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  • What Makes A Difference?Science and Epistemic Authority in the Early American Republic
  • Benjamin Cohen (bio)

A tension between surfaces and interiors pervades Graham Burnett's Trying Leviathan. Burnett tells the story of how the basis of the whale's status in the Linnaean classification system shifted from skin and visible anatomy to organs and internal physiology. The same tension applies to the setting of the court case that stands at the center of the book: the polished façade of an austere New York courthouse conceals the cacophony of disagreeable voices inside. The trope applies to Burnett's methodology as well. His account of Maurice v. Judd makes the clean transition from Linnaeus to Darwin less direct by revealing the myriad complexities inside that shift once one, so to speak, takes the historiographical cover off.

The four-fold perspective that frames Burnett's organization and analysis serves as a structural device allowing him to ask how ways of knowing, and ways of knowledge-making, were perceived and valued in the early republic. It, too, follows the surface/ interior dynamic. His characters comprise a "human taxonomy," giving voice to those at liberty to address the whale-fish question—"university-trained natural philosophers, practical whalemen, businesslike men of affairs, and 'everyone else.'" Rather than a static entity that either exists or does not, science in this quadrangular treatment is a community of ideas and practices defined in the making. It is less a thing that circulates, that is, than the circulation itself. Bringing Rashomon to antebellum New York is not just a literary device. It is, beneath the surface, a means for showing the various points of circulation. Appropriately, Burnett draws on metaphors of migration, traffic, and motion to make this circulation real.

There is one mild criticism I have of Trying Leviathan: the circulation it reveals is anchored in the city. Although it strives to place Maurice v. Judd in the context of the intellectual and cultural life of the early American republic, it is a little like Saul Steinberg's famous cartoon map of the United States, in which the distance between Manhattan's 9th Avenue and the Hudson River dwarfs that between New Jersey and the Pacific Ocean. To be sure, Burnett describes tensions between New York Knickerbockers and New England Yankees, as well as between a world informed by European ideas and the one inhabited by whalers cutting blubber off the coast. But the city and court case dominate Burnett's landscape, obscuring the [End Page 23] degree to which early 19th-century America was a rural, agrarian society.

We don't have to decide whether or not Jefferson's agrarian vision was panning out during the first decades of the 19th century to observe that agrarian virtue mattered for epistemic and scientific assessments. New York, an agrarian state, was by the 1820s vying with Virginia for the most productive acreage under the plow; the rising factory systems of New England would soon work to convert the products of the land more effectively and rapidly into saleable commodities; and the Erie Canal would promote the increased flow of agricultural goods. To understand how science and knowledge operated in such a world, one cannot leave the story in the city or even on its docks.

One aspect of science and knowledge in early 19th-century America that Burnett deals with particularly well is the extent to which who made the knowledge mattered at least as much the knowledge itself. Burnett devotes considerable attention to the public reputation of Samuel Mitchill, leading intellectual light and star witness for the whale-is-not-a-fish defense. The contemporary lampoons of Mitchill's pretensions to authority illustrate that the knowledge-maker was as much on trial as the knowledge being made. Those jokes and possible slanders are not incidental to the story of science in the early republic but crucial elements of it.

What accounted for expertise? Whose testimony was to be trusted? In one sense, the case was a contest between book learning and experiential learning. This becomes clear in Burnett's account when the practical whalemen take the stand. The whalers indeed knew much about the surface of a...


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