with, the most famous of which perhaps was Benjamin Franklin, the inventor of his own Newtonian-derived substitute for God, natural electricity.



A number of writings can be found that help to provide inights into the important social or cultural issues existing during the years Colden was at Edinburgh.  It is not uncommon for social movements such as those experiences by student Colden to resurface periodically throughout his life.  Such was the case when he removed to New York and underwent several changes in profession and career.  His first enlightment experience commenced during his academic years (around 14-17 years of age), his second enlightenment came with his commencement of work related to Newton’s teachings with New York Governor Burnet, around 1724 (36 years of age).  

During the formative years in Colden’s educational life, prior to his college years, he was probably fairly domestic in his manners and behaviors within the family setting.  Following his first response to his education about Newton’s writings and teachings, his main goal turned to initiating work in this piece of natural philosophy and relating it to his political life.  Such an opportunity came when Edmund Halley was in need of assistance in proving his claims regarding the movement of plantary bodies in relation to the sun, and how these events were witnessed worldwide at a major planetary level.  Like Newton, he believed there was a mathematical and predictable nature to these seemingly random events, and his goal was to prove this theory using Newton’s formulas.  For Colden, this offered him the first experience to engage in such activities at a governmental level.  He worked alongside New York Governor Burnet in an attempt to document the natural philosophical events taking place in relation to the movement of Jupiter in the skies above New York city.   This was then published along with hundred of similar studies performed worldwide and later shared with Halley’s associates for final review.

Cadwallader Colden’s second undertaking in science documented in writing and by his activities involved a brief time when he was back in England, attending a lecture provided by Edmund Halley.  Afterwards, Colden managed to discuss with Halley about an essay he wrote back in New York on the actions of the muscles in the body, and how these related to movement, energy, light and colors.   This reiteration of his observations was not just a review of the purely mechanical theories related to body motion, but also a form of reformed science thinking based on the behavior of energy as a part of the life process–the vital force, or in the Descartsian sense, the notion of animal spirit and the body versus the distinctly differeny energies related to mind and soul.   The timing of Colden’s approach on this topic was not necessarily the best.  The main topic of Halley’s work at this time pertained to the cycling of events in the Universe, a metaphysical topic of significant public interest.  (This may in fact be why Colden didn’t follow-up much on this piece of natural philosophy.)

Colden’s third major activity as a scientist interested in metaphysics and the influences of universal energies came when he turned his focus on health towards a study of the interactions betwen the body and local climate and weather event.  This topic of interest eventually led to his completion of a writing on the effects of climate upon health, and the possible influences of local weather patterns and unique temperature-wind patterns.  This area of focus related very strongly to some deep inner feeling he must have had regarding health and the causes for illness and disease.  It is very likely that such an area of interest was also a consequence of his observations over time of the cycling of disease patterns with the seasons, and the relationships certain disease events ahd with certain types of land settings.  By selecting a particular part of the Hudson Valley to remove to, for employment and ultimately significant periods of repose, Colden was ready to document as much as he could possibly write during the upcoming decades.  He wrote his essays well into his octagenarian years, composing essays for his grandchildren by then, whom he hoped would follow him in his footsteps in terms of career choices.

Colden’s Primary Authors

Classical Writers

Cicero.  We know that Colden favored Cicero for his essays and letters pertaining to people and the government.  This was the primary topic he wrote an essay about during his professional years.  Cicero also produced a couple of other writings very pertinent to an individual’s philosophy of life, and may have been an added part of the reason for why Colden favored Cicero’s teachings, enough to produce a forward on a translation of this book. 

Cicero wrote a piece on old-age and the aging process in society.  This topic was very much an issue in the minds of individuals trying to define the best place to live and to get older.

The works of Cicero were also favored by an associate of Colden, Dutch botanist Johann Gronovius.  This led Gronovius to write a book about Cicero, published at about the time he began compiling the works of North American botanists for the first time pertaining to the flora of Virginia.


Baron Pufendorf, author of Of the Law of Nature and Nations.  This book was originally published in latin, for English translation see

Natural Philosophers or Scientists 

Isaac Newton.

Edmund Halley.


Contemporary Philosophers