The second half of the year of 1776 witnessed several historic events in British Colonial North America. On July 2, the thirteen colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. Two days later, the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Congress in Philadelphia. On the same day, the British fleet was sighted off New York. On September 15, the British occupied the City of New York, which George Washington and his army had just abandoned, moving north to encamp at Harlem Heights. On September 21, about one-third of lower Manhattan was destroyed by the Great New York Fire of 1776. Also on September 21, Nathan Hale, a spy in the Continental Army, was captured near Flushing Bay in Queens, New York, behind enemy lines. He was hanged the next day at the Park of Artillery (current 66th Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan). Nathan Hale was immortalized by the statement he issued before the hanging: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” On the day before Nathan Hale's capture, also in Flushing, not far from where the capture occurred, the life of an eighty-eight-year old man came to a peaceful end and his name drifted into obscurity.

The name of that man, Cadwallader Colden, brings into focus an individual who served the Colony of New York for over a half century, longer by far than any of his contemporaries. Throughout that period, he remained unwaveringly devoted to the British monarchy. As such, he became one of the most reviled New York colonial figures. His name also identifies a physician, scientist, botanist, ethnographer, and philosopher; a savant, who was deemed by colonial intellectuals as the most knowledgeable individual in all of the land. He shared an interest and dialogue with three other colonial physicians, who were similarly notable for diverse contributions beyond the realm of medicine.

Colden generated a large corpus of correspondence with the most notable scientists and thoughtful men, both in America and on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. This is evidenced by a nine-volume publication by the New York Historical Society containing his correspondence. Yet, with all his recognized accomplishments and contemporary visibility, the name of Cadwallader Colden does not appear in the famous Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, with whom Colden was engaged in an extensive correspondence. Their letters speak to a mutual high regard. Nor has Colden's long, productive, and influential life been the subject of a published biography, with the exception of a rarely read 1906 doctoral thesis1 and a recent addition to Contributions in American History.2 Both of these works essentially compartmentalize Cadwallader Colden's intellectual pursuits.

What has been lacking is a historical correlation between Cadwallader Colden's personal and political life with his many and varied intellectual pursuits. As a husband and father, he maintained constant concern for his large family, whose members reciprocated with admiration and strong emotional ties. The results are apparent in a consideration of the family's genealogy. His positive and praiseworthy familial relationships contrasted with his public persona, which was characterized by the inability to relate to political associates. Compromise and compassion were absent from his political lexicon.

His dedication to intellectual enquiry was unique for his position and location, but it was tainted by a desperate need for recognition and accolade. He was devoid of an appreciation of his intellectual capabilities, consequent to the absence of a firm basis in mathematics. Although he gained respect, it was never sufficient. The name of Cadwallader Colden, which could have become a beacon in the colonies and persisted for ages, has been diminished and erased with time. The sequence of life for arguably the most notable New York colonist was famed, flawed, forgotten!



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