Eagle Hill Masthead

Northeastern Naturalist
    NENA Home
    Range and Scope
    Board of Editors
    Editorial Workflow
    Publication Charges

Other Eagle Hill Science Journals
    Southeastern Naturalist
    Caribbean Naturalist
    Neotropical Naturalist
    Urban Naturalist
    Prairie Naturalist
    Eastern Paleontologist
    Journal of the North Atlantic

Eagle Hill Institute Home


About Northeastern Naturalist



Northeastern Naturalist, Volume 8, Special Issue 1 (2001):43–56

Full-text pdf (Accessible only to subscribers.To subscribe click here.)


Access Journal Content

Open access browsing of table of contents and abstract pages. Full text pdfs available for download for subscribers.

Issue-in-Progress: Vol.30 (1) ... early view

Current Issue: Vol. 29 (4)
NENA 29(4)

All Regular Issues


Special Issues






JSTOR logoClarivate logoWeb of science logoBioOne logo EbscoHOST logoProQuest logo

Proceedings: Alexander von Humboldt’s Natural History Legacy and Its Relevance for Today 2001 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1:43-56 ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT’S VISIT TO WASHINGTON AND PHILADELPHIA, HIS FRIENDSHIP WITH JEFFERSON, AND HIS FASCINATION WITH THE UNITED STATES INGO SCHWARZ * ABSTRACT – Alexander von Humboldt paid a short visit to the United States at the end of his famous travels in the New World. In Philadelphia, he met the leading scientists of the country. More importantly, President Jefferson invited him to Washington where he supplied the government with the latest statistical and geographical facts about New Spain (Mexico). Jefferson appreciated Humboldt’s scientific achievements; Humboldt found Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia a model of how to describe a region. Between Humboldt and Albert Gallatin, the Swiss-born Secretary of the Treasury, a lasting friendship developed based on common interests, e.g., in monetary questions. Humboldt’s interests with regard to the U.S. were centered around three topics: the spread of slavery and its consequences in terms of the maintenance of the Union; the mining of gold as compared with Russia; the possibilities of building a canal between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The debate over the slave question caused Humboldt to increase his criticism of American politics. He used his influence in Prussia to have a law passed that prohibited the ownership of slaves, thereby signaling his opposition to slavery to American leaders. In addition, Humboldt envisioned the improvement of international relations through free trade, and therefore favored projects such as an inter-oceanic canal. He never stopped admiring the achievements of the new nation in the sciences. That is why he liked to call himself “half an American.” In May 1804, Alexander von Humboldt was on his way from Havana to Philadelphia. While the ship was lurching through a terrible storm, he entrusted the following thoughts to his journal: “I felt very much stirred up. To see myself perish on the eve of so many joys, to watch all the fruits of my labors going to pieces, to cause the death of my two companions,1 to perish during a voyage to Philadelphia which seemed by no means necessary (though undertaken in order to save our manuscripts and collections from the perfidious Spanish policies).”2 * Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences, Jägerstrasse 22 - 23, 10117 Berlin, Germany, schwarz@bbaw.de 1 The French botanist Aimé Bonpland and Carlos Montúfar, a young nobleman from Quito. We can assume that an Indian servant (or mulatto) by the name of José de la Cruz belonged to the party; he returned to Cumaná in 1805. 2 Faak, Margot (Ed.): Alexander von Humboldt. Reise auf dem Río Magdalena, durch die Anden und Mexico. Part l: texts. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag 1986, p. 397 - 398 (transl. from the French). 44 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 A few days later the storm had calmed down and the traveler was able to see the final stage of his American voyage in a different light. On the 19th of May he and his companions saw the mouth of the Delaware River — and were relieved. There is no indication that Humboldt had planned the short detour to the United States long in advance. Of course the travelers had heard of the republic during their expedition to Latin America. When at the end of September 1799 they stayed in Cariaco, Venezuela, they “for the first time in these climates [...] heard the names of Franklin and Washington pronounced with enthusiasm.”3 While staying in Caracas around the turn of the eighteenth century, they learned of George Washington’s death in December 1799. Sometimes Humboldt compares aspects of social life in the Spanish colonies with those in the U.S., but neither in the letters nor in the travel journals do we find a plan to visit the new republic, which Humboldt was able to praise and later criticize so eloquently. Apparently it was the American Consul in Havana, Vincent Gray, who convinced Humboldt that a short trip to Philadelphia and Washington would be welcomed by the American authorities. Gray sent several dispatches to Secretary of State James Madison, introducing Humboldt. The prospect of seeing the highest representatives of the republic and sharing with them some of the knowledge that he had acquired during his expeditions must