Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 116 / Number 4
Enlightened Correspondents: The Transatlantic Dialogue of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander von Humboldt
- By Sandra Rebok, pp. 328–69
This article analyzes both the personal and ideological links between the Prussian traveler and scientist Alexander von Humboldt and the American statesman Thomas Jefferson, contextualizing them in the realm of intellectual history and its broader significance for transatlantic political and scientific dialogue. Examining these men side by side allows us to gauge the importance of transatlantic travel in shaping an individual's perception of different forms of societies and political structures. By studying their relationship and their individual observations and impressions of world events, an important period in history can be reconstructed. To accomplish this, particular attention will be paid to several key points. First, the extent to which Humboldt and Jefferson were influenced by their own transatlantic experiences will be traced. An analysis of these experiences reveals Jefferson's ambivalence toward the Old World and the complexity of Humboldt's views of the New World. The primary purpose of this investigation is not to hold up these two men and their ideas in contrast—though at some points their differences in interest and perspective will be mentioned—but rather to show how their time on each other's continent molded their convictions and as a consequence shaped their personal and national identities. This will be followed by an examination of the personal correspondence of these two famous personalities and committed representatives of the Enlightenment, which will allow for the exploration of their scientific and ideological exchanges—beginning with their first meeting and continuing throughout their lengthy correspondence.