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Humboldt and Jefferson

Humboldt and Jefferson: A Transatlantic Friendship of the Enlightenment

Sandra Rebok
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    Humboldt and Jefferson
    Book Description:

    Humboldt and Jeffersonexplores the relationship between two fascinating personalities: the Prussian explorer, scientist, and geographer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) and the American statesman, architect, and naturalist Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). In the wake of his famous expedition through the Spanish colonies in the spring of 1804, Humboldt visited the United States, where he met several times with then-president Jefferson. A warm and fruitful friendship resulted, and the two men corresponded a good deal over the years, speculating together on topics of mutual interest, including natural history, geography, and the formation of an international scientific network. Living in revolutionary societies, both were deeply concerned with the human condition, and each vested hope in the new American nation as a possible answer to many of the deficiencies characterizing European societies at the time.

    The intellectual exchange between the two over the next twenty-one years touched on the pivotal events of those times, such as the independence movement in Latin America and the applicability of the democratic model to that region, the relationship between America and Europe, and the latest developments in scientific research and various technological projects.Humboldt and Jeffersonexplores the world in which these two Enlightenment figures lived and the ways their lives on opposite sides of the Atlantic defined their respective convictions.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3570-6
    Subjects: History, History of Science & Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    The transfer of ideas, impressions, and knowledge among those traveling between the Old and New Worlds was particularly vital at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, a period characterized by the questioning of the traditional understanding of the structure of the world and by the search for a new social order. These lines of inquiry flowed directly from the Enlightenment. During the eighteenth century, many intellectuals advocated turning away from a reliance on tradition and religious belief and proposed to reform society through the use of rational principles, and to advance knowledge through science...

  5. 1 Biographical Backgrounds
    (pp. 5-19)

    Alexander von Humboldt was born on September 14, 1769, in a small palace in the town of Tegel, near Berlin. He spent his childhood with his older brother, Wilhelm,¹ with whom he maintained a close relationship throughout his life.² The two boys were raised in an aristocratic family. Their father, Alexander Georg von Humboldt, was chamberlain to the Prussian king and an important figure at court. Their mother, Marie Elisabeth von Humboldt (née Colomb), was a wealthy woman who had decisive impact on the young Alexander. The Humboldts engaged as their sons’ tutor a well-known writer and linguist, Joachim Heinrich...

  6. 2 Humboldt’s Visit to the United States
    (pp. 20-31)

    The inspiration for Humboldt’s visit to the United States came from the American consul in Cuba, Vincent F. Gray. While Humboldt was in Havana, Gray learned that the Prussian was in possession of documents relating to a region of New Spain still little known to the American government. In April 1804, Gray sent two dispatches introducing and recommending Humboldt to Secretary of State James Madison. He speculated that the explorer might be a source of useful documents and firsthand knowledge, adding politely: “I take leave to recommend him to your particular friendship and protection, during his stay in the United...

  7. 3 Transatlantic Experiences
    (pp. 32-45)

    Humboldt and Jefferson each visited the other side of the Atlantic only once, and each remained in his respective “other” world for about five years. The two men lived during an age of inquiry, and of new definitions of European and American identity, and their transatlantic experiences decisively impacted their ideas and convictions for the rest of their lives.

    Both men viewed the world across the ocean with ambivalence. Jefferson’s European experiences inspired him as he labored with his countrymen to create a new society in America, for as he acknowledged in a letter to Edward Rutledge, “the best schools...

  8. 4 A Transatlantic Network of Knowledge and Ideas
    (pp. 46-76)

    Humboldt’s hopes and expectations for his meeting with Jefferson were obvious in his letter of introduction of May 24, 1804. It is a masterpiece of diplomacy, containing every fascinating piece of information Humboldt could think of that might fire Jefferson’s enthusiasm as a scientist and politician. Like all his letters to Jefferson, it was written in French, and as always, Jefferson answered in English.

    Though in fact he came directly from Cuba, Humboldt wrote in his very first sentence that he had arrived from Mexico, a place he knew to be of great interest to Jefferson. He wished, he said,...

  9. 5 Jefferson Presents His New Nation
    (pp. 77-90)

    The creation of a new form of society in America fundamentally different from that of Europe was a subject that preoccupied Thomas Jefferson throughout his life. In his early years, he saw the American Revolution as the beginning of fundamental political and societal changes that could spread through the Old World and Latin America, and he envisioned the role the United States might play as the leader of such a worldwide movement. Later, however, he became aware of the limited applicability of the U.S. model. During his years in Paris, Jefferson was the principal political intermediary between France and the...

  10. 6 Two Views of the Haitian Revolution
    (pp. 91-100)

    The slave insurrection on Saint-Domingue began in August 1791 under the leadership of the former domestic slave Toussaint Louverture. It reached its first victory when slaves defeated the French colonial forces in 1801 and culminated in a proclamation of independence and the foundation of Haiti as a free republic by Jean-Jacques Dessalines in January 1804. Haiti—the name adopted by the country after independence was declared, restoring the name used by the island’s original settlers—became the first country in the Western Hemisphere to eliminate the institution of slavery. The Haitian Revolution, not just the most successful rebellion directed by...

  11. 7 Engagement with the Natural World
    (pp. 101-125)

    The eighteenth century—when Thomas Jefferson and Alexander von Humboldt were growing up—and the beginning of the nineteenth century were characterized by a seemingly endless series of discoveries and innovations, of which the development of new social and political structures was just a small part. In the broad field of natural history—defined for present purposes as the systematic study of any category of natural objects or organisms in their environment, based on observation rather than experimental methods—important changes were taking place. Innovative approaches to measuring and studying nature according to the scientific principles of the Enlightenment, and...

  12. 8 Parallels and Discrepancies
    (pp. 126-140)

    This chapter considers three distinct yet connected topics intended to highlight the differences and similarities in Humboldt’s and Jefferson’s convictions and the ways that each man expressed his convictions through actions. The first part focuses on their studies related to geography and explores the extent to which their thinking was influenced by the German scholar Bernhard Varenius, considered to be the founder of scientific geography. The second part analyzes the ideas and interests Jefferson and Humboldt shared, as well as the values they understood and applied differently concerning the concept of liberty, the progress and dissemination of knowledge, the meaning...

  13. Epilogue
    (pp. 141-142)

    Alexander von Humboldt and Thomas Jefferson were both decisively marked by their transatlantic experiences. With their cosmopolitan worldviews, they were able to cultivate a dialogue between the Old Continent and the New World that had a positive impact on both sides. Their relationship, which reflected a strong personal affinity, was characterized by a mutual interest in science and politics.

    An examination of the transatlantic contact and communication between Humboldt and Jefferson as the Enlightenment came to an end, as well as of their respective views on the events of their time, offers insight into the development of political thought and...

  14. Appendix
    (pp. 143-172)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 173-196)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 197-212)
  17. Index
    (pp. 213-220)