have flattered Humboldt’s vanity a great deal. Thus, one of the first letters which he wrote on North American soil on May 24th, was directed to President Thomas Jefferson. This letter is an outstanding example of Humboldt’s art of communication. He knew of course how to write letters of introduction to high ranking persons for friends and colleagues. But in this case, he had to introduce himself to the President of a country, moreover to one of the fathers of American independence. But his motto was “Läuten gehört zum literarischen Handwerk” (an author must ring bells in order to get attention). How did Humboldt master this task? He starts his letter by mentioning a country which he had visited: “Having arrived from Mexico on the blessed ground of this republic ...” He does not mention the place he immediately came from, namely Cuba. It is, of course, Mexico which interested the President most. Humboldt was quite aware that Jefferson felt the need for information about the region the United States had just bought from France — the Louisiana Purchase. Humboldt had something to offer in this respect. But the first sentence of his letter goes on: “ ... this republic, whose executive powers have been entrusted to your enlightened spirit, it is my pleasant duty to express to you my respect 3 Cf. Humboldt, Alexander and Aimé Bonpland: Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent during the years 1799 - 1804. Vol. 3. [Reprint] Amsterdam, New York 1972, p. 197. 2001 I. Schwarz 45 and high admiration which your writings, your actions, and the liberalism of your ideas have inspired from my earliest youth.” His motivation to visit the U.S. here sounds somewhat different from the journal entry: “I could not resist the moral interest to see the United States and to enjoy the comforting aspect of a people who can appreciate the precious gift of freedom.” The letter contains both seriousness and conventional flattery. After all, Humboldt had already learned to appreciate the ideals of the French Revolution which would guide his deeds and thinking all his life. One more thing is certain: Humboldt knew some of Jefferson’s works. He had studied in Hamburg at Johann Georg Büsch’s Trade School and one of his Professors there was Christoph Daniel Ebeling. Ebeling was the leading expert on North America in Germany,4 and though Humboldt did not think too highly of him, he had at least used Ebeling’s extensive library of Americana. After pointing out that he had paid the travel expenses out of his own pocket, and briefly introducing Aimé Bonpland, Humboldt’s letter gave a comprehensive account of the expedition. This list includes the scaling of Chimborazo as well as the navigation on the rivers Orinoco and Casiquiare. And here he goes into detail: “There, in the wilderness and ancient forests of the Casiquiare [...] we encountered rocks covered with hieroglyphs which indicated to us that this remote land now populated by naked Indians living scattered as cannibals, was at one remote period the home of civilized peoples.” Such information was not only meant to arouse Jefferson’s interest, it indicated that Humboldt had studied Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia in which he admitted that he did not know anything about the Indians in South America, and described how he had dug out a Native American mound in Virginia.5 Humboldt does not seem to be sure whether or not he has brought the message across, however, so he finally expresses himself directly: “I would love to talk to you about a subject that you have treated so ingeniously in your work on Virginia, the mammoth teeth which we discovered in the Andes of the southern hemisphere at 1.700 toises [= 3.200 meters] above the level of the Pacific Ocean.” In his Notes on Virginia, Jefferson had discussed the theory put forward by the French scientist Buffon that, due to temperature and moisture, 4 Cf. Häberlein, Mark: Nachrichten aus der Neuen Welt: Die Erweiterung des deutschen Nordamerikabildes im 18. Jahrhundert. In: Reinhard, Wolfgang and Peter Waldmann (Eds.): Nord und Süd in Amerika. Gemeinsamkeiten, Gegensätze, Europäischer Hintergrund. Freiburg: Rombach 1992, p. 1125 - 1141. 5 Shuffelton, Frank (Ed.): Thomas Jefferson. Notes on the State of Virginia. New York, London, Toronto [...]: Penguin Books 1999, p. 103 - 108. 46 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 nature was less energetic and active in the Americas. Buffon claimed that there were no large animals in the New World and those which existed on both sides of the Atlantic were generally smaller in America. Jefferson’s point was that such assumptions had to be put on empirical foundations, otherwise they were useless. One of Humboldt’s motives for visiting the New World had been to collect empirical material.6 As to current theories regarding the mammoth and its living areas, Jefferson had written: “I find it easier to believe that an animal may have existed, resembling the elephant in his tusks, and general anatomy, while his nature was in other respects extremely different. From the 30th degree of South latitude to the 30th of North, are nearly the limits which nature has fixed for the existence and multiplication of the elephant known to us. Proceeding thence northwardly to 361/2 degrees, we enter those assigned to the mammoth. The further we advance North, the more their vestiges multiply as far