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Alexander von Humboldt in the USA
Between Enthusiasm and Disappointment

© Erika Torres, 2019.

Humboldt's stay in the USA after his journey through Spanish America has not been accorded the importance it deserves. More than just a short visit on his way back to Europe, it marked the beginning of an intensive scientific collaboration.  

At the end of his expedition through the Spanish colonies in America (1799 -1804), Alexander von Humboldt visited the young United States for six weeks. He was able to see only a small part of the country in this short time, accompanied by his two travel companions, the French botanist Aimé Bonpland and Carlos de Montúfar, a nobleman from Quito.

From Havana they arrived by ship on May 20 near Philadelphia and stayed for five days in the city, where Humboldt was introduced to the scientific community by the American Philosophical Society. They then travelled south with some of their new North American acquaintances, including painter and naturalist Charles Willson Peale, to the new capital of Washington. There they spent the next twelve days with various sightseeing tours, excursions and society invitations. The highlight was undoubtedly their meeting with Thomas Jefferson, the president of the country who promoted the principles of the Enlightenment and was actively interested in scientific issues. Via Lancaster the travellers returned to Philadelphia, where they spent almost two weeks before returning home to Europe.

Early interest in the USA

Humboldt’s interest in the United States had been awakened as early as his student days at the Commercial Academy in Hamburg, an internationally renowned institution founded by Johann Georg Büsch in 1768 and attended by Humboldt from August 1790 until April 1791. Christoph Daniel Ebeling, the leading expert at the time on North American geography and history, was Humboldt's teacher there. Ebeling had built up an important library on the USA, in which the young Alexander also familiarised himself with the writings of American authors. He would have liked to travel to the USA even then, as he told a friend from university in 1791. A further impulse for this came in February 1801 in Cuba when he met the Scottish botanist John Fraser, who had already made extensive journeys through the United States. 

More than a decade later, during his stay in New Spain, Humboldt saw the opportunity arise: The purchase of the Louisiana Territory by the USA in 1803 was the trigger for Jefferson's long-standing quest to explore the West. Humboldt saw the prospect of being able to take part in this scientific challenge himself as very promising indeed.  Now he was in a position to make the necessary contacts. Moreover, after almost five years in the Spanish territories, where he had witnessed the negative effects of the colonial system in all its facets, he showed a marked eagerness to get to know that part of America which had already gained its independence.

Promotion of scientific knowledge

Despite his "burning desire" to see Paris again and start working on his research findings, he could not resist the temptation to get to know a society that "understands the precious gift of freedom". He had a "moral interest" in becoming acquainted with the United States, a country that was "governed wisely".
After having experienced impressive natural phenomena in South America, he wished to interact with the "great personalities" in the United States. Humboldt was fascinated by the country's political system and social freedom and saw this as a forward-looking model for both the monarchies of Europe and the colonial regions of the world. The USA embodied Humboldt's ideal not only in the political sense, but also in its implementation of the principles of the Enlightenment with respect to the progress of science. Humboldt was particularly impressed by Jefferson's government's active role in promoting scientific knowledge. 

Criticism of slavery

To his great disappointment, however, he also encountered here a number of social evils which he had previously considered only a consequence of the colonial system and for which, in his opinion, there should no longer be a place in the young republic, most of all the slavery that he deeply abhorred. Over the years, despite his initial enthusiasm for "Jefferson's Empire of Liberty," he did not let himself to be deterred from openly expressing his criticism when he realised that this concept of freedom was limited to only a small part of society.

Nevertheless, Humboldt maintained a lively interest in the United States throughout his life. Even though, despite his intentions, he was ultimately unable to visit the United States a second time, his extensive networks enabled him to participate in the country's scientific and political development from afar.