July 22, 2010

Mammoth Undertakings

When Thomas Jefferson dreamed about the Republic he and the founders had created, he dreamed about an innovative regime which would transform politics and the relationship of the citizen body to the executive. Many Americans feared about the site of this new republic. Two separate problems emerged. Firstly would the European settlers regress to the level of the Indians that they had swept away. If climate and land were destiny, then America's might be to return to the world of the Indians. Many Europeans looked at the American West and believed that Americans were regressing back to the savage state of the Indian: many American Federalists feared that that was true. Jefferson in particular was eager to persuade his contemporaries that this was false: that the dream of the American founding, a new society, a new order (according to the dollar note comparable to that brought by Aeneas to the Italian world), could become true.

Jefferson had not merely to take on those who sneered at the American West, he also had to take on those who sneered at American animals. French naturalists wrote that American animals were smaller and less impressive than their old world equivalents. Tapirs, they sneered, were not the equivalent of elephants. Environmental degredation was inevitable. Jefferson in Paris encountered these views and sought to win over the snobbish intellectuals by extracting bufallo and other samples from his friends in the States. Horns, bones and skulls sailed across the Atlantic in ships to the Plenipotentiary in Paris: Jefferson apologised to his French friends that such specimens were not the best he could find, but they did convince some. Buffon promised to rewrite his great work on American nature: but died before he could complete the revision. But the American had made his point. Animals might thrive in the new world and therefore so might men.

The story is piquant. The ambassador receiving bits of animals from over the sea. The concerns of Americans about a climate that they were in the process of changing. The great forests were being flattened by the axe, the great plains turned into fields. But it is also deadly serious: when 10% of the population of Philadelphia died in 1793, Jefferson concluded that the disease was a permanent condition of the New World. The future President believed that it might retard the growth of cities throughout the Americas. The culmination of this concern about the involvement of the environment in American life was the discovery of a mammoth in 1801 in New York: finally the Americans had a beast that could compare with African Elephants and excelled anything seen in Europe. When Dr. Caldwell, a physician, argued that the Americas would make more progress than the Europeans- he suggested it was because they had a bigger country, the new world might furnish greater diseases but also it furnished greater animals and acheivements.

Republicanism became in this sense a mammoth undertaking. It is odd looking at this material (I'm coming here from a reading of Gordon Wood's magnificent histor of the Early Republic- he cites many more examples on pp 385-94). Ultimately what this betrays though is a habit of thought- a model of the universe- which depended on widespread ignorance. Wood comments that the French scholars writing about the Americas had never been there. Furthermore few of the Americans had been to Europe and definitely not say to Russia or to Africa. Discussions about the civilised nature of the Indians missed out the entire history of the North American Indians. These were the findings of a society still beginning to explore the world, rather than one where travel is a commonplace and where MacDonalds can be found everywhere. Lastly Jefferson's anxiety about the citizenship of the country and the effects of their climate upon them, ignored the ways in which they changed the climate and environment, but more importantly begged a more significant question: whether the model of a classical civilised citizen was neccessary for a democracy or republic to function. Such a question presumes that there is a kind of civic life that is above and beyond natural life: in a world in which an opinion is a natural right, Jefferson's view of the obligations of democracy is almost as passe as his search for the mammoth!


Crushed said...

I think it might have been a Mastodon they found. What I do know is that Lewis and Clarke were told to look for Mastodons. The idea animals could become extinct was a moot point right then.

It's very easy sometimes to forget how radically different thinking was before the mid nineteenth century. There really wasn't any sense of history or in fact any understanding of very much, really.

In 1800 we are still in a 'created' world in a state of 'natural' equilibrium. There is a way things are 'meant' to be, naturally. This view is starting to be challenged by rationalism, but still, there is a belief in a 'natural' order and imaginations are limited.

Even republics are 'unnatural' in this viewpoint.

The mid century changes all that in the space of a generation. Lyell, Kelvin, Darwin, Mendeleev.

That wider understanding of life, the universe andeverything that just wasn't there before. The certain knowledge there was no 'set' way and we could always do better.

Jefferson purchased Louisiania believing white Americans could never live there so it could be a vast 'native' reserve. The idea that people could actually live in Utah, or Nevada or even Colorado was derided.

The century really was the phasal shift in human consciousness. I guess in the visions of the founding fathers we see the first glimmerings of that enlightenment in the hope they had that a Republic founded in such principles COULD work.