as the earth has been explored in that direction.”7 The area where Humboldt now claimed to have found mammoth teeth was close to the equator, consequently further south than Jefferson had assumed. With such discoveries the German explorer could be sure to attract Jefferson’s attention. Apparently Humboldt had critically read Buffon’s works as well as the writings of Cornelius de Pauw, one of his followers.8 From his remarkable knowledge of the Notes on Virginia, he could expect to find a competent partner in Jefferson, one who was able to appreciate his achievements. One final remark on the way in which Humboldt signed his first letter to Jefferson: he wrote “Baron Humboldt, of the Berlin Academy of Sciences.”9 First of all, Humboldt was no Baron. Why then did he claim to be one? (Wilhelm von Humboldt sometimes signed his letters Baron von Humboldt, too.) It is possible that the brothers believed in some kind of a family legend.10 As far as Humboldt’s membership in the Berlin Academy is concerned, he was not yet a full member. While staying in Nueva Barcelona in August 1800, the Academy had elected him its “extraordinary member.” It took five more years until he became an “ordinary member.” 6 Cf. Jahn, Ilse and Fritz G. Lange, Eds.: Die Jugendbriefe Alexander von Humboldts 1787 - 1799. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag 1973, p. 682. 7 Shuffelton (Ed.): Jefferson. Notes on Virginia, op. cit., p. 47. 8 Cf. Faak, Margot (Ed.): Alexander von Humboldt. Lateinamerika am Vorabend der Unabhängigkeitsrevolution. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag 1982, p. 309. 9 Moheit, Ulrike (Ed.): Alexander von Humboldt. Briefe aus Amerika 1799 - 1804. Berlin: Akademie Verlag 1993, p. 292-293; cf. Terra, Helmut de: Alexander von Humboldt’s Correspondence with Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin. In: Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 103 (1959) 6, p. 787 - 788. 10 Cf. Biermann, Kurt-R.: War Alexander von Humboldt ein „Freiherr“ (oder „Baron“)? In: Schriftenreihe für Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften, Technik und Medizin NTM 26, (1989) 2, p. 1 - 3. 2001 I. Schwarz 47 It was certainly not Humboldt’s social status that caused Jefferson to invite him to Washington. The President wrote on May 28th: “The countries you have visited are of those least known, and most interesting, and a lively desire will be felt generally to receive the information you will be able to give. No one will feel it more strongly than myself, because no one perhaps views this new world with more partial hopes of its exhibiting an ameliorated state of the human condition.”11 Humboldt spent his first days on American soil in Philadelphia. Within five days he was introduced to the American Philosophical Society of which Jefferson was President. He met its treasurer John Vaughan and made the personal acquaintance of two important naturalists and physicians: Caspar Wistar, Jr. and Benjamin Smith Barton, both Vice Presidents of the Society. Humboldt was the celebrity of the day. He was the guest of honor at one of the famous “Wistar parties,” which were weekly meetings of the elite of American scientists. Last but not least, Humboldt met the painter and inventor Charles Willson Peale, the founder and owner of a museum dedicated to natural history. We can assume that Humboldt saw the exhibition. It is very likely that the painter, who was a good friend of Jefferson, organized the trip to Washington, which started on May 29th. Humboldt, Bonpland, and Montúfar were accompanied by Peale. In the coach were also Nicolas Collin, a pastor from Philadelphia, and Dr. Anthony Fothergill, a wellknown English physician who was visiting the United States. From Peale’s diary, we know many details of the trip which led through Baltimore, Maryland and Wilmington, Delaware. The travelers arrived in the Federal Capital on June 1st. This stay of about two weeks belongs to the best documented periods in Humboldt’s life, thanks to the American archivist and historian Herman R. Friis. He thoroughly investigated it and published his findings around 1960 both in English and German.12 In Washington, Humboldt was introduced to the outstanding architect, scientist and artist Dr. William Thornton; he met Secretary of State James Madison, and impressed the Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin with his knowledge and fast talk. Several evenings were spent at the house of Samuel Harrison Smith and his wife Margaret. Smith was the founder and editor of the National Intelligencer. The most important meetings, however, were those with President Jefferson. About a year after the Louisiana Purchase, Humboldt was able to supply the U.S. government with the latest geographical and 11 Moheit (Ed.): Humboldt. Briefe aus Amerika, op. cit., p. 294. 12 Friis, Herman R.: Alexander von Humboldts Besuch in den Vereinigten Staaten. Vom 20. Mai bis zum 30. Juni 1804. In: Schulze, Joachim H.(Ed.): Alexander von Humboldt. Studien zu seiner universalen Geisteshaltung. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co. 1959, p. 142 - 195. Friis, Herman R.: Baron Alexander von Humboldt’s Visit to Washington, D. C., June 1 through June 13, 1804. In: Records of the Columbia Historical Society. Washington, D.C. 1960 (reprint), p. 1 - 35. 