A Democracy of Facts

Using case studies from ornithology, botany, antiquities, theology, and geology, A Democracy of Facts tells the fascinating story of naturalists coming of age and creating a profession in the early American republic.

A Democracy of Facts
Natural History in the Early Republic

Andrew J. Lewis

2011 | 216 pages | Cloth $47.50
American History / Biology/Natural History
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Table of Contents

Introduction: From an Empire of Reason to a Democracy of Facts

Chapter 1. The Revolution in Natural History Practice: Democratic Science and the Case of Submerging Swallows
Chapter 2. Natural History and the Market Economy: The Profitability of Plants and Rocks
Chapter 3. The Perils of a Democracy of Facts: Interpreting American Antiquities
Chapter 4. Disciplining the Democracy of Facts: A Theology of Nature
Chapter 5. Making Natural History Credible: Geological Surveys and the Utility of Republican Science

Epilogue: Scientific Practice in the Nineteenth Century

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

From an Empire of Reason to a Democracy of Facts

This is a book about a campaign for respect and legitimacy. The American general populace regarded naturalists and natural history of the 1780s warily, associating both with a genteel, deferential cosmopolitan culture, and esoteric knowledge. Yet naturalists and their practices exited the early republic fifty years later transformed: considered by most Americans of the 1830s and 1840s as individuals whose knowledge and techniques contributed to society. Rather than elitist aesthetes, naturalists at the twilight of the new republic were possessors of important and vital skills. They were doing the people's work. This transformation—unsteady, unstable, sometimes unconscious but always circuitous—is the subject of this book.

In the 1780s naturalists' genteel trappings and their claims to an exclusive expertise met challenges from citizens suspicious of their social betters and convinced of their own observations of nature. The ensuing contests over nature were multivalent. In some cases they were relatively straightforward and concerned the identification of animals or an aspect of their behavior, the conclusive identification of a plant or whether a region might contain more of these specimens. Yet these challenges could also extend to the core of natural history, the aims and goals of the practice. Ordinary Americans and naturalists themselves were asking similar questions: Just what was natural history for? What exactly did it do? Who should be considered a naturalist and why? Early republic Americans agreed that natural history could catalog and describe nature, but, as practiced by an orthodox elite in the United States, it imposed limitations on theorizing about nature's causes and emphasized the assembly of individual facts. Naturalists were not willing or able, it seemed to those outside its closed orthodox circle, to interpret the world around them. To many Americans, naturalists' reluctance to interpret and explain nature made their practices foreign; interesting to be sure, but precious, remote, and not meaningful. It also deprived natural history and its advocates of its most powerful asset: to serve as a tool to make sense of the natural world and Americans' place within it.

Ordinary Americans refused to be silenced regarding nature. They filled the vacuum between their aspirations for the practice and naturalists' limitations on it by borrowing from the experts their observational techniques and rhetoric. To this they added their own interpretive elements to explain the natural world and their place within it. They cobbled together a dynamic, heterodox method that engaged the natural world through observation and employed a fact discourse just as naturalists did. But their method did not stop with the fact collecting and empirical inquiry; they answered the questions they posed about nature. Ordinary Americans asked and answered why phenomena in nature occurred, oftentimes with theological reasoning, adding religious import to nature study and nationalist gloss. This powerful amalgam of science and sentiment made possible for Americans an understanding of nature and an ownership stake in the national landscape's past and present, as well as prognostications of its future potential. Ordinary Americans made natural history a part of the nation building process, an exercise as much involved with the creation of natural character as it was with plants and animals.

Challenged vigorously by a rival method, elite naturalists also found themselves and their practices engaged with the larger public. They and their techniques situated, sometimes uneasily and uncomfortably, in a variety of spaces both public and private, arenas in which their authority and credibility could be as easily questioned and contested as established and confirmed. Such spaces included universities and academies where natural history was practiced within a closed community, largely behind shut doors; in public, academic, and popular lectures in which the authority of natural history was performed and established before a largely polite audience. But the spaces also extended into the swirling and ungovernable print and market economies where specialists were challenged by the rules that determined prices, financial interests, other writers' agendas. Thus, natural history in the early republic found itself participating in a democracy of facts: a volatile, exciting, enthusiastic, and exhausting arena in which the authority of natural historical expertise was not yet solid, the observations and convictions of ordinary Americans held particular sway, the motivations of its most august practitioners were constantly questioned, the overriding sense was that conclusions about American nature were uncertain and provisional until proven otherwise (a time that for many never arrived). It is in these spaces, in the back and forth between naturalists and the public, and from the lively exchanges and contentious debates that characterized them that this examination takes flight.

