On July 5, 1687, 99 years less one day before the Declaration of Independence was adopted in Philadelphia, Isaac Newton published the first edition of his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. The two writings are not unrelated. Newton was a central thinker of the Enlightenment, one tenet of which was that the natural world and the moral world are inseparable and understandable, and reason was God’s—or Nature’s, if one must—greatest gift to humankind.
Newton’s Principia, as it has been called because of its Latin title, was a watershed in the history of Western culture. It confirmed mathematically the heliocentric solar system and behavior of the planets postulated by Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, the theory of gravity, and the laws of motion that form the basis of modern science.
The reasoning methods Newton used to arrive at his conclusions demonstrated that humans could understand the natural processes of nature and, by extension, the universe. This gave credence to John Locke’s ideas concerning natural law and individual rights. Within the next century, Thomas Jefferson, with help from John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, set forth those ideas in our Declaration.
Newtonian physics was radically modified, though not discredited, by Albert Einstein’s Theories of Relativity. For that, Newton would have been pleased. He had made a virtue out of necessity by insisting that science should not feign hypotheses, that it should be limited in its ultimate claims; that is, there is no such thing as settled science.
Newton’s work was so revolutionary that the English poet Alexander Pope was inspired to write “Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night. God said, ‘Let Newton be,’ and all was light.”
Isaac Newton died in 1727. He is buried in Westminster Abbey: The burial place of kings and queens.