48 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 statistical information on Mexico. As we learn from a letter to Humboldt, dated June 9th, the President was not sure what the Western border of the new territory was: either the Sabine River, as the Spanish King claimed, or the Rio Grande.13 Humboldt was in a lucky position. Not only had he sketched a detailed map of New Spain; he had compiled a short memorandum which contained information on the population, trade, agriculture, even the military strength of the provinces of New Spain. These Tablas geográfico políticas del Reino de Nueva España (1803)14 had been written for the Viceroy of New Spain. When Jefferson asked for geographical details, Humboldt translated the Tablas into French. He added a two-page summary specifically on the Mexican border region of the Louisiana Territory.15 Here Humboldt characterized the area, which is now basically the state of Texas, as almost deserted and useless until a possible unification with the United States. There has been a discussion particularly among Mexican scholars that by giving such information to Jefferson, Humboldt helped to pave the way for the North American expansion into the South. It is quite obvious that he did not have the least doubt about doing the right thing. The Tablas were first given to the Mexican Viceroy and all the materials were to be published soon thereafter. Humboldt was convinced that the sciences should be free and the exchange of information should not be limited, and it was a real exchange of information. At the end of his visit Humboldt received recent statistical data on the U.S. from the Secretary of the Treasury. We find them in the Political Essay on Mexico and in the Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent. In his farewell letter to Secretary of State Madison, Humboldt promised that he would communicate to the U.S. government all the details he knew about the possibilities of building an inter-oceanic canal.16 Let us take a brief look at Humboldt’s itinerary in Washington. Most important were the hours that he was able to spend at the newly built White House. Some topics of conversation we can deduce from letters and notes that survive in the Jefferson papers. First and foremost there were the facts about the border region between the United States and Mexico; second, the prospects of political development in Spanish America; third, technical details regarding astronomical observations; fourth, the possibilities to build an inter-oceanic canal. On June 7th Jefferson wrote to Dr. Wistar: “I have omitted to state above the extreme satisfaction I have received from Baron Humboldt’s communications. The treasures of information 13 Cf. Moheit (Ed.): Humboldt. Briefe aus Amerika, op. cit., p. 296. 14 Cf. Humboldt, Alejandro de: Tablas geográfico políticas del Reino de Nueva España. Introducción, transcripción y notas de José G. Moreno de Alba. México: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México 1993. 15 Moheit (Ed.): Humboldt. Briefe aus Amerika, op. cit., p. 307 - 308. 16 ibid., p. 305. 2001 I. Schwarz 49 which he possesses are inestimable and fill us with impatience for their appearance in print.”17 While staying in the National Capital, Humboldt and his companions had quite a heavy schedule. On June 4th, they climbed Capitol Hill; the next day and June 8th they saw the well-known portrait painter Gilbert Stuart in his studio. About 50 years later, Humboldt wrote to his publisher, Georg von Cotta, that he sat for a portrait during this time. The surprising thing, however, is that a portrait of Humboldt by Stuart could never be found and was nowhere mentioned. The explanation is that Humboldt mixed up Stuart with Charles W. Peale,18 who really did a wonderful life portrait in Philadelphia shortly before Humboldt sailed for Europe.19 One day was reserved for a trip to Mount Vernon, where Humboldt not only visited George Washington’s home, but also talked to his former slave and servant Billy Lee.20 In many biographies, a visit to Jefferson’s home Monticello is mentioned, often with a beautiful picture of the house.21 H. Friis has shown that such a trip did not take place.22 All the documents indicate that the President did not leave Washington in June 1804. The round trip by stagecoach would have taken about six days, so some witness would almost certainly have mentioned it in a letter or diary, but nothing has been found. Thus, the conversations between Jefferson and Humboldt beneath the trees of Monticello are a legend. I am sure, though, that biographies will be written for Humboldt 300th birthday in 2069, and they will still mention the visit to Monticello. Friis noticed that Humboldt wrote a letter to his brother Wilhelm from Washington, dated June 10th, 1804, without even mentioning the city.23 Instead of giving a report of his meetings with Jefferson, the letter expressed contempt of humankind in general and of the Indians in particular. The said letter appeared in the so-called Memoiren Alexander von Humboldt’s.24 Kurt-R. Biermann has been able to prove 17 Friis: Humboldts Besuch in den Vereinigten Staaten, in: op. cit., p. 177. 18 Biermann, Kurt-R.: Zum angeblichen Humboldt-Porträt von Gilbert Stuart. In: Schriftenreihe für Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften, Technik und Medizin NTM 25 (1988) 1, p. 77 - 78. 19 Cf. Nelken, Halina: Alexander von Humboldt. His portraits and their artists. A documentary iconography. