Methodising by Accounts and Other Dreams of Enlightenment – or, A Life in an Early Age of Big Data

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“We have taken the liberty to add to this manual, a kind of classic legislative tablet, or memorandum. It will serve for private use, by methodising the most interesting points of the legislature. You may help your memory and do good, if you can thereby shew the necessity of filling the blanks in the assembly with a due portion of the classic information and assistance requisite for the business of the day: sometimes you will find you have too few commercial men, or too few agriculturalists, and often too few LIBERAL AMERICANS, who may embrace correct views for the interest of the whole of the union…” [More]

With that introduction, Samuel Blodget Jr. introduced his readers (in 1806) to the first Congressional scorecard:
Source: Samuel Blodget Jr., Economica: A Statistical Manual for the United States of America (Washington, D.C., 1806) from
Although, really, it’s more an account book than a scorecard. Blodget hoped to rationalize his nation’s government by teaching its leading thinkers to figure like merchants, and keep proper accounts. Moreover, Blodget believed in numbers’ almost mystical power to open minds. After presenting a table comparing the nation’s population, state income, size, and militia strength to that of other nations, he mused on the benefits of looking at such extensive tables: “the mere habit of contemplating subjects of magnitude, will help to cure local prejudices.”[More] He dreamed of a nation led by universalists, unburdened by prejudice or interest---all driven by and committed to data (the Big Data of the day). It was a big dream.

But Samuel Blodget, Jr. knew how to dream big dreams. His contemporaries had a word for his type: a "projector." An epithet as well as an honorific, it translates roughly to “entrepreneur,” although projectors’ goals did not have to end in a company, as modern usage assumes. Blodget’s dreams touched the worlds of government, of education, and of finance. Threaded between these dreams ran twin cords of commerce and Enlightenment.

Born in 1755 in Woburn, Massachusetts to a prominent New England projector (whose projects ranged from milling to potash manufacture to fur and lumber trade to canal building), Blodget came of age at the dawn of the American Revolution and in 1775 joined the rebellion, where he eventually joined General George Washington’s staff (while his father sold cloth from his mills to the rebels). He lasted three years before the strain forced him out of the service. But those three years stirred him as much as a philosopher as they did stoke his patriotic fervor (and kindle his abiding adoration of General Washington.)

As Blodget told the story, he overheard a conversation in October of 1775 between Washington, General Nathanael Greene, and others encamped at Cambridge, MA. As they lamented the sorry state of the local seminary---a small affair we know as Harvard---amidst the deprivations of war, Greene offered a promise of hope: once the war was over, the nation would found a university “at which the youth of all the world might be proud to receive instruction.” Washington replied “Young man you are a prophet!” according to Blodget, before explaining that the site of such a university should be a new federal city at the falls of the Potomac. “From this time on,” wrote Blodget years later, “any chart [map] of North America, was in luck, if it escaped the tracing, by penciled lines, a great road from the Pacific to Laboradore, by the falls of Potomac; and also radii for the governmental main roads, from the center to every part of the union.”[More] Even as his other interests demanded attention, Blodget aimed to bring this overheard prophecy to fruition.

The young veteran made a sizable fortune in the next decade through the so-called East India Trade, although he doesn’t appear to have ever made it to China himself. He did travel to Europe twice---at the Hague he began designing the National University in earnest, a work that continued when he visited Oxford. He also found the time to sit (prance?) for John Trumbull, garbed as a revolutionary rifleman.
Portrait of Captain Samuel Blodget in Rifle Dress, by John Trumbull. Source: The Athenaeum.
In 1791, Blodget put his money where his projections were. He invested a magnificent sum[1] in lands in and around the future federal city of Washington. Of the 3,000 house lots he purchased, Blodget granted half (every other lot) to the US government. Once the government built up the city or sold its plots, his plots would gain substantially in value. In this object he found company with a handful of other land speculators---a species in abundance in Early America, where speculation preceded baseball as the national pastime, at least for those with any wealth. But Blodget and his peers’ colossal speculation turned sour as Congress dithered over whether to finance the city’s construction--- Blodget blamed congressional divisions for simultaneously embarrassing him financially and frustrating his dream of a federal city and he vented quite a bit of spleen over “party spirit” in his later writings.

While Blodget struggled to put together the pieces of his Washington ventures, he hoped for better fortunes in northern financial adventures. He launched in quick succession two “Tontines,” a form of lottery-cum-stock institution/instrument that sold shares (graded crudely with a life table such that the older paid less and the younger more), aggregated capital for commercial or charitable activities, and then paid its accumulated assets off to all those who survived in 21 years. Blodget’s first Boston Tontine aggregated $2 million in capital, but lost a bid for incorporation--- revolutionary elites worried about a “Tontine Gentry” gaining too much economic and cultural power. It did manage to incorporate later as a state bank. Blodget’s second effort, launched in Philadelphia and then extended to Boston with his partner---the appropriately named Ebenezer Hazard---had trouble attracting enough investors, but left in its wake another new endeavor: the Insurance Company of North America---the first general insurance company in the US and, as Hannah Farber of Berkeley recently argued at the Huntington’s Capitalizing on Finance conference, a lightening rod for controversy over the proper role of corporations in early American life. 

