Thursday, June 14, 2012

Thankful Thursday: Isaac Newton and Personal Democracy (Bransons, Part IV)

Newton, By William Blake, 1805
I wrote about William Newton and my imagining about the son he named George Washington here.

But he also had a son, born in 1825, named Isaac Newton Branson.  Isaac was born almost 100 years after the death of his namesake.  So I've always been curious about why that name was chosen, and how it related to the feelings William had about the American revolution.

Newton's Principia was translated into English in 1729, and the concepts of natural law he laid out were key to John Locke's concepts of individual liberty.  In turn, Locke's philosophies were foundational to the United States' founders and their documents.

Summaries of Newton's work and biographies were  available in South Carolina, where William was raised.  Perhaps his education included the works that informed the country, like those of Locke and Newton.

It certainly informed William Blake, in his epic poem Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, published around the time Isaac Newton Branson was born. Blake was a supporter of the American Revolution himself, helping Thomas Paine to escape Britain.  But Blake saw Newton as the personification of a sterilized scientific world, not as a hero.  He wanted the new country to be a spiritual Eden, not a scientific one, and for him, Newton represented the worst extension of European thought.
I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe
And there behold the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire
Washd by the Water-wheels of Newton: black the cloth
In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation
Such is the complexity of Isaac Newton's ideas - that they can almost simultaneously inspire such strong negative emotions in Blake, while inspiring such a positive image for William Branson that he and his wife give the name to their son.  But probably this dichotomy is also a reflection of where the United States was in the early days of the 19th century.  It was potential embodied as a nation, and it wasn't clear which way it would go.  

The French Revolution was more predictable, exterminating one royal lineage only to name Napoleon as emperor.  But this American version was not.  George Washington refused the title of king, saying:
“If you have any regard for your Country, concern for yourself or posterity, or respect for me, to banish these thoughts from your Mind, and never communicate, as from yourself, or any one else, a sentiment of the like Nature.”
And so all the big ideas and philosophical differences were brought down to a personal level.  William Branson was able, in a democratic country that was only a generation old, to define the future he wanted through the names of his sons.  The names, I think, reflect his gratitude for his country as well as his aspirations for it as a whole, and for his sons in particular.

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