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer 1980, p. 58 - 61. 20 Théodoridès, Jean: Les séjours aux Etats-Unis de deux savants européens du XIXe siècle: Alexander von Humboldt et Victor Jacquemont. In: Archives internationales d’histoire des sciences 16 (1963), 64, p. 291. 21 Cf. for example: Terra, Helmut de: The life and times of Alexander von Humboldt, 1769-1859. New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1955, p. 182; Duviols, Jean-Paul et Charles Minguet: Humboldt. Savant-citoyen du monde. Paris: Découvertes Gallimard 1994, p. 53; Gaines, Ann: Alexander von Humboldt. Colossus of Exploration. New York, Philadelphia: Chelsea House 1991, p. 80; Krätz, Otto: Alexander von Humboldt. Wissenschaftler - Weltbürger - Revolutionär. München: Callwey 1997, p. 127. 22 Friis: Humboldts Besuch in den Vereinigten Staaten, in: op. cit., p. 181 - 182. 23 ibid., p. 179. 24 Memoiren Alexander von Humboldt’s. Vol. 1 - 2. Leipzig: Ernst Schäfer 1861, vol. 1, p. 306 - 310; the letter was partly reprinted in: Borch, Rudolf: Alexander von Humboldt. Sein Leben in Selbstzeugnissen, Briefen und Berichten. Berlin: Druckhaus Tempelhof 1948, p.155 - 156. 50 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 that the letter, together with other materials published in the Memoiren, was a falsification.25 On June 13th, Humboldt left Washington for Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He was eager to meet the outstanding botanist Gotthilf Henry Ernst Muhlenberg as well as the famous surveyor Andrew Ellicott. Five days later the travelers arrived in Philadelphia. They soon learned that the frigate “Favorite” was to leave on June 27th for Bordeaux. So, there was not much time for the necessary preparations. In any case, the departure was delayed a few days and Humboldt found time to sit for a portrait in Peale’s studio and to write a 20-page abstract of his American Expedition. This report was translated from French into English by John Vaughan and published in the “Literary Magazine and American Register for 1804.”26 The 27th of June Humboldt dedicated to writing farewell letters to Jefferson, Gallatin, Madison, Muhlenberg, and Thornton. The letter to Gallatin was somewhat reserved. However, a few years later a deep and lasting personal friendship developed between Humboldt and this capable statesman. To Madison, Humboldt wrote in a warm and friendly tone, developing the idea of coming back some time to explore the country.27 Six years later (September 1810) he repeated this plan in a note written in Paris to Peale’s son Rembrandt.28 Thus we can assume that there were periods in Humboldt’s life when he earnestly considered returning to the United States, where he thought “the people can really breathe with more freedom.” To Muhlenberg he promised to send botanical names of the plants which he took to Paris. He never kept this promise.29 He saved the friendliest words for his host William Thornton. However, the two gentlemen never found an opportunity to exchange letters again. The note to Jefferson was full of respect and admiration. Obviously the personal meetings had been to their mutual satisfaction. The letters which Jefferson and Humboldt were to exchange between 1808 and 1825 can be counted as part of the most important correspondence of Alexander von Humboldt. Since Jefferson used a so-called polygraph, constructed by Ch. W. Peale, he generally wrote two similar copies of letters, one of which he retained together with the received letters. Humboldt had the habit of throwing away most of the letters 25 Cf. Biermann, Kurt-R.: Die „Memoiren Alexander von Humboldt’s“. In: Monatsberichte der Deutschen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin 13 (1971) 4/5, p. 382 - 392. 26 Cf. Terra, Helmut de: Studies in the Documentation of Alexander von Humboldt: The Philadelphia Abstract of Humboldt’s American Travels. Humboldt’s Portraits and Sculptures in the United States. In: Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 102 (1958) 6, p. 560 - 588. 27 Moheit (Ed.): Humboldt. Briefe aus Amerika, op. cit., p. 303 - 306. 28 Nelken: Humboldt. His portraits, op. cit., p. 78. 29 Cf. Müller-Jahncke, Wolf-Dieter: Der „Linnaeus Americanus“ und seine Beziehungen zu deutschen Botanikern: G. H. E. Mühlenberg. In: Deutsche Apotheker-Zeitung 117 (1977) 33, p. 1323 - 1329. 2001 I. Schwarz 51 which he received. However, he gave letters from Jefferson to friends, and at least three of them survive in European and American archives. The correspondence between Humboldt and Jefferson can possibly be seen as a continuation of their conversations. Among other writings, Humboldt sent him all parts of his Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain30 in the French original. Jefferson praised this work and expressed his opinion on political developments in Latin America. To give an example: The work on Mexico, he wrote in 1811, “comes out [...] at a moment when those countries are beginning to be interesting to the whole world. They are now becoming the scenes of political revolution, to take their stations as integral members, of the great family of nations. All are now in insurrection. In several the Independants are already triumphant, and they will undoubtedly be so in all. What kind of government will they establish? How much liberty can they bear without intoxication? Are their chiefs sufficiently enlightened to form