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Thomas Jefferson to Alexander von Humboldt, 6 March 1809

To Alexander von Humboldt

Washington Mar. 6. 09.

Dear Sir

I recieved safely your letter of May 30. & with it your astronomical work & Political essay on the kingdom of New Spain, for which I return you my sincere thanks. I had before heard that this work had begun to appear, & the specimen I have recieved proves that it will not disappoint the expectations of the learned. besides making known1 to us one of the most singular & interesting countries on the globe, one almost locked up from the knolege of man hitherto, precious addition will be made to our stock of physical science, in many of it’s parts. we shall bear to you therefore the honorable testimony that you have deserved well of the republic of letters.

You mention that you had before written other letters to me. be assured I have never recieved a single one, or I should not have failed to make my acknolegements of it. indeed I have not waited for that, but for the certain information, which I had not, of the place where you might be. your letter of May 30. first gave me that information. you have wisely located yourself in the focus of the science of Europe. I am held by the cords of love to my family & country, or I should certainly join you. within a few days I shall now bury myself in the groves of Monticello, & become a mere spectator of the passing events. on politics I will say nothing, because I would not implicate you by addressing to you the republican ideas of America, deemed horrible heresies by the royalism of Europe. you will know, before this reaches you, that mr Madison is my successor. this ensures to us a wise & honest administration. I salute you with sincere friendship & respect.

Th: Jefferson

RC (GyLeU); at foot of text: “M. le Baron Humboldt” and later presentation inscription by Humboldt to Konstantin Karl Falkenstein, a Dresden librarian: “Ich Sollte mich schämen immer Lobende Briefe mitzutheilen, aber bei der bösen Gewohnheit die ich habe, alles zu zerreissen um in allen Zustanden des Lehens, alles mitführen zu können, bleibt mir unter dem Wenigen nicht zerstöhrten keine Wahl für Herr Bibl. Falkenstein übrig  Den Tadel schreiben einem die Menschen Selten auf directem Wege. Humboldt” (“I should be ashamed of myself for always communicating letters of praise, but the bad habit I have of tearing everything up in order to be able to carry everything with me, no matter what life’s conditions are, means that among the few not destroyed there is no choice for Librarian Falkenstein. People rarely fault one directly in writing.” Humboldt translation in Ingo Schwarz, “From Alexander von Humboldt’s Correspondence with Thomas Jefferson and Albert Gallatin” [Berlin: Alexander von Humboldt Research Center, 1991], 7). PoC (DLC).

Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), a Berlin-born natural scientist and explorer, studied a broad range of disciplines, including archaeology, botany, ethnography, meteorology, and mineralogy. In 1799 he and fellow botanist Aimé Goujaud Bonpland began a five-year scientific expedition through South and Central America to study plant geography and collect quantitative data using a wide variety of scientific instruments. They returned via the United States, where in May 1804 they traveled to Philadelphia and Washington, meeting with TJ, Charles Willson Peale, and other scientists (DSB description begins Charles C. Gillispie, ed., Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 1970–80, 16 vols. description ends ; Humboldt, Personal Narrative, trans. Jason Wilson [1995]; Helmut de Terra, “Alexander von Humboldt’s Correspondence with Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin,” APS, Proceedings 103 [1959]: 783–806). Humboldt wrote about their scientific findings in a series entitled Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du nouveau continent, fait en 1799, 1800, 1801, 1802, 1803, et 1804, 34 vols. (Paris, 1805–34), which was divided into six subject groups as follows: (1) travel narratives (7 vols.). (2) zoology (2 vols.). (3) Mexico (3 vols.). (4) astronomy (3 vols.). (5) plant geography (1 vol.). (6) botany (18 vols.). He sent TJ segments of this work in parts that did not always correspond to the final volume numbering.

With his letter to TJ of 30 May 1808 (NNPM), Humboldt enclosed an astronomical volume from group four, Recueil d’observations astronomiques, d’operations trigonométriques et de mesures barométriques faites pendant le cours d’un voyage aux régions équinoxiales du nouveau continent, depuis 1799 jusqu’en 1803 (Paris, 1808); and two parts from group three on new spain, Essai politique sur le royaume de la Nouvelle-Espagne: ouvrage qui presente des recherches sur la geographie du Mexique (Paris, 1808–19; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 4157).

1Manuscript: “knon.”

Index Entries

  • astronomy; books on search
  • Bonpland, Aimé Goujaud; Voyage de Humboldt et Bonpland search
  • botany; scholars of search
  • Essai politique sur le royaume de la Nouvelle-Espagne (Humboldt) search
  • Falkenstein, Konstantin Karl search
  • Humboldt, Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander, Baron von; Essai politique sur le royaume de la Nouvelle-Espagne search
  • Humboldt, Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander, Baron von; identified search
  • Humboldt, Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander, Baron von; letters to search
  • Humboldt, Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander, Baron von; Recueil d’observations astronomiques search
  • Humboldt, Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander, Baron von; Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du nouveau continent search
  • Humboldt, Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander, Baron von; Voyage de Humboldt et Bonpland search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Books & Library; receives books search
  • Mexico; A. von Humboldt’s work on search
  • Peale, Charles Willson; and A. von Humboldt search
  • Recueil d’observations astronomiques (Humboldt) search
  • Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du nouveau continent (Humboldt) search
  • Voyage de Humboldt et Bonpland search
  • zoology; books on search