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  • In the Realms of Sensibility
  • William Huntting Howell (bio)
Abigail and John Adams: The Americanization of Sensibility, G. J. Barker-Benfield. University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Sensibility and the American Revolution, Sarah Knott. University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

In the introduction to his Travels Through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida (1791), the natural philosopher William Bartram pauses to consider some of the metaphysical stakes of his empirical investigations: “I am sensible that the general opinion of philosophers, has distinguished the moral system of the brute creature from that of mankind, by an epithet which implies a mere mechanical impulse, which leads and impels them to necessary actions, without any premeditated design or contrivance; this we term instinct, which faculty we suppose to be inferior to reason in man” (19). The terms of differentiation here are clear enough: though animals are in possession of a “moral system,” it is rudimentary and focused on immediate stimuli; the abstract, higher functions of forethought, reflection, and “premeditated contrivance” belong to humans alone. Where beasts respond in simple, unwilled (“instinctual”) ways to biomechanical input, humans weigh sense data alongside reason, emotion, and memory before acting of their own volition; in Bartram’s understanding of the consensus argument, animals have brains, but not minds—sensoria, but not sensibilities.

That said, Bartram argues, “The parental and filial affections [in animals] seem to be as ardent, their sensibility and attachment as active and faithful, as those observed in human nature” (20). By way of proving his case, he tells the story of an incident on the Mosquito River in eastern Florida, in which he and a hunter attending him on his voyage decide to shoot a bear.

We . . . planned our approaches as artfully as possible, by crossing over to the opposite shore, in order to get under cover of a small island; this we cautiously coasted round, to a point, which we apprehended would take us within shot of the bears; but here finding ourselves at too great a distance from them, and discovering that we must openly show ourselves, we had no other alternative to effect our purpose, but [End Page 406] making oblique approaches. We gained gradually on our prey by this artifice, without their noticing us: finding ourselves near enough, the hunter fired, and laid the largest dead on the spot where she stood; when presently the other, not seeming the least moved at the report of our piece, approached the dead body, smelled, and pawed it, and appearing in agony, fell to weeping and looking upwards, then towards us, and cried out like a child. Whilst our boat approached very near, the hunter was loading his rifle in order to shoot the survivor, which was a young cub, and the slain supposed to be the dam. The continual cries of this afflicted child, bereft of its parent, affected me very sensibly; I was moved with compassion, and charging myself as if accessary to what now appeared to be a cruel murder, endeavoured to prevail on the hunter to save its life, but to no effect! for by habit he had become insensible to compassion towards the brute creation: being now within a few yards of the harmless devoted victim, he fired, and laid it dead upon the body of the dam.


Bartram’s anecdote allows me to make an initial point about the ubiquity of eighteenth-century sensibility discourse and about its stakes: as imagined by philosophers, physicians, and social theorists—in backwoods settlements and in urban salons—a properly constituted sensibility was what made a person a person. At the outset of his story, both Bartram and his companion are demonstrably human: they anticipate adverse consequences and plan “artfully” to avoid them; when their plans go wrong, they pause, consider, and regroup. Once the first bear has been shot, however, the lines between man and animal start to blur. As Bartram describes it, the young bear doesn’t react mechanically to the sound of the gun, but emotionally to the death of its mother; its cries suggest a depth and complexity of feeling—including emotions like bereavement and devotion—putatively unavailable to “brute creation.” (The shift from “cub” and...


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pp. 406-417
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