a well-guarded government, and their people to watch their chiefs? [...] All these questions you can answer better than any other.”31 Here is what Humboldt replied: “Like you, I take a lively interest in the great struggle in Spanish America. One can hardly be surprised that this struggle is bloody when taking into account that human beings carry everywhere the imprints of the imperfections of the social institutions. For 300 years the Europeans in America have searched for their security in mutual resentments and the hatred among the social classes.”32 In 1813, Jefferson explained to Humboldt why he believed America and Europe should be separated. The following lines were written under the impression of the War of 1812 with England: “America has a hemisphere to itself: it must have its separate new system of interests, which must not be subordinated to those of Europe. The insulated state in which nature has placed the American continent should so far avail it that no spark of war kindled in the other quarters of the globe should be wafted across the wide oceans which separate us from them.”33 Did Humboldt reply to this? We do not know for sure. He envisioned for the future a “noble competition” in trade, in the arts, in civilization between the Old Continent and the New World. Such a peaceful contest should make both sides richer.34 30 Humboldt, Alexandre de: Essai politique sur le Royaume de la Nouvelle-Espagne. Avec un atlas physique et géographique, fondé sur des observations astronomiques, des mesures trigonométriques et des nivellemens baromértiques. Vol. 1 - 2. Paris [1808 -]1811. (Voyage de Humboldt et Bonpland. Partie 3). 31 Terra: Humboldt’s Correspondence with Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin, in: op. cit., p. 791 - 792 (translated from the French). 32 Cf. ibid., p. 792. 33 Cf. ibid., p. 793. 34 Cf. Humboldt, Alexander von: Versuch über den politischen Zustand der Insel Cuba (im Auszuge), Stuttgart: J. G. Cotta [1889], p. 120. 52 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 There is one rather marginal aspect in the correspondence that sheds some light on the friendship which both cultivated. In two letters Humboldt asked for a copy of the Notes on the State of Virginia. “I repeat my request,” Humboldt wrote in September 1810, “to receive from your hand the gift of your work on Virginia. I have owned it for fifteen years but I should like to show to my friends a copy in which you have inscribed that you are giving it to me. This is what my vanity is striving for and I do not deny it.”35 Humboldt received the gift a year later. What happened to the book we do not know for sure. Humboldt may have put it in his brother’s library. After Wilhelm’s death in 1835, a copy of the Notes was given to the Royal Library in Berlin. During World War II it was replaced. It is possible that it ended up in some Russian library or archive. It may just as easily have been destroyed. The influence which the book exercised on Humboldt’s writings is certainly worth studying. Humboldt quotes from it on various occasions in his work on Mexico and the Personal Narrative of Travels to the New Continent. To say that Jefferson’s description of a country, its population and history, its plant and animal life, its rivers and mountains, its climate and mineral resources, was a model for Humboldt’s works on Latin America is certainly not an overestimation. The respectful friendship between Jefferson and Humboldt lasted until Jefferson’s death. To the third President of the United States, it meant contact with a man who for some time was the best expert on Latin America in Europe, friend to the most famous scholars in Paris, and member of prestigious learned societies. The fact that the White House had been open to him increased Humboldt’s prestige and influence in Paris. He used this influence for the benefit of colleagues and friends. In 1811 he introduced the important Portuguese natural scientist and diplomat José Correa da Serra to Jefferson;36 fourteen years later it was the Italian traveler Count Carlo de Vidua.37 Very important was Humboldt’s intervention on behalf of the American Consul David Bailie Warden. Warden was one of the very important mediators between America and Europe.38 While living in Paris and Berlin, Humboldt made the acquaintance of, or corresponded with, a great number of Americans. To mention only a few: the astronomers Benjamin A. Gould and James M. Gilliss; the 35 Cf. Terra: Humboldt’s Correspondence with Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin, in: op. cit., p. 791. 36 Cf. Davis, Richard Beale: The Abbé Correa in America, 1812 - 1820. The Contributions of the diplomat and natural philosopher to the foundations of our national life. In: Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. New Series Vol. 45 (1955) part 2, p. 87 - 197. 37 Cf. Testa, Andrea: Carlo Vidua, viaggiatore italiano negli Stati Uniti d’America (1825-1826). In: Rivista di storia arte e archeologia per le province di Alessandria e Asti. 55 (1996), p. 194 - 289. 38 Cf. Haber, Francis C.: David Bailie Warden. A Bibliographical Sketch of America’s Cultural Ambassador in France, 1804-1845. Washington: Institut Français 1954. 