A small episode involving an ancient tooth illustrates, briefly, how the democracy of facts operated. Dr. William Read, proprietor of Rice Hope plantation in South Carolina, wrote a brief note to Thomas Jefferson in 1806. In it he presented Jefferson with a "fossil which you may consider a curiosity & not unworthy of your contemplation." Read related that the object was excavated while digging a canal for field irrigation in the marshlands that bounded the adjacent Cooper River. Read praised Jefferson as "attentive to Natural Philosophy as well as to the other branches of science," so it seems that Read knew Jefferson to be president of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, that city's oldest and most august scientific organization, as well as President of the United States. More facts followed: the specimen "lay with several others of similar form in a stratum of Earth resembling decay'd shells"; Reid included a second example, "a broken one," should "your Excellency" choose to "direct a chemical analysis on it." Read ended his note by relating that his own experiments on the object proved it "dentous," and that community deliberation among the neighborhood's "curious & learned" concluded the fossils "to be the teeth of some Monster unknown at this day."

On its surface this letter seems to be a relatively simple matter: one gentleman plantation owner writing another his observations about nature, a note that includes the genteel protocols of flattery and deference, the rhetoric of natural history, the results of experiment, and the inclusion of specimens. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, letters possessing these characteristics were the lifeblood of natural history practice and were one of the primary means though which gentlemen and those who wished to correspond with genteel naturalists communicated and disseminated information about American nature in the Anglophone world.

Yet, this letter also hints that natural history was not the province of elites alone and beckons a closer examination. It is unlikely that Read, the owner of a substantial rice plantation supported and sustained by slave labor, dug the canal from which the teeth were excavated. More probably his slaves did. It is possible, if not probable, that it was his slaves who brought the teeth to Read's attention and not without precedent that a slave might have assisted Read with his experiments on them. Read did not write Jefferson of his slaves' participation in the episode but he does record that at least two distinct categories of people—the "curious & learned"—joined in helping him determine that these teeth were not from any known animal but from an unfamiliar one. It stands to reason that such a conversation or series of conversations would have drawn on the collective experience of many individuals and their knowledge, casual and intimate, of the area's animals, their natural history, and their anatomy. Read regarded himself among the "learned," no doubt, and his letter leaves open the possibility that he consulted others whom he considered of this same status. As to whom he classified as the "curious," Read's note is silent, but such a group may have included his neighbors less experienced with natural history, other laborers working on the excavation, perhaps even those in bondage. These were the citizens of the democracy of facts.

This very brief glimpse into the early nineteenth century suggests that natural history practice was a more variegated and far richer enterprise than white gentlemen observing nature and writing letters about it to one another. Read's note is too spare to reconstruct whether the conversations about the teeth dug from the marsh were facile or erudite, calm or disputatious. Moreover, moderns must also take on faith that Read accurately described community deliberation as coming to a consensus; it is quite possible, probable even, that there were more opinions about the teeth than Read suggests. Nevertheless, such discussions were certainly populated by a wide cross section of the population of the early republic: the learned, those such as Read with genteel educations if not some amount of scientific training, as well as the curious, an amorphous class of unidentified individuals possessing differing levels of education, experience, and the capacity for critical inquiry and thought. For certain the majority of them were men, but readers should not assume that women did not contribute too. Finally, slaves were likely involved even if their participation and contributions were attenuated. Natural history in early republic America, this single, small episode suggests, possessed a full cast of characters and involved the work of many hands and the contributions of many minds. The democracy of facts was defined overwhelmingly by a wide range of opinions about the natural world from those who recorded their thoughts for posterity as well as those whose who thoughts were ignored, not recorded, and are now lost.

The early republic saw Americans across all segments of society closely scrutinizing plants and animals, artifacts and antiquities, geologic formations and natural phenomena. As readers of this book consider—among other things—pursuits resembling the modern scientific disciplines of botany, ornithology, archaeology, and geology; fact collecting and empiricism; and the role of natural history in state building, they may find themselves as perplexed by what they have picked up as those who excavated the ancient teeth from the Cooper River marsh: "What should I make of this object in my hand?" Why so many seemingly separate subjects in one volume? The answer is that this study approaches natural history as did most early-republic Americans: as an ill-defined and capacious set of practices that resists easy delineation; an unfragmented cluster of activities pursued by ordinary folks as well as those who moderns would regard as putative scientists, many if not most of whom slipped easily and effortlessly from one modern discipline to another. Rather than treat natural history as an aggregated antecedent to the modern biological and earth sciences, as the umbrella term for a collection of demarcated disciplines with codified sets of settled rules and investigative protocols, this study regards early-republic natural history as a constellation of unstable and contested practices that comprise a method of interrogating the natural world as well as a means of explaining that collected information about nature.