Amidst all these trials and activities, Blodget launched one more project, one designed to rationalize legislation and reform the political system that had already so frequently troubled him. He began informally, distributing his thoughts on political economy and his compellations of government census data among Washington friends, many of whom sat in Congress. In 1806, unable to subsidize a free newsletter, he published Economica: A Statistical Manual for the United States of America, promising that any profits would go to the national university. The book opened with an epigraph from Aristotle: “The legislature ought to make the people happy.” Blodget thought that Congress could achieve that goal if it applied the rules and rationality of commercial arithmetic to the practice of governance. In that faith, he trod a path worn by absolutists like Louis XIV’s minister Colbert and more liberal monarchists like William Petty and other British proponents of “Political Arithmetick.” Achieving such a goal in a republican government meant cultivating widely the habits of keeping accounts and thinking with numbers, a realization that fueled broader efforts to teach arithmetic in America as a means of teaching reason. That explains all the blank pages and empty forms in Blodget’s text, left “to be filled with a pen, with the result of future years.” [More] Blodget led a life suffused with numbers and committed to keeping accounts of data---he dreamed that his country would follow.

The War of 1812 struck Blodget hard on several fronts. The Insurance Company of North America, primarily a marine insurer, struggled to adapt to the dangers posed to shippers by the on-going Napoleonic wars and America’s fight with Britain. And the British invasion of Washington D.C. added insult to Blodget’s financial injury in that city. He died in April of 1814, his fortunes so battered (perhaps even to the point of bankruptcy) that he failed to leave the bequest for a national university that had so long been his dream. (In 1806, Blodget prepared a plea to Congress to donate to the National University a sum equivalent to the losses he sustained in his Washington speculations---and in working as the agent of the city’s superintendents. His arguments failed to loose Congress’s purse-strings.)

The United States never founded a national university. But even as Blodget failed personally, his other projects survived him. The Insurance Company of North America and Economica lived on, each in its own way a manifestation of Blodget’s enlightenment dreams acted out in the idiom of commerce.

My thanks to Hannah Farber, who knows more about Blodget than anyone else, for her comments and suggestions.

More Reading:

On Blodget's early life and family, see:

  • Lorin Blodget, “Samuel Blodget, Jr.,” in Horace Wemyss Smith, Life and Correspondence of the Rev. William Smith, D.D. (Philadelphia: Ferguson Bros. & Co., 1880), vol. II, 514-519
  • “Biography of Honorable Samuel Blodget,” The Farmer’s Monthly Visitor (Manchester, NH) 12, no. 6 (June 1852) 161-164 [paywall].

For more on the "Tontine Gentry" and the fascinating interlinkages between struggles for cultural and economic power in early national Boston and Philadelphia, see Heather S. Nathans, “Forging a Powerful Engine: Building Theaters and Elites in Post-Revolutionary Boston and Philadelphia,” Pennsylvania History 66, (1999): 113-143, esp. 121-123 [paywall].

On the Universal Tontine and the Insurance Company of North America, see:
  • A History of the Insurance Company of North America of Philadelphia: The Oldest Fire and Marine Insurance Company in America (Philadelphia: Press of Review Publishing and Printing Company, 1885), 9-12.
  • Marquis James, Biography of a Business, 1792-1942: Insurance Company of North America (New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1942), 11-14.

On commercial arithmetic as a mode of teaching reason or managing a monarchy, see:
  • Jacob Soll, “From Note-Taking to Data Banks: Personal and Institutional Information Management in Early Modern Europe,” Intellectual History Review 20, no. 3 (2010), 355-375.
  • Patricia Cline Cohen, A Calculating People: The Spread of Numeracy in Early America (New York: Routledge, 1999), 130-138.
  • Julian Hoppit, "Political Arithmetic in Eighteenth-Century England," Economic History Review 49, no. 3 (1996): 516-540.
On the repeated failures to found a national university, see A. Hunter Dupree, Science in the Federal Government: A History of Policies and Activities to 1940 (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1957), chapters 1-3.

[1] Blodget paid over $100,000 --- which works out to $2.5 million in 2012 dollars in terms of spending power or $7.9 billion 2012 dollars as a percentage of total GDP. I calculated these figures using the invaluable “MeasuringWorth” calculator:

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