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Humboldt and Jefferson

A Transatlantic Friendship of the Enlightenment

Sandra Rebok

Publication Year: 2014

Humboldt and Jefferson explores 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 Jefferson explores the world in which these two Enlightenment figures lived and the ways their lives on opposite sides of the Atlantic defined their respective convictions.

Published by: University of Virginia Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-xii

My extensive scholarly research on Alexander von Humboldt, which I began seventeen years ago, has opened my eyes to numerous fascinating historical topics, beautiful geographic regions, and interesting personalities. Without a doubt, Thomas Jefferson was one of the...

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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...

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1. Biographical Backgrounds

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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...

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2. Humboldt’s Visit to the United States

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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...

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3. Transatlantic Experiences

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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...

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4. A Transatlantic Network of Knowledge and Ideas

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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...

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5. Jefferson Presents His New Nation

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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...

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6. Two Views of the Haitian Revolution

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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...

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7. Engagement with the Natural World

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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...

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8. Parallels and Discrepancies

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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...

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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...

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pp. 143-172

Mr. President,¹ Having arrived from Mexico to the blessed land of this republic, whose executive powers have been entrusted to your enlightened hands, it is my pleasant duty to present my respects and to express my great admiration for your writings, your actions, and the liberalism...


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pp. 173-196


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pp. 297-212


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pp. 213-220

E-ISBN-13: 9780813935706
E-ISBN-10: 0813935709
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813935690
Print-ISBN-10: 0813935695

Page Count: 232
Publication Year: 2014