Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Two Exponents of the Enlightenment: Transatlantic Communication by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Von Humboldt1

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Two Exponents of the Enlightenment: Transatlantic Communication by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Von Humboldt1

Article excerpt

Examination of the communication between the Old and New World, especially by and between travelers of the two continents, has always played a significant part in the study of Atlantic History. This transfer of ideas, impressions, and knowledge was particularly vital during the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, a period characterized by the questioning of the traditional structure of the world and the search for a new social order.

Actors of the Enlightenment lived on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Contact between their worlds and with facets of those worlds that were not or at least were not in the same way - present in their own, led to the development and implementation of new ideas. Their writings formed a bridge between America and Europe and were instrumental in the creation of new societies. This demonstrates that the American experience was most decisively influenced by Europe, and that occurrences in the United States, as well as the European opinions of "the American" formed as a result of extensive travels in the New World, had a considerable impact on events in Europe.

Alexander von Humboldt2 and Thomas Jefferson3 were two among many intermediaries on either side of the Atlantic, but due to their relevance, authority, and position in society, their ideas of the other world have had a particularly far-reaching historical impact. These two cosmopolitan thinkers demonstrated early on the importance of transatlantic communication in the open exchange of political as well as scientific ideas and information. As representatives of the Enlightenment4 both saw clearly the deficiencies of European society and for each the United States served as a hopeful experiment for the application of their ideas to create a new form of society. In order to undertake these social improvements and promote scientific progress, both Humboldt and Jefferson recognized the importance of an international scientific network, whereby extensive correspondence could serve as a forum for discussion of respective works and the predominant questions of the time. For, as Jefferson wrote: "These (scientific) societies are always in peace; however their nations may be at war. Like the republic of letters, they form a great fraternity spreading over the whole earth, and their correspondence is never interrupted by any civilized nation."5

After his expedition through Spanish America, Humboldt, accompanied by his French colleague Aimé Goujand Bonpland,6 visited the United States from 20 May to 30 June 1804, where he met several times with President Thomas Jefferson and members of his cabinet.7 Even before their first personal encounter, Humboldt introduced himself in a letter to Jefferson as an authority on his writings, and expressed admiration and respect for Jefferson's enlightened intellect, his work, and his liberal ideas.8 Influenced by his identification with the ideals of the American independence movement, as well as the early goals of the French Revolution, Humboldt was very impressed by the democratic form of U.S. society, which he saw as a possibility for other American regions as well as European nations.

Jefferson, too, believed that Humboldt had something of particular interest to him. Humboldt's materials and maps from the Spanish colonial archives contained hitherto unknown data on the disputed establishment of borders between the United States and New Spain and this information would prove especially valuable given the recent purchase of the Louisiana Territory. Humboldt very generously complied with Jefferson's desire to view these materials, giving him the latest geographic and statistical information on Mexico.9

From this brief meeting a lifelong friendship developed between the two men, marked by a lively exchange of ideas in their correspondence, as well as in the continuing exchange of their writings.10

This paper will analyze both the personal and ideological link between Humboldt and Jefferson, contextualizing them in the realm of intellectual history and in its broader significance for transatlantic political and scientific dialogue. …

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