As a method, natural history for Americans in this period was largely, though not exclusively, observational, classificatory, and taxonomic. It sought facts: isolated particulars from nature that once sufficiently accumulated promised to reveal the deep structures of the natural world and explain natural phenomena. To collect facts the practices of natural history relied on individuals' ability to see and to hear, touch, taste, and smell. Clear-headed, common-sense use of one's faculties as well as a sound mind were at once the minimum and, in some respects, the sole requirement to participate in the era's natural history, although depending on the situation these observations might demand some use of instruments: scales, weights and measures, tools for discerning distance, thermometers, and on very rare occasion microscopes or telescopes. It was also a practice that eschewed theorizing about nature as well as the assembling of those facts into a "system" to explain nature's causes; those activities were germane to natural philosophy, a related discipline that many American naturalists and the general public took pains to avoid because it was deemed too scholastic and speculative. (That naturalists and Americans generally avoided theorizing about the causes in nature does not mean that they lacked opinions about the natural world; they had plenty.) Thus, early republic natural history possessed a low threshold for entry and participation and overwhelmingly took advantage of and valorized Americans' predominant experience with nature: that of living in it. It celebrated individuals' time spent with plants and animals, their observations of the nation's forests and fields, lakes, steams, and mountains. As much as naturalists might claim for themselves a unique expertise to catalog and explain the natural world, in short to create natural knowledge, the backbone of early republic natural history as broadly understood was founded on the convictions of Americans' everyday engagements with nature.

As a means to explain the natural world, early republic natural history was descriptive, relying on words put into print as well as on images and maps. These descriptions ran the gamut from an accounting of an individual species—for example, the close-read characteristics of a single tree—to a description of an entire neighborhood, state, or region. The latter would list the area's animals and plants, lakes and rivers, mountains and caves, rocks, and ores, as well as its peoples: an exemplary text is Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia. That natural history depended on the printed word meant that the descriptive practices were, to some degree, bookish and scholastic; and they were argumentative too, often to a fault. Most early republic Americans considered it axiomatic that very little about American nature was settled and much about American nature was left to be discovered. Existing and emerging knowledge about American nature, they thought, was provisional. Consequently they quibbled about the contours of nature incessantly, most of the time calmly, interestedly, bemusedly, occasionally vituperatively. To read early republic scientific journals and the natural history passages and articles in the period's personal letters, literary magazines, and newspapers is to immerse oneself in a practice characterized by a prideful, excited, enthusiastic, swirling, and raucous debate, the individual writings marked by the effort to persuade the reader that the writer's view of nature was the correct one.

In these writings, authors relied on the rhetoric and discourse of fact to effect persuasion. They might marshal any combination of personal testimony and eyewitness accounts, the testimony of those whom they knew and could trust, the experiences of others reported to them through trusted sources, as well as other forms of hearsay evidence. Writers also relied heavily on the authority of existing texts from contemporaneous as well as past naturalists, including those of the ancients on occasion. Natural history was thus a formal, quasilegalistic literary endeavor as much as it was a simple observational examination of American nature. Natural history was not a practice that made itself comprehensible predominantly through experiment, though experiment could and did play a role in some natural historical matters.

If commonsense observation and the ability to produce clear description were the requirements for admission to participate, then what, the modern reader might ask, was the role of education and training; for that matter, what of experts and expertise in early republic natural history? It is anachronistic to put in place a clear divide between amateur and professional natural history in this period as there were no professional requirements for describing oneself a naturalist, nor was it possible for most naturalists to make a consistent living from natural history, largely obviating it as a profession or career in the modern sense. It was an avocation, though one that could (and did) prove profitable to a few individuals. Early republic natural history was theoretically open to all who could master the informal, if rigorous, requirements to participate: the mastery of key concepts, the command of the contents of important texts, an awareness and implementation of proper observational techniques, and an ability to translate those observations into the recognizable rhetoric and discourse that suggested a transparent rendering of one's observations onto the page. But such skills were not just learned; they were signs of cosmopolitan sociability and were generally acquired and mastered through formal and informal genteel education.

