The Invention of Nature

Andrea Wulf

September 25, 2015 
The following is from Andrea Wulf’s, The Invention of Nature about Alexander von Humboldt, the visionary German naturalist whose ideas created modern environmentalism. Wulf was born in India and moved to Germany as a child. She lives in London, where she trained as a design historian at the Royal College of Art. She is the author of Chasing Venus, Founding Gardeners, and The Brother Gardeners.

At sixty-one, Jefferson was still standing ‘straight as a gun barrel’ – a tall thin and almost gangly man with the ruddy complexion of a farmer and an ‘iron constitution’. He was the President of the young nation, but also the owner of Monticello, a large plantation in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, a little more than one hundred miles south-west of Washington. Although his wife had died more than two decades earlier, Jefferson had a tightly knit family life and greatly enjoyed the company of his seven grandchildren. At the time that Humboldt arrived in the United States, Jefferson was still grieving for his younger daughter, Maria, who had died just a few weeks previously, in April 1804, after giving birth to a baby girl. His other daughter, Martha, often spent long periods at the White House and later moved permanently to Monticello with her children. Friends commented how much Jefferson adored his grandchildren, who often climbed on to his lap as he talked.

Jefferson hated idleness. He rose before dawn, read several books at the same time, and wrote so many letters that he had bought a letter-copying machine to keep a record of his correspondence. He was a restless man who warned his daughter that ennui was ‘the most dangerous poison of life’. After the War of Independence, Jefferson had lived for five years in Paris in the 1780s as the American Minister to France. He had used the posting to travel widely across Europe, returning with trunks full of books, furniture and ideas. He suffered from what he called the ‘malady of Bibliomanie’, constantly buying and studying books. In Europe, he had also made time between his duties to see the finest gardens in England, as well as observing and comparing agricultural practices in Germany, Holland, Italy and France.

In 1804 Thomas Jefferson was at the pinnacle of his career. He had written the Declaration of Independence, was the third President of the United States and by the end of the year he would win a landslide election, securing his second term. With Jefferson’s recent purchase of the Louisiana territory from the French, the foundation was laid for the nation’s expansion to the west. For a mere 15 million dollars, Jefferson had doubled the nation’s size, adding more than 800,000 square miles that stretched west from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains and from Canada in the north to the Gulf of Mexico in the south. Jefferson had also dispatched Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on the first overland journey across the whole of the North American continent. This expedition brought together all the subjects that interested Jefferson: he had personally briefed the explorers to collect plants, seeds and animals; they were to report on the soils and the agricultural practices of the Native Americans; and they were to survey land and rivers.

Humboldt’s arrival could have not been better timed. The American consul in Cuba, Vincent Gray, had already written to Madison, urging him to meet Humboldt because he had useful information about Mexico, their new southern neighbour since the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase territory.

Once Humboldt had disembarked in Philadelphia, he and the President exchanged letters, and Jefferson invited Humboldt to Washington. He was excited, Jefferson wrote to Humboldt, because he regarded ‘this new world with more partial hope of its exhibiting an ameliorated state of the human condition’. And so, on 29 May, Humboldt, Bonpland and Montúfar boarded the mail stage in Philadelphia to make their way to Washington, DC, some 150 miles south-west.

The landscape through which they passed was one of well-tended fields with straight lines of crops and scattered farms surrounded by orchards and neat vegetable plots. This was the epitome of Jefferson’s ideas for the economic and political future of the United States: a nation of independent yeomen with small self-sufficient farms.

With the Napoleonic Wars tearing Europe apart, America’s economy was booming because as a neutral nation – at least for the moment – it was shipping much of the world’s goods. American vessels loaded with spices, cocoa, cotton, coffee and sugar zigzagged the oceans from North America to the Caribbean to Europe and to the East Indies. The export markets for their own agricultural produce were also expanding. It seemed that Jefferson was leading the country towards prosperity and happiness.

Yet America had changed in the three decades since the revolution. Old revolutionary friends had fallen out over their different visions for the republic and had turned to vicious partisan fighting. Divisions had arisen over what the various factions believed ought to be the fabric of American society. Should they be a nation of farmers, for example, or one of merchants? There were those, like Jefferson, who envisaged the United States as an agrarian republic with an emphasis on individual liberty and the rights of the individual states, but also those who favoured trade and a strong central government.

Their differences were maybe most vividly expressed in the different designs that had been proposed for the new capital, Washington, DC – the brand-new city that had been wrested from the swampy land and wilderness on the Potomac River. The different parties believed that the capital should reflect the government and its power (or its lack of power). The first President of the United States, George Washington, a proponent of a strong federal government, had wanted a grand capital with sweeping avenues criss-crossing the city, a palatial President’s house and imposing gardens. By contrast, Jefferson and his Republican Party had insisted that the central government should have as little power as possible. They preferred a small capital – a rural republican town.

