early american natural history
American Identity: American Antaeus & Manufacturing Science
By cutting off our Trade you have thrown us to the Earth, whence like Antaeus we shall rise yearly with fresh Strength and Vigor
-- Benjamin Franklin in a letter to friend in Britain, September of 1775 1
While Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with lightning might be famous explorations of natural phenomena, his interest in plants, particularly useful ones, is not as well known. Like many early American statesmen, Franklin was engaged in a vast network of transatlantic trade in seeds, specimens of plants or animals, and knowledge about the New World. This was all a part of the glory of the British Empire, her gathering of knowledge and riches from all over the world. The colonies, of course, benefited to a lesser degree from the exchange. This network slowed down and, for American colonists, re-oriented itself in the 1770s.
Following the Stamp Act and other taxes and levies on glass, tea, or other British imports, American leaders such as Franklin argued that colonists should boycott British goods. It was America’s primarily agricultural economy that, Franklin felt, would make this possible. He argued before the British Parliament that Americans could either make or do without most of the goods England sent to them, attempting to convince them of the economic harm of high taxes. On the home front, leaders such as John Adams encouraged colonists to wear coats made from ox skins instead of British wool, and give up luxuries such as tea for the sake of their rights. 2 One half of the transatlantic trade was not cooperating.
The boycotts were certainly accompanied by other, less peaceful protests which would eventually culminate in the war. As Franklin traveled between the colonies and England, attempting to work out a compromise between the two, he collected and sent home seeds. In fact, he exchanged seeds through a network of correspondents in England, America, and France. These seed exchanges became even more crucial for Franklin as the boycotts began— increasing the varieties and yields of American agriculture became a political statement as well as an economic goal. Franklin sent upland rice, chickpeas, Scottish kale, Chinese rhubarb, the tallow tree (used for making candles) as well as varieties of barley and oats. 3
Out of this embrace of early America’s lack of manufacturing grew a sense of self-sufficiency, with the small farmer as the center of that vision. Jefferson’s idealized interest in the yeoman farmer is well known, as is his quite large farm and home at Monticello. Washington also farmed on a large scale at Mount Vernon. Early Americans were farmers or frontiersmen who lived closely with the land they inhabited.
As a result, learning about the land and its natural resources was an early part of the American identity. The investigation of the new nation's plant life, animals, and peoples were an essential patriotic project, and one Americans wished to wrestle away from British or European scientific endeavor and claim for their own. To that end, the American Philosophical Society and groups like it joined together to begin national natural history projects, and to rival the Old World in learning and sophistication when it came to publishing about, classifying, and understanding the New World. Ornithologists such as Alexander Wilson worked to publish on American species in America and contributed to the desire for westward expansion. Thomas Jefferson and Charles Wilson Peale worked to promote American science and American species at home and abroad. Americans began to produce science in the way that they started to produce manufactured goods.
1. Andrea Wulf, Founding Gardeners, The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 10.
2. Ibid., 7-9.
3. Ibid., 6.
Charles Willson Peale, Benjamin Franklin, 1785, Currently at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. Accessed through WikiMedia.