There was little doubt that into the early republic, natural history practice retained its elite associations with metropolitan and cosmopolitan elites: those who trafficked in learned discourse and possessed access to erudite transatlantic correspondents and membership in polite institutions. The scientific societies in the early republic's largest cities—the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, the Lyceum of Natural History in New York, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston—served as the repositories of these sentiments and protocols, and these organizations as well a few others worked to make themselves into centers of calculation, the arenas in which accumulated natural historical information from throughout the new nation would be sifted, examined, and vetted: in short, facts made into natural knowledge.

It was in institutions such as these, among their membership, and through publication that naturalists worked to establish their credibility and challenge the democracy of fact. In its stead, elite naturalists worked to create what one called "an empire of reason," a methodological counterbalance they imagined would pursue a codified discipline and be directed by those who believed they had to authority to determine and police the proper methods of nature study. The empire of reason was, in practice, defensive rather offensive. As a ballast of erudition in a democracy of facts, it proved persuasive only to those who already believed themselves deserving of the respect they did not possess. Against popular charges that naturalists had a financial stake and personal interest in their identifications of plants and animals, they stressed to the public that their method was disinterested. Against claims that their knowledge was esoteric, naturalists argued for its utility. To those critics who suggested that natural history was self-indulgent, naturalists pleaded that their knowledge and techniques would contribute to the betterment of the nation.

Over time naturalists wearied of engaging the public directly, and these quarrels and looked to state and federal governments for support. The second and third generations of early republic naturalists—those who came of age between 1810 and 1840—realized the limitations of a democratic natural history practice as they endlessly fought and refought disputes about evidence and evidentiary rules and evaluated reports of hard-to-believe natural wonders and marvels. Not only were arguments with untrained Americans tiresome and distracting but natural history itself was an expensive endeavor that the public failed to support in the ways the first-generation naturalists had hoped for and advocated. Collecting and preserving specimens was costly, dangerous, and slow; natural history publications had limited popular appeal; and the financing of expeditions was beyond the means of individuals or most scientific societies. Only government, state and federal, had the resources to fund natural history, and by the 1830s and 1840s the symbiosis of interests between trained naturalists and state had coalesced around independent but shared goals.

Naturalists needed the state and federal governments to support their research, their collecting expeditions, and their publications. The state, in turn, profited by having naturalists assist in the rationalization of already owned and newly acquired lands—boundary surveying, geological descriptions, and natural resource and wildlife assessments. As federal, state, and local governments pursued economic development and provided incentives for immigration and settlement, funding infrastructure projects with land grants and low land prices, they wanted to know more about what they were selling. Naturalists provided that service and became crucial members in the creation of a science/state nexus that increasingly resembled the science-friendly governments of Europe. Just as an empire cannot function without a bureaucracy to support its ambitions, so natural history and science, specialists realized, needed government to support their aims and bolster their authority.

State-supported science neither replaced nor eradicated democratic science, and by the fourth and fifth decades of the nineteenth century the two sets of coherent if chaotic practices had diverged substantially. In the decade before Darwin, a thriving democratic natural history that was as much about sentiment and spirituality as it was about empiricism was moving away rapidly from a state-supported science that was aligning itself with the long-term project of land rationalization and domestic expansion.

So many subjects are considered in the following pages that it is necessary, briefly, to define its parameters. As the foregoing indicates, natural historical epistemology, fact discourse, and empiricism are important components in this study; thus, it draws upon and brings to bear on the early republic the methodology and work of scholars who have fleshed out the social and intellectual history of early modern, Enlightenment, and early nineteenth-century science in Europe and the United States. This book contributes to this literature, first, by finding that American naturalists of this period were not the scientific provincials they imagined themselves to be but were part of and on par with the international community of scientific inquiry, attuned to and participants in its debates and aware of its ongoing controversies. Early republic natural history and science was maturing rapidly and demonstrating a confidence that had been missing during the years of British rule, when American naturalists, save a select few, served primarily as peripheral collectors and correspondents to European savants. The early national period saw an efflorescence of activity: the founding of numerous medical and scientific journals, the creation of natural history and scientific societies, the establishment of scientific higher education, and from that a growing, if still small, community of experienced naturalists. American naturalists' frequent complaints of their uniquely difficult situation notwithstanding, the struggles and successes of early republic natural history were different from those of European naturalists only in degree, not in kind.