Although George Washington’s ideas had prevailed – and on paper the capital looked magnificent – in reality little had been achieved by the time Humboldt arrived in summer 1804. With only 4,500 inhabitants, Washington was about the same size as Jena when Humboldt had first met Goethe there – and not what foreigners associated with the capital of a huge country such as the United States. The roads were in a terrible state, and so littered with rocks and tree stumps that carriages regularly overturned. Red mud stuck to carriages and axles like glue, and anyone who risked walking would sink knee-deep into the ubiquitous puddles.

When Jefferson moved into the White House, after his inauguration in March 1801, it had been a building site. Three years later, when Humboldt visited, nothing much had changed. There were workmen’s sheds in what should have been a presidential garden. The grounds were divided from the neighbouring fields only by a rotting fence on which Jefferson’s washerwoman dried the presidential laundry in full view. Inside the White House the situation wasn’t much better as many rooms were only half furnished. Jefferson inhabited, as one visitor remarked, only one corner of the mansion with the rest still in a ‘state of uncleanly desolation’.

The President did not mind. From his first day in office, Jefferson had begun to demystify the role of President by ridding the fledgling administration of strict social protocols and ceremonial pomp, casting himself as a simple farmer. Instead of formal levees, he invited guests to small intimate dinner parties which were held at a round table to avoid any issues of hierarchy or precedence. Jefferson deliberately dressed down, and many commented on his dishevelled appearance. His slippers were so worn that his toes poked out, his coat was ‘thread bare’ and the linen ‘much soiled’. He looked like ‘a large-boned farmer’, one British diplomat noted, exactly the image that Jefferson wanted to convey.

Jefferson regarded himself foremost as a farmer and gardener, and not as a politician. ‘No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth,’ he said. In Washington, Jefferson would ride out every day into the surrounding countryside to escape the tedium of governmental correspondence and meetings. More than anything, he longed to return to Monticello. At the end of his second term as President he would claim that ‘never did a prisoner, released from his chains, feel such relief as I shall on shaking off the shackles of power.’ The President of the United States preferred to wade through swamps and climb rocks, and to pick up a leaf or a seed rather than attend Cabinet meetings. No plant, a friend said – ‘from the lowliest weed to the loftiest tree’ – escaped his scrutiny. Jefferson’s love for botany and gardening was so well known that American diplomats sent seeds to the White House from all over the world.

* * * *

Jefferson was interested in all sciences – horticulture, mathematics, meteorology, geography and more. He was fascinated by fossil bones, for example, and in particular in the mastodon, a giant extinct relative of elephants that had roamed America’s interior only 10,000 years earlier. His library numbered thousands of books and he had written his own, Notes on the State of Virginia, a detailed description about economy and society, about natural resources and plants but also a celebration of the Virginian landscape.

Like Humboldt, Jefferson moved across the sciences with ease. He was obsessed with measurements, compiling a huge number of lists that ranged from the hundreds of species of plants he was growing in Monticello to daily temperatures tables. He counted the steps on stairs, ran an ‘account’ of the letters he received from his granddaughters and he always carried a ruler in his pocket. His mind seemed never to rest. With such a polymath as President, Jefferson’s White House had become a scientific nexus where botany, geography and exploration were the favourite dinner topics. He was also the president of the American Philosophical Society, co-founded by Benjamin Franklin before the revolution, and by then the most important scientific forum in the United States. Jefferson was, one contemporary said, ‘the enlightened philosopher – the distinguished naturalist – the first statesman on earth, the friend, the ornament of science … the father of our Country, the faithful guardian of our liberties’. He couldn’t wait to meet Humboldt.

The journey from Philadelphia took three and a half days, and Humboldt and his travel companions finally reached Washington on the evening of 1 June. The next morning Humboldt met Jefferson at the White House. The President welcomed the thirty-four-year-old scientist in his private study. Here Jefferson kept a set of carpenter’s tools because he had a knack for mechanics and enjoyed making things – from inventing a revolving bookstand to improving locks, clocks and scientific instruments. On the windowsills stood flowerpots planted with roses and geraniums, which Jefferson delighted in tending. Maps and charts decorated the walls, and the shelves were filled with books. The two men liked each other immediately.

Over the next few days, they saw each other several times. One early evening, just as dusk settled over the capital and the first candles were lit, Humboldt entered the drawing room at the White House to find the President surrounded by half a dozen of his grandchildren, laughing and chasing each other around. It took a moment before Jefferson noticed Humboldt, quietly watching the boisterous family scene. Jefferson smiled. ‘You have found me playing the fool,’ he said, ‘but I am sure to you I need make no apology.’ Humboldt was delighted to find his hero ‘living with the simplicity of a philosopher’.

