Humboldt in Philadelphia
Once he finished his journey through South and Central America, Alexander von Humboldt and his party travelled North to the newly-minted United States of America. In the spring of 1804, upon recommendation of the American Consul in Cuba, Vincent Gray, Humboldt established contact with then Secretary of State (and future President), James Madison. Madison identified Humboldt’s potential significance and in turn recommended him for a meeting with President Thomas Jefferson. In early May, Humboldt embarked for Philadelphia with Bonpland and another one of his travel companions, Carlos Montúfar.
This letter, which serves as Alexander von Humboldt’s introduction to James Madison, also tells us a lot about why Humboldt wanted to visit Philadelphia. The letter states that Humboldt was interested “in the country’s prosperity, which stems from the wise legislation and civic virtues of the American leaders” and “intends to enjoy the spectacle of a free people worthy of a great destiny.”
This is the United States customs form regarding Alexander von Humboldt’s baggage. It gives us an idea of amount of material he was bringing back from his travels.
President Thomas Jefferson had always been curious about the sciences. Known for his enthusiasm for the subject, his relationship with Humboldt was hardly a surprise. The two men kept in touch over a number of years, their friendship blossoming from their mutual love of geography and science.
While in Philadelphia, Alexander von Humboldt was introduced at the American Philosophical Society by Dr. Caspar Wistar, the German American physician famous for his “Wistar Parties”. He also toured Bartram’s Garden, visited Charles Willson Peale’s Museum, and was hosted in the new building of the Library Company. While at the APS, he continued his work, writing and preparing his “Report on the Exploration of the Americas” for publication. Humboldt met with John Vaughan, the secretary and librarian of the American Philosophical Society. He mailed Vaughan his copy (in French!) which Vaughan then translated and published in America.
The decision to translate and publish the report emphasizes the admiration that Philadelphia had for Humboldt’s scientific acumen and his research. The translation of the work also provided a larger audience than Humboldt’s original French draft would have found, turning his words into the local language in order to increase the readership. Humboldt himself wanted the work to be translated, always longing for his work to be widely read.
While in the United States, Humboldt did not only meet with the political elites like Madison and Jefferson. He also sought out Charles Willson Peale, a famous artist who had opened his Philadelphia Museum in 1784 – by the time of Humboldt’s visit, it was located on the second floor of Independence Hall – quite the prestigious location. Peale drew this silhouette of Humboldt sometime during his stay, and later also painted a portrait of his famous acquaintance.
Like Jefferson, Peale was a man infatuated with the sciences - his museum reflected a desire to better understand the natural world. Given Humboldt’s experience with travel into South and Central America, we can only imagine the conversations the two men must have had.
While his stay was short, Humboldt’s legacy carried on after his departure. Philadelphia’s German Freemason Lodge named itself the Humboldt Lodge in his honor (though it later merged with the Hermann Lodge to become the Herman-Humboldt Lodge No. 125) and the American Philosophical Society admitted him as a member. His reach lasted far into the 19th century, when the German Society of Pennsylvania first celebrated the Centennial of his birth in 1869, and then unveiled a statue in his honor in 1876, during the Centennial of the founding of the United States.