Monday, January 6, 2014

HUMBOLDT & JEFFERSON'S NOTES

AM | @HDI1780


"Before being free, it is necessary to be just" — Alexander von  Humboldt

The Humboldt-Jefferson relationship can be studied from many different angles: the value of Humboldt's information about Mexico (including his much sought-after maps), the interpretation of the revolutions in South America, the degeneracy controversy (which involved Raynal), and so on (*). A minor, but interesting, aspect of that story is the eagerness with which Humboldt tried to obtain a copy of Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia. (That eagerness was shared by at least two contemporaries: Volney and Mariano Moreno — more on that in coming weeks.)

* * *

In September 1810, Humboldt —deeming himself short-changed by the Americans in terms of the exchange of information that took place in the spring of 1804— begged the retired U.S. president to send him a copy of the Notes: "Je reïtere ma priere, de recevoir, en cadeau, de Votre main, Votre ouvrage sur la Virginie. Je le possède depuis 15 ans, mais je voudrois pouvoir montrer à mes amis un exemplaire dans lequel Vous aviez écrit que Vous me le donnez. C’est a quoi aspire ma vanité et je ne m’en defends pas" [see].

But what did he really mean by "Je le possède depuis 15 ans"? In the third volume of his Essai politique sur la Nouvelle-Espagne, the Prussian scientist mentions Jefferson in the context of the degeneracy controversy: "Cette réfutation se trouve dans l'excellent ouvrage de M. Jefferson sur la Virginie, p.109-166" [see]. Mystery solved! Pages 109-166 correspond not to the original version of the Notes, but to André Morellet's translation, published in early 1787 and recently digitized by Google Books [see]:

OBSERVATIONS

SUR

LA VIRGINIE

PAR M. J***

TRADUITES DE L'ANGLOIS

A PARIS

Chez BARROIS, l'aîné, Libraire, rue du

Hurepoix, près le pont Saint-Michel
_______________

1786

What Humboldt so eagerly desired was the original, English version of the Notes, autographed by its author. In the end, Jefferson relented; in yet another memorable document (TJ's April 1811 letter on South American revolutions), he writes: "In sending you a copy of my Notes on Virginia, I do but obey the desire you have expressed. They must appear chetif enough to the author of the great work on South America. But from the widow her mite was welcome, and you will add to this indulgence the acceptance of my sincere assurances of constant friendship and respect."

It was only in December of that year that Humboldt could aknowledge the arrival of the much coveted book:

Monsieur,

J’arrive hier de Vienne où mon frere est Ministre du Roi de Prusse et ou j’ai passé un mois pour voir mes parents. J’ai eté bien heureux de retrouver à mon retour l’interessante lettre que Vous avez daigné m’écrire, Monsieur, et que Vous avez accompagné d’un cadeau auquel je mets le plus grand prix. Les notes sur la Virginie seront placeés dans la bibliotheque que nous avons formé mon frere et moi. c’est un titre de gloire pour moi que d’avoir joui de la bienveillance, j’ose dire de l’amitié d’un homme qui a etonne ce siecle par ses vertus et sa moderation.


Affaire à suivre !

(*) The starting point here is the masterful piece by H. R. Friis: "Alexander von Humboldts Besuch in den Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika. Vom 20. Mai bis zum 20. Juni 1804", in Joachim H. Schultze (ed.) Alexander von Humboldt. Studien zu seiner universalem Geisthaltung. Berlin: Verlag Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1959, pp. 142-195.
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