- A Democracy of Facts: Natural History in the Early Republic
Science, Natural history, American naturalists
In 1814 the Philadelphia scientist Benjamin Smith Barton received a letter from one H. B. Trout, a resident of western Pennsylvania, asking, “what climate of the Unighted-States would be the most favorable to the growth of the poppy—what sort of manner would be best calculated to put on the ground on which the poppy is to be sowed?” (62). Mr. Trout had read Barton’s textbook Elements of Botany (1804), where Barton wrote that “Opium, the produce of a species of Papaver, or Poppy . . . might be cultivated in the countries of the United States, with much pecuniary profit” (286). A few months later George Washington Trout, possibly a relative of the first correspondent, wrote another letter to Barton, basing his appeal upon different principles. G. W. Trout praised Barton’s “patriotism in recommending to the people of the United States the culture of the poppy” and cast the pursuit of profit as secondary to “the Desire of Utility.” Andrew Lewis read the letters from the two Trouts in Barton’s correspondence preserved at the American Philosophical Society. He adds, sadly, “There is no evidence that Barton answered these letters” (63).
Lewis’s book examines the relationships among early American naturalists: on the one hand those among the young nation’s elites “who trafficked in learned discourse and possessed access to erudite transatlantic correspondents and membership in polite institutions” (7), and on the other hand those such as the Trouts, common people who observed phenomena and collected specimens across the wide and little-known expanses of the young United States, but who also sought to benefit from the scientific advances in botany, geology, or materia medica. Then as now there was a tension between an impulse to amass knowledge for disinterested scientific purposes and a desire to find and exploit natural resources for economic gain. The case of opium poppies, however, reveals how our sense of nature’s bounty has also profoundly changed across two centuries.
Lewis proposes the term “democracy of facts” to describe decentralized, volunteer efforts to observe and document American nature, the crowd-sourcing of the day. The book focuses on the period from the [End Page 525] 1790s to the 1830s. At the start of this period, distinct scientific disciplines and expertise had not yet formed in Anglo America, and therefore the “practices of natural history that relied on individuals’ ability to see and to hear, touch, taste, and smell . . . were at once the minimum, and, in some respects, the sole requirement to participate in the era’s natural history” (5). By the end of the period, state and federal governments were underwriting scientific expeditions and surveys, and universities were training students in scientific specialties. Other scholars such as Susan Scott Parrish in American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World (Chapel Hill, NC, 2006) and Thomas Hallock in co-editing William Bartram, the Search for Nature’s Design: Selected Art, Letters, and Unpublished Writings (Athens, GA, 2010) have studied how American naturalists such as Bartram often felt exploited by their wealthy British patrons, who reaped the cultural prestige of identifying and presenting new species to the Royal Society, yet did not sufficiently pay for nor appreciate the hard work and deprivation required to find the specimens. Lewis’s study looks at relations within America, between scientific naturalists and the public. Lewis proposes in opposition to the democracy of facts an “empire of reason . . . those who believed they had [the] authority to determine and police the proper methods of nature study” (8). The elites who built cabinets of curiosities and proposed grand systems and theories were regarded with some contempt by common collectors.
The strongest chapter in the book is titled “Submerging Swallows.” Many periodicals in the early republic carried eyewitness accounts of swallows that were seen drenched in muddy wetlands and riverbanks in the springtime. Observers believed that the birds hibernated, or passed...