- The Explorer and the President
if, as president kennedy famously suggested, the White House witnessed an extraordinary collection of talent when Thomas Jefferson dined alone, then how much more splendid the occasion when he entertained as his guest Alexander von Humboldt? Humboldt was widely regarded as the universal genius of his age, a man who impressed Goethe (no less) as having “no equal in information and lively knowledge.” He arrived in Washington in June 1804, at the end of five years’ journey through the Spanish colonies in the Americas, and in the course of a week’s stay in the capital visited President Jefferson several times. Many people must have wished to be present at those scintillating dinners.
It is not surprising that Sandra Rebok was attracted by the intellectual magnetism of these two men and inspired to map the contours of their relationship. When he arrived, Humboldt told Jefferson that he had a “moral interest” (144) in visiting the American republic after his extensive travels in the lands still under Spanish rule. He brought with him the most accurate maps anyone had compiled of the territories he had visited, which later became Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Mexico. He also shared his astonishing wealth of knowledge of the colonies’ botanical, miner-alogical, and climatic resources. For the Jefferson administration, the information was timely in the extreme. The Louisiana Purchase had been concluded a few months earlier, but knowledge of the still-disputed borderlands of the United States and the Spanish Empire was scanty. Jefferson was hungry for knowledge of the natural resources of the North American continent and had just dispatched Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their epic westward trek to find out more. He had many scientific [End Page 189] interests in common with Humboldt, and the two men shared the liberal outlook of enlightened intellectuals, but the geopolitical imperative behind their exchanges should not be overlooked.
Unfortunately, there were no note-takers at the meetings, nor did either participant write an account of their conversations. Rebok relies on third-party reports of the visit and also reprints the fourteen letters that passed between the two men, a correspondence that began when Humboldt had just landed in Philadelphia and wrote to the president to get himself invited to the capital, and resumed sporadically after his return to Europe. In his introductory letter, the German explorer offered to bring his host information about the astronomical and meteorological observations he had made in his travels, and the remains of prehistoric animals and pre-Columbian civilizations he had excavated. It is a fair assumption that these topics featured in the conversations in Washington, which may well have ranged widely across social and political topics as well. Rebok compares the two men’s attitudes to a variety of questions that they might have discussed, including the fraught issue of slavery, to which Humboldt was fiercely opposed. As is well known, Jefferson had a more ambivalent attitude toward the peculiar institution; he claimed to oppose it in principle but did not foresee comprehensive emancipation of African American slaves in the near future.
But perhaps slavery was too touchy a subject to be dwelt on at the White House dinner table? We are also told that Jefferson and Humboldt had different attitudes toward the Haitian Revolution, which had recently led to a declaration of independence by the formerly enslaved population, but we don’t know whether that topic came up in their meetings, either. In fact, although a great deal has been written about these two individuals, there is relatively little evidence about their relationship. Thus, Rebok faced the dilemma of how to give her book an overall shape after she had decided on its focus. She ends up comparing the views of her two principals on a wide range of subjects and sometimes wanders off the track, as when she contrasts their opinions of the seventeenth-century German geographer Bernhard Varenius, about whom Humboldt wrote little and Jefferson nothing at all.
Rebok succeeds in illuminating the relationship...