Bowditch, Nathaniel


1827 ALS to lawyer Peter Jay regarding settlement of a matter involving Rev. Wm. E. Channing and family



Type: Letter
Description: “(1773-1838) Early US mathematician remembered for work on ocean navigation. Credited as founder of modern maritime navigation; his book The New American Practical Navigator, 1st pub. 1802, is still carried aboard every US Navy vessel.

Born in Salem, Mass., indentured at 12 for 9 years as bookkeeping apprentice to a ship chandler. At 14 he began to study algebra, taught himself calculus at 16. He taught himself Latin in 1790 and French in 1792 so he could read works such as Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. He found thousands of errors in John Hamilton Moore’s The New Practical Navigator; at 18, he copied all the mathematical papers found in the Transactions of the Royal Society of London.

Among his many significant scientific contributions would be a translation of Pierre-Simon de Laplace’s “Mécanique celeste”, lengthy work on mathematics and theoretical astronomy. In 1795, he went to sea on the 1st of 4 voyages as ship’s clerk and captain’s writer; his 5th was as master and part owner of a ship. While at sea, Bowditch became intensely interested in mathematics involved in celestial navigation. He recomputed all of Moore’s tables, rearranged and expanded the work. He contacted US publisher Edmund Blunt who asked him to correct and revise the 3rd edition on his 5th voyage. Bowditch decided to write his own book, and to “put down in the book nothing I can’t teach the crew.” On that trip, it is said that the entire crew of 12, including the cook, became competent to take and calculate lunar observations and plot the correct position of the ship. In 1802, Blunt published the 1st edition of Bowditch’s American Practical Navigator, which became the Western Hemisphere shipping industry standard for the next 150 years. The US Hydrographic Office bought the copyright in 1866, since then in continuous publication with regular revisions to keep it current; to this day mariners refer to it simply as “Bowditch.” Returned to Salem 1803, resumed mathematical studies and entered insurance business.

Harvard awarded him an honorary Master of Arts degree 1802. In 1804, he became America’s 1st insurance actuary as President of Essex Fire and Marine Insurance Company in Salem. His mathematical and astronomical work led to election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 1799 and the American Philosophical Society 1809. He declined the chair of mathematics and physics at Harvard 1806, and similar offers from the US Military Academy and the University of Virginia. He wrote on his observations of the moon published 1804 and naval charts of several harbors, including Salem (1806). He published a study of a meteor explosion 1807, 3 papers on the orbits of comets (1815, 1818, 1820) and a study of the Lissajous figures created by motion of a pendulum suspended from two points 1815. He translated 1st 4 volumes of Laplace’s Traité de mécanique céleste 1818; publication ws delayed for many years, and he continued to work on it with Benjamin Peirce, adding commentaries that doubled its length. Elected to Royal Societies of Edinburgh and London and Royal Irish Academy by 1819. Left Essex Fire and Marine Insurance Company 1823 to become actuary for the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Co. in Boston, serving as an investment manager for wealthy individuals who made their fortunes at sea. His move to Boston involved transfer of 2,500+ books, 100 maps & charts, and 29 volumes of his own manuscripts.

9 3/4 x 8 ALS with integral address leaf, Boston, May 14, 1827, to Peter Augustus Jay, son of John Jay, regarding the settlement of a matter involving influential reformer and clergyman Rev. William E. Channing and family.

PETER AUGUSTUS JAY (1776-1843) Eldest son of Founding Father John Jay. Like his father, he graduated from King’s College and in 1794 acted as private secretary to his father in London for the Jay Treaty. He studied law and established a practice in New York City. He helped found the Bank for Savings (contributing to the establishment of the New York State savings bank system) 1812-17. He was a Federalist member from NYC to the State Assembly in 1816, active in arranging financing for construction of the Erie Canal. He unsuccessfully ran many times for Congress, always defeated by Democratic-Republican candidates. He was New York City Recorder 1819-21 and a Westchester Co. delegate to the 1821 New York State Constitutional Convention (where he argued that the right to vote should be extended to free African Americans; he was overruled.) He helped found the New York Law Institute in 1828, oldest law library in NYC. Jay was President of New York Hospital 1827–33, Chairman of the King’s College Board of Trustees, President of the New York Historical Society 1840-42 and, for a time, a Westchester County Judge.

He shared his father’s commitment to social justice and actively pursued greater rights for African Americans. He was President of the New York Manumission Society in 1816 and President of the New York Public School Society which was anti-slavery and concerned with greater humanitarianism towards the poor.

WM. ELLERY CHANNING (1780-1842) Minister of the Federal Street Church in Boston 1803-42, his published sermons were widely influential in the US and abroad. A champion of human rights and dignity, he fostered social reform in areas of free speech, education, peace, relief for the poor, and anti-slavery.

His mother’s father, William Ellery, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He graduated Harvard in 1798, licensed to preach by the Cambridge Association in 1802, and in 1803, Boston’s Federal Street Church ordained him. He served on the Harvard Corporation board 1813-26, and worked toward the 1816 establishment of the Harvard Divinity School. In 1814 Channing married 1st cousin Ruth Gibbs, one of the wealthiest women in the country. He upheld a woman’s right to own property and never claimed his wife’s money.

For some time dissension was rife among New England Congregationalists. The Unitarian controversy began in 1805 with a struggle—which the liberals won—over the appointment of a successor to Channing’s Harvard mentor, David Tappan. Channing was viewed as a spokesperson for liberal congregations and their ministry. It became clear that Unitarians would be a separate communion and he went on to pronounce a spiritual and intellectual manifesto which voiced the germ of the Transcendental movement.

The Transcendental Club, with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Frederic Henry Hedge, Orestes Brownson and others, was organized by George Ripley on a suggestion by Channing. He attended few meetings as he felt those attending might defer to him rather than speak their own minds. He spoke against slavery as early as 1825; a number of his protégées worked with Garrison’s anti-slavery movement. His last public address, in Lenox, Mass. on Aug. 1, 1842, celebrated the anniversary of the emancipation of slaves in the British West Indies and called for an end to slavery in the US using similarly peaceful means.”

Condition: Very good, small seal tear and hole on address leaf of no consequence

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