For the next week Humboldt and Bonpland were passed from meeting to dinner and yet more meetings. Everybody was excited to meet the intrepid explorers and hear their tales. Humboldt was the ‘object of universal attention’, one American said – so much so that Charles Willson Peale, a painter from Philadelphia and the organizer of the trip to DC, handed out a great number of silhouettes that he had made of Humboldt (and Bonpland), including one for Jefferson. Humboldt was introduced to the Secretary of Treasury, Albert Gallatin, who thought listening to his tales was an ‘exquisite intellectual treat’. The next day Humboldt travelled to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate, some fifteen miles south of the capital. Though Washington had died four and a half years previously, Mount Vernon was now a popular tourist destination and Humboldt wanted to see the home of the revolutionary. The Secretary of State, James Madison, hosted a party in Humboldt’s honour, and his wife, Dolley, professed herself charmed and said that ‘all the ladies say they are in love with him.’

During their days together Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin bombarded Humboldt with questions about Mexico. None of three American politicians had been to the Spanish-controlled territory but now, surrounded by maps, statistics and notebooks, Humboldt briefed them on the peoples of Latin America, their crops and the climate. Humboldt had worked intensely to improve existing maps by calculating again and again his exact geographical positions. The results were the best maps that could be had at the time; some locations, he boasted to his new friends, had been wrongly placed in the old maps by up to 2 degrees in latitude – around 140 miles. In fact, Humboldt had more information on Mexico than was available on some European countries, Gallatin told his wife, hardly able to contain his excitement. Even better, Humboldt allowed them to transcribe his notes and to copy the maps. His knowledge was ‘astonishing’, the Americans agreed, and in return Gallatin provided Humboldt with all the information he wanted about the United States.

For months Jefferson had tried to procure any scrap of information he could get about their new Louisiana territory and about Mexico, and suddenly he held so much more in his hands than he could ever have hoped for. With the Spanish watching closely over their territories, and rarely granting a foreigner permission even to travel to their colonies, Jefferson had not been able to find out much. The Spanish colonial archives in Mexico and Havana had remained firmly closed to the Americans and the Spanish Minister in Washington had refused to furnish Jefferson with any data – but now Humboldt had delivered plentiful amounts.

Humboldt talked and talked, Gallatin noted, ‘twice as fast as anybody I know’. Humboldt spoke English with a German accent but also German, French and Spanish, ‘mixing them together in rapid Speech’. He was a ‘fountain of knowledge which flows in copious streams’. They learned more from him in two hours than they would from reading books for two years. Humboldt was a ‘very extraordinary man’, Gallatin told his wife. Jefferson agreed – Humboldt was ‘the most scientific man of his age’.

The most pressing question for Jefferson was the disputed border between Mexico and the United States. The Spanish claimed it was marked by the Sabine River, which runs along today’s eastern border of Texas, while the Americans insisted it was the Rio Grande, which forms part of today’s western border of Texas. The ownership of a huge swath of land was at issue, because in between those two rivers lies the whole of modern Texas. When Jefferson asked Humboldt about the native population, soils and mines in the area ‘between those lines’, Humboldt had no qualms about passing on the observations he had made under the protection and exclusive permission of the Spanish crown. Humboldt believed in scientific generosity and in the free exchange of information. The sciences were above national interests, Humboldt insisted, as he handed over vital economic information. They were part of a republic of letters, Jefferson said, repeating Joseph Banks’s words that the sciences were always at peace even if ‘their nations may be at war’; the sentiment no doubt suited the President perfectly in this instance.

If the Spanish would hand over the territory that Jefferson claimed for the United States, Humboldt told him, it would be the size of two-thirds of France. It wasn’t the richest spot on earth, Humboldt said, because there were only a few scattered small farms, a lot of savanna, and no known port along the coast. There were some mines and a few indigenous people. This was the intelligence that Jefferson needed. The next day the President wrote to a friend that he had just received ‘treasures of information’.

Humboldt gave Jefferson nineteen tightly filled pages of extracts from his notes, sorted under headings such as ‘table of statistics’, ‘population’, ‘agriculture, manufacturers, commerce’, ‘military’ and so on. He also added two pages that focused on the border region with Mexico and in particular on the disputed area that so interested Jefferson, between the Sabine River and the Rio Grande. This was the most exciting and fruitful visit Jefferson had received in years. Less than a month later, he held a Cabinet meeting about US strategy towards Spain in which they discussed how the data they had received from Humboldt might influence their negotiations.

Humboldt was happy to assist because he admired the United States. The country was moving towards a ‘perfection’ of society, Humboldt said, while Europe was still gripped by monarchy and despotism. He didn’t even mind the unbearable humidity of the Washington summer, because the ‘best air of all is breathed in liberty’. He loved this ‘beautiful land’, he said repeatedly, and promised to return in order to explore.


From THE INVENTION OF NATURE. Used with permission of Alfred A. Knopf. Copyright © 2015 by Andrea Wulf.

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