Second, this study shows that American naturalists were part and parcel of the large-scale epistemological changes that scholars associate with the history of science in this period. If European scientific societies and individuals were expanding their correspondent communities of interested individuals the world over, then early republic naturalists were cultivating exchanges with many of these same people as well, though more modestly, as with their fellow citizens in other cities and on the frontiers. The early republic saw the establishment of local and putatively national scientific communities similar to those being formed and reformed in Europe, communities characterized by attempts to settle the debates about the rules for creating natural knowledge, the adoption and use of a unified discourse, and the proper literary and representational forms for the communication of findings of fact. These scientific communities grew in tandem with those of related specialist groups—instrument makers and illustrators, engineers and surveyors, printers and engravers—who helped to foster science and establish it as a vital interest in the modern state.

This book joins in conversation the vibrant literature that extends the European history of science into the early modern and Enlightenment colonial peripheries, where concerns over the circuits and circulation of information, specimen exchange, and the cooptation and transformation of natural knowledge dominate. It reveals the central and vital contributions of non-European male elites to making New World natural knowledge, even as legal regimes and cultural practices worked to marginalize and make invisible their contribution. And it extends this scholarship by highlighting the contributions of historical actors not always associated with natural history—the young nation's farmers and mechanics, ordinary men and women, those who were literate but not learned— as well as contributes to the story of marginalization by showing how the natural knowledge of Indians and slaves continued to be overlooked and ignored.

Though the following pages examine epistemology and empiricism, contested knowledge and attempts to establish scientific authority, this book is not primarily a history of science, or at least not one that focuses on the development of professional institutions or individual biography. Readers searching for that would be better served by other studies. Rather, it is a history of interactions with natural world, experiences determined and shaped by the observational methods of natural history and expressed in its language and terminology; it is a history that describes how Americans made natural knowledge and made sense of themselves and the new nation through that knowledge. Along the way it probes the implicit, inarticulate standards that governed natural historical aspiration and praxis to lay bare natural historical epistemology in the early republic. This study unearths subtle but significant disputes in scholarly and popular natural history alike about what evidence overrode what other evidence, about what constituted evidence, and indeed what counted as a fact in the first place. In doing so, it reveals the premium that naturalists and ordinary Americans in the early republic placed on possibility—a concept with enormous political and cultural authority—and the consequent reluctance to dismiss eyewitness accounts however contrary to common sense, received wisdom, experiment, or theory. As a result, by modern standards, many naturalists of the early republic were scarcely scientists at all. They disdained systematic thinking and theory. Many insisted that no laboratory experiment could ever count for as much as the testimony of untrained but credible observers. Yet these men and women were certainly naturalists, if natural history is historicized adequately to show how foreign it is from contemporary practice.

At its core, this study is concerned with the processes and methods through which the first generation of early republic naturalists attempted to establish disciplinary credibility and cultural authority by, paradoxically, experimenting with a democratic natural history. Rather than emulate what they perceived as the rigidly hierarchical natural history practices of Europe, American naturalists initially advertised for and welcomed the participation of their fellow citizens. Natural history, they urged, was a tool to investigate, to catalog, to explore, and, ultimately, to know the new nation. It was a method and means for a new citizenry to take ownership of a new nation, a very large one at that. Ordinary Americans enthusiastically answered this call. The following pages record the excitement many Americans experienced as they observed and wrote about nature to naturalists and for one another. But these same Americans also took liberties with natural history and empiricism, using its rhetoric and its techniques to further their own agendas, projects not always in accord with aims of a more disciplined practice. So what follows is also an examination of naturalists' efforts to wrest control of the unleashed practice, a process at which they succeeded less modestly than post-Enlightenment moderns might imagine.

The book follows a loosely chronological arc by investigating episodes and spaces of contestation in natural historical matters from approximately 1790 to roughly 1840. In the fifty years covered here, naturalists and early republic Americans demonstrated an enthusiastic interest in nature, one that depended for its comprehension on their willingness to believe that nature mirrored society and society reflected nature. Americans argued about nature, their observations, and its lessons not only in the language of natural history and science but also in the rhetoric of political theory and American politics. In exchanges about plants and animals, geologic features and natural wonders, Americans interlaced ideas about domestic and international economics, entrepreneurial risk, and how to make a dollar. Investigations of American antiquities and pre-Columbian ruins, practices not entirely divorced from natural history and naturalists, inspired speculation about the continent's ancient past and anxious wonder about the new nation's future. As Americans gazed up at the stars and looked down at the earth they pondered God's designs in nature and providential designs for the United States. Americans talked about those designs when they discussed the contours of American character and the course of national destiny. In short, the practices of natural history as well as conversations and debates about the natural world were woven into the fabric of early national everyday life: into discussions of local and national politics, into descriptions of the economy, into understandings of the past and visions of the future, and into individuals' and the nation's relationship with God.