2001 I. Schwarz 53 hydrographer Matthew F. Maury; the physicist Alexander Dallas Bache; the naturalist Louis Agassiz; the painter and inventor Samuel Morse; the painter of the Indians George Catlin; the authors and historians George Ticknor, William H. Prescott, Washington Irving, and Bayard Taylor, a translator of Goethe’s Faust; the politicians John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, and Charles Sumner. Even Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States during the Civil War, received a letter from Humboldt; last but not least were the explorers John C. Frémont and Lieutenant Amiel W. Whipple. In both capitals, Humboldt kept in close contact with American diplomats. If we look at his correspondence and conversations with Americans, it appears that there were three prevailing topics: 1. The spread of slavery in the United States. 2. The mining and washing of gold in the United States as compared with Russia. 3. The possibilities of building a canal between the oceans. There is no doubt that with the sharpening of the slave question Humboldt’s attitude toward the U.S. changed. In 1825, he remarked to the geographer Heinrich Berghaus: “Should the question of slavery break out one day, I entirely share your opinion that the maintenance of the North American Union as a state is in danger. I do not wish to see this happen. I think highly, very highly of the United States because it is the shelter for a reasonable freedom.”39 In 1847, Humboldt expressed his opinion to George Bancroft, at that time the U.S. Envoy to London, about the Mexican-American War. Bancroft reported to the Department of State: “For us to come down and take all Mexico [Humboldt] deemed impossible or rather an unwise design, but all the north to latitude 35 he thought we ought certainly have. Such opinions so strongly expressed he could not publish, for he holds a situation at the Prussian court and is, moreover, a Mexican.[...] Besides he detests slavery and holds the very strongest opinion against its extension. For all this, he regards Cuba as the natural extension of Florida, and that, therefore, one day it must come to the power, of which Florida is a possession [...]”40 We do not know if Bancroft cited Humboldt absolutely correctly, for in personal letters he was much more critical about the conquests of the U.S. in Mexico. In many biographies the fact is mentioned that in 1857 Humboldt initiated a law through which any slave was set free by stepping on Prussian soil. It is reported that the case of a slave who gained his freedom in a Prussian court had called to Humboldt’s attention the fact 39 Briefwechsel Alexander von Humboldts mit Heinrich Berghaus aus den Jahren 1825 bis 1858. Vol. 1. Jena: Hermann Costenoble 1869, p. 16 - 17 (transl. from the German). 40 Beck, Hanno (Ed.): Gespräche Alexander von Humboldts. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag 1959, p. 235. 54 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 that in Prussia the right of a foreigner to own a slave was granted, though slavery in itself was illegal.41 We know from Humboldt’s correspondence that he was well aware of the so-called Dred Scott case. The slave Dred Scott tried to win his freedom in court claiming that he had lived for several years in territories where slavery was illegal. In March 1857 the Supreme court decided that the U.S. Congress did not have the power to touch the ownership of a slave even in a free state or territory. So Dred Scott remained what he was. We cannot prove that this decision caused Humboldt to use his influence in terms of changing the “Prussian slave jurisdiction.” But it is striking, after all, that the new law clearly denied the right to own a slave in Prussia. Humboldt’s correspondence with North Americans between 1836 and 1849 is centered around one question: the mining of gold in the United States. In letters to Albert Gallatin, at that time the director of the Bank of New York, and to American diplomats, he kept inquiring about the value of the North American gold production. In addition, he wanted to know about the biggest lump of gold that had ever been found in the U.S. and whether or not platinum occurred together with gold. This set of questions illustrates Humboldt’s method of research. His interest included economics, politics, geography, and geology at the same time. Already in his Essay on Mexico he had examined the mining of gold and silver in this part of the world and the ways in which the metals spread between the continents. The revived interest in this field is explained by Humboldt in a letter to the American Minister to Berlin, Henry Wheaton, in 1837: “Since my expedition to the Ural mountains and to Siberia, undertaken in 1829 at the command of the emperor of Russia, I have the strongest desire to collect numerical statements, approximative of the quantity of gold, which the Southern States [of the U.S.] have furnished during the most abundant years. I am sorry to find that all my research so far has been fruitless [...] This subject is of great interest as relating to political economy, particularly concerning the variable proportions of gold to silver, since the working of the mines in Brazil has declined and the washings of gold of Russia and the United States have replaced it.”42 In his essay “The Fluctuations of Gold,” published in German in 1838,43 Humboldt presented statistical material on the gold production in 41 Cf. [Müller, Carl (Ed.):] Blätter der Erinnerung and Alexander von Humboldt. Berlin: Hasselberg’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung 1860, p. 107. 