Classic Mom's Book Discussion

We had our first book discussion last night about Carry On Mr. Bowditch. a fictionalized account of the real life of Nathaniel Bowditch who lived in Salem, Massachusetts during the Revolutionary War. 


Nathaniel Bowditch had to deal with poverty, death, lack of freedom and many disappointments in his life but he never gave up.  When he was young he showed an aptitude for math and dreamed of attending Harvard. His father didn't think Nat would be good sailor because of his small stature, and when his mother and grandmother died, his father bound Nat into a nine year indenture-ship to work for a ship chandler store (selling ship commodities.)


Nat felt unhappy about his situation but on his first day there one of the other workers told him, "Only a weakling gives up when he's becalmed! A strong man sails by ash breeze!" (Definition: When you get ahead by your own "get up and get!" Using manpower to move the ship when there is no wind.  Back then oars were made of ashThat simple statement changed Nat's perspective. Rather than letting his new life depress him, Nat began the process of educating himself, learning mathematics, astronomy, navigation and three languages.  He would create notebooks for each subject he learned that said just enough to explain things to himself.


Nat was twenty-one years old at the end of his indenture when he left the chandlery and became a surveyor around Salem. Success with this job gave him the opportunity to sail on a ship. This began several trips across the ocean and around the worldAs first mate he taught the other sailors how to navigate using mathematics.  He felt all men could learn, but teaching wasn't so easy.  Nat had always had a 'quick' brain and would get impatient when someone couldn't understand something he was explaining.  But he always remembered what Elizabeth Boardman (his first wife later on) had said to him, "Your brain--it's too fast.  So you stumble on other people's dumbness like a chair in the dark.  And you want to kick something."  So Nat created a new notebook--writing down the explanations that made sense to the men.  That way he wouldn't forget if he ever had to explain it again. Nat's mentoring and teaching changed the men who sailed with him.  Sailors that had previously been trouble-makers now took pride in themselves and their accomplishments.  Many went on to become ship's navigators themselves.  Teaching helped prepare Nat to write a book that would help all seaman.

Back then every ship depended on Moore's Navigator to know where they were in and about the ocean.  
Nathaniel Bowditch found errors in the book and decided to check each computation so that corrections could be published. Because of the mistakes found in Moore's book many ships and sailors were killed at sea. After a while Nat was thoroughly disgusted with Moore's navigation.  He said, "Do you know how many errors I've found so far? Eight Thousand!  I'm going to write a book of my own." 

Nat wrote, The American Practical Navigator, and included three things the other books didn't have. 1. Correct tables. 2. Definitions of every sea term and maneuver. 3. Tables so any seaman could solve problems in navigation.  Using his book everyone would be able to
 navigate confidently if they could follow the instructions, read the charts, and do simple addition and subtraction. When Nat was asked why he was slaving over and checking every table published he replied, "Because they ought to be right, that's why! Math is nothing if it's not accurate!  Men's lives depend on these figures!"  



Nathanial Bowditch first published The American Practical Navigator in 1802. During the last two centuries over 75 editions, almost 1,000,000 copies, of Bowditch have been published by the US Government. Bowditch contains numerous tables which have been valued for years by practicing navigators. Bowditch is carried on the bridge of every U.S. Navy ship.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:
  • The press is dangerous in a despotic government, but in a free country it is very useful, so long as it is FREE; for it is very important that people should be told everything that concerns them.  If we argue against any branch of liberty, just because sometimes people abuse that liberty, then we argue against liberty itself.  In a free country, the press must be free.
  • The best way to stay at peace is to be prepared for war.
  •  "You know the anchor won't hold if the cable's too short. A man always needs another shot in the locker." About being a proper mariner's wife
  • "To an active external commerce the protection of a naval force is indispensable...  it is in our own experience that the most sincere neutrality is not a sufficient guard against the depredations of nations at war. To secure respect to a neutral flag requires a naval force organized and ready to vindicate it from insult or aggression. This may even prevent the necessity of going to war." George Washington, Eighth Annual Address

Nathaniel Bowditch is a wonderful example of the Phases of Learning contained in the Thomas Jefferson Education model.  



  1. Core Phase (ages birth – 8 yrs.)  This consists of the lessons of good/bad, right/wrong, true/false, and is accomplished through work/play.
  2. Love of Learning Phase (8 yrs. – 12 yrs.) Children in this phase study whatever they are interested in—and most of the time, it does NOT LOOK like “study!”
  3. Scholar Phase (12 yrs. – 16 yrs.)  A time to study “everything under the sun,” to read, study science and math, practice art and study the great artists, and cover every topic and subject in a spirit of passion and excitement for learning.
  4. Depth Phase (College or equivalent) Is characterized by a profound hunger to prepare for on-coming responsibilities and future contributions in society. The student digs deeper into the great wealth of learning available. A mentor is required to personalize the course of study for the individual mission of the student, filling in gaps and exposing weaknesses that the student must address.
  5. Mission Phase (Change the World) Mission Phase is when an individual transitions to adulthood, and begins the all-important task of building two towers: a family and an organization.  On the Leadership Education path this begins the new era in which a person passes on the wisdom and experience he or she has gained and seeks to make the world a better place.
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2 comments:

M Scott said...

What a great review of this book! Thanks for sharing it.

Audrey said...

Thank you for your comment, I appreciate it! It was good for me to get my thoughts written down and clarify what I had read.

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