Humboldt's Impact on America
His time in the United States was brief, but Alexander von Humboldt’s work and reputation remained a driving force for social as well as scientific movements. In the United States specifically, Humboldt’s work became well-regarded amongt certain parties. While Humboldt had openly declared his visit to the United States as being part of his desire to see the “civic virtues” of Americans, he also acknowledged the less civic aspects of the American way of life. Between December of 1800 and March of 1801 Humboldt visited the slave plantations of Cuba, observing firsthand the horrors slave owners inflicted upon the people forced to labor there. Three years later, he sailed for the United States where he met with President Thomas Jefferson, a notable slave owner.
While in Havana, however, Humboldt interacted with the institution of slavery, expressing his frustration through his writings. Before his trip, he had a working knowledge of the lives of enslaved people and the role of slavery in the Americas—however, he had not been aware of the realities of day-to-day life on a sugar plantation. Humboldt observed what he would refer to as one of the “greatest of all the evils which have afflicted mankind”, whereas other explorers and travelers often wrote on how supposedly “humane” Havana was. Humboldt saw through this, dismissing the entire system of slavery as being inconsistent with a civilized society.
The seventh chapter of Humboldt’s Essai Politique (“On Slavery”) attacked the inhumane nature of slavery and the methods that slaveowners use to disguise and defend themselves. Humboldt rejected the ideas of “Patriarchal Protection” and praised those who sought to end the system of slavery in the American South. This chapter was removed from the American publication of 1856, during a tumultuous point in American history surrounding the question of enslavement. The United States sat on the brink of a Civil War, with the slave-owning states readying themselves to secede from the Union and launch a bloody and embittered battle over their supposed right to own and oppress their fellow human beings.
Upon discovering this, Humboldt penned a letter in the Berlinische Nachrichten von Staats—und gelehrten Sachen on July 25, 1856. It was then translated and printed in the New York Times, the Tribune, and the Herald among other papers in the United States—earning him the ire of slave-owners in the American South, and inflaming tensions across the Atlantic. His words sparked strong emotions in the North and the South, beyond just the scientific.
Returning to his familiar field, however, Humboldt saw more than just a tumultuous future with enslavement. He saw the relationship that humankind had to nature. Occasionally referred to as the “first Environmentalist,” Humboldt is often credited with being one of the first to postulate the impact that human development has on the environment, something that we would later refer to as “Climate Change.” Among the first to explain the importance of forests and biodiversity (which went directly against the European cash crop system!). Humboldt realized that the more the forests were destroyed in favor of monoculture, the worse the soil erosion became.
Of course, despite his warnings, the world at large continued on with deforestation. But steadily, Humboldt’s words began to ring true. Environmentalist movements in the United States over a hundred years after his death would heed his warnings and share in his awe-struck visions of nature. While their engagement with Humboldt’s ideas and works is limited, his observations strike a chord with many modern-day environmentalists.