Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Destination U.S.A.: The Mid Nineteenth-Century Danish Intellectual Encounter with the United States

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Destination U.S.A.: The Mid Nineteenth-Century Danish Intellectual Encounter with the United States

Article excerpt

After Cristobal Colon, better known as Christopher Columbus, encountered the New World in 1492, European writers, artists, and scientists began to explore, interpret, and conquer America in a mad rush for empire and knowledge. Or so the story normally goes. The problem with this familiar narrative is that it is based almost exclusively on the English, Spanish, and French experience. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, intellectuals in these countries debated America and produced a rich literature about the New World, but to treat them as representatives of a collective "European" experience is at best misleading and at worst simply wrong. This is not to say that the European encounter with America did not have an impact beyond these countries, but that by comparison with the three main imperial powers, the intellectual response to America was in fact at first remarkably subdued, as was the case, for example, in Denmark. Many intellectuals there followed the early debate about America elsewhere in Europe, and stories and observations about America appeared occasionally in Danish magazines, newspapers, and literature. Yet intellectual interest in America seems to have been remarkably low during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, perhaps lower than in any other country in Western Europe.(1)

The degree of one country's intellectual interest in another is of course not directly measurable. Yet if we understand intellectuals broadly as those who write and take their books and articles about other places as expressions of intellectual curiosity, we can begin to trace the role America played in what we may call the Danish intellectual imagination. This article takes a step in that direction. More specifically, it locates the beginning of serious Danish intellectual interest in America around the American Revolution. It also and--notably--argues that America began to acquire its present position as a standard reference point for Danish intellectuals in the mid-nineteenth century. The mapping of this development is based on a group of forgotten texts. These texts deserve to be rescued from historical obscurity and restored to their appropriate historically significant position. Yet this does not mean that they are simply of archeological interest. Read in a broader light, these texts mark a little-known chapter in Denmark's changing sense of itself in relationship to the world. The new orientation toward America that the texts represent can be construed either as the story of the end of Danish intellectual parochialism, as some have done, or, against conventional wisdom, as a narrowing of international perspective.

The Revolution in the British colonies in North America for the first time gave America an appreciable significance in the Danish intellectual imagination. Predictably, the bureaucrats and ministers in the autocratic Danish government were unsympathetic to American independence. In a letter to the curator at the University of Kiel, the Danish Secretary of State, A. P. Bernstorff, expressed grave concern about the impact of American independence in Denmark.

   The public here is extremely concerned with the rebels [in America], not
   because they know the cause, but because the mania of independence in
   reality has infected all the spirits, and the poison has spread
   imperceptibly from the works of the philosophers all the way out to the
   village schools. (Quoted in Kjaergaard)

Many intellectuals shared this sentiment, since in its most radical interpretation, the American Revolution constituted an overthrow of traditional monopolies of taste and power in favor of a cult of the people. But other intellectuals were less suspicious of democracy and shared the overwhelmingly favorable public response to American independence. Enthusiasm for the American cause even found its way into the ivory tower at Copenhagen University, where Frederik Sneedorff, a professor of history, delivered a popular series of lectures between 1787 and 1789 on "De vigtigste Statsrevolutioner i de sidste tree Aarhundreder" [The Most Important State Revolutions of the Last Three Centuries]. …

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