42 English translation of Humboldt’s autograph letter: The Huntington Library, Manuscript Department, San Marino, California. LI2418. 43 Humboldt, Alexander v.: Ueber die Schwankungen der Goldproduktion mit Rücksicht auf staatswirthschaftliche Probleme. In: Deutsche Vierteljahrs Schrift 1 (1838) 4, p. 1 - 40. English edition: Humboldt, Baron Alexander von: The Fluctuations of Gold. Transl., revised and annotated by William Maude. New York: Burt Franklin 1971. 2001 I. Schwarz 55 America and Russia. In this work he made an effort to determine the laws which govern the flow of precious metals between the continents. Humboldt received the geological information which he needed in order to compare certain conditions in the Ural mountains with those in the Alleghenies as late as 1850. This is not only an example of Humboldt’s global perspective, it illustrates his persistence in obtaining empirical facts on which he based his research. Another aspect of Humboldt’s interest in America has to do with world trade, too. We have good reason to believe that Humboldt and Jefferson discussed the possibilities of a canal between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. In volume VI of his Personal Narrative, Humboldt explained “the five points that present the practicability of a communication from sea to sea.”44 In the same work he developed ideas on how such a plan could be carried out.45 Humboldt never lost sight of the project. In June 1850, after the recent acquisition of the western coast of the New Continent by the United States and the fame of the golden treasures of Upper California, he made an effort to have a passage from his Aspects of Nature published in the U.S. The title was “Humboldt’s last opinion on the Isthmus of Panama.” He pointed out that the canal would revolutionize international trade. With the help of friends, Humboldt’s view was brought to the attention of the American public: “I here repeat the opinion I have often before expressed: [namely], that the assertion is groundless and altogether premature, that the Isthmus of Panama is unsuited to the formation of an Oceanic Canal.” Humboldt had long been proposing a complete comprehensive survey of the Isthmus. With some resignation he stated: “For upwards of twenty years I have been repeatedly consulted on the problem of the Isthmus of Panama, by companies having ample pecuniary means at their disposal; but in no instance has the simple advice I have given been followed.” 46 Obviously, Humboldt hoped that under the new circumstances U.S. companies would be interested in tackling his favorite project. Another project which Humboldt warmly supported was that of a transatlantic cable. He knew of Matthew F. Maury’s efforts to find the best area in the ocean where such a cable could be placed.47 In 1857, an American friend, Francis Lieber, sent a piece of the cable to Humboldt who asked the physicist Gustav Magnus to show it to the members of the 44 Humboldt and Bonpland: Personal Narrative, op. cit., vol. 6., p. 241. 45 Cf. ibid., p. 288 - 290. 46 Humboldt, Alexander von: Views of nature: or contemplations on the sublime phenomena of creation. Transl. from the German by E. C. Otté and Henry G. Bohn. London: Henry G. Bohn 1850, p. 433 - 435. 47 Cf. Kortum, Gerhard: M. F. Maury (1806 - 1873), A. v. Humboldt (1769 - 1859) und der Mythos des Telegraphen-Plateaus im Nordatlantischen Ozean. In: Geographie der Küsten und Meere. Beiträge zum Küstensymposium in Mainz, 14. - 18. Oktober 1984. Berlin: Institut für Geographie der Technischen Universität 1985, p. 1 - 23. 56 Northeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 Royal Prussian Academy. Humboldt remarked that this piece of wire impressed the academy members because of the daring project of connecting the two hemispheres.48 At that time Humboldt expressed serious doubts that the United States was still the shelter for a “reasonable freedom.” In letters to personal friends he said regretfully that in the U.S. “freedom was nothing but a mechanism in the element of utility and thus not ennobling the people.”49 He compared the country with a Cartesian vortex which tore everything with it.50 Such a critical attitude had grown with the observation that slavery would spread into the new territories instead of disappearing. On the other hand Humboldt never stopped watching the nation’s progress in the sciences and in education with interest and sympathy. Only three months before he died, Humboldt attended a meeting at the American Legation in Berlin in honor of George Washington. During this celebration, he proudly said of himself as he had done many times before: “I am half an American.”51 48 Cf. Schwarz, Ingo and Klaus Wenig (Eds.): Briefwechsel zwischen Alexander von Humboldt und Emil du Bois-Reymond. Berlin: Akademie Verlag 1997, p. 154 - 155. 49 Assing, Ludmilla (Ed.): Briefe von Alexander von Humboldt an Varnhagen von Ense aus den Jahren 1827 bis 1858. Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus 1860, p. 295 (transl. from the German). 50 The vortex which according to Descartes whirled the earth around its axis is mentioned by Jefferson; cf. Shuffelton (Ed.): Jefferson. Notes on Virginia, op. cit., p.166. 51 Cf. [Joseph Albert Wright on a session of the Geographical Society, Berlin, May 7, 1859, in:] Zeitschrift für Allgemeine Erdkunde, vol 6 new series (1859), p. 415.