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4. Spirit of Nationalism   

4. Spirit of Nationalism

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Mammoth Nation: Natural History and National Ideals

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Skeleton of the Young Mammoth in the Museum at Philadelphia

[7343] Thomas Ashe, Skeleton of the Young Mammoth in the Museum at Philadelphia (1806), courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.
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When Benjamin Franklin was abroad in England as a young man, he discovered that Europeans were fascinated by some of the natural "curiosities" he had brought over from the New World. Indeed, his "asbestos purse"--a clump of fibrous material that was impervious to fire--so interested a wealthy nobleman that it procured Franklin an invitation to the aristocrat's home and a substantial monetary reward. Similarly, Farmer James, the character who narrates Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer, is asked to give an account of American natural and agricultural history as well as American social customs in his correspondence with Mr. F. B., a European nobleman. It seemed that the national flora and fauna could afford a kind of cultural prestige, proving to Europeans, as well as to Americans themselves, the importance and worth of the very land upon which the new nation was situated. Eventually, many Americans came to tie their national pride to the landscape and wilderness, believing that a correlation existed between the strength and vigor of American nature and the strength and vigor of American society.

Thomas Jefferson illustrates the symbolic connection between American nature and the American nation in his "Query VI: Productions Mineral, Vegetable, and Animal" from Notes on the State of Virginia. Here he discusses American "natural productions" in order to refute the claims of French naturalist and writer Georges de Buffon, who had argued in his Natural History of the Earth that American plants, animals, and even people were inferior to European natural specimens. According to Buffon, "nature is less active, less energetic on one side of the globe than she is on the other," and American nature was weaker, smaller, less diverse, and more prone to degeneration than European nature. Outraged by this insult to America's worth and potential, Jefferson set out to prove, through long lists of statistics and scientific observation, that American natural productions were not simply equal to their European equivalents but actually superior to them. Jefferson includes detailed tables of all of the useful minerals, plants, and trees that exist in America and the relative weights of various animals and birds found in Europe and America. Not content to apply his hypothesis "to brute animals only," he goes on to dismiss Buffon's claim that the "savages" of North America were feeble and mentally inferior by arguing for the vigor and creativity of Indians. Although Jefferson intended to defend Native Americans from Buffon's slanders, his analysis participates in the Eurocentric assumption that Indians were "uncivilized." By categorizing Native Americans as "natural productions" on par with the animals and plants that he exhaustively lists and describes, Jefferson treats them as a homogeneous group waiting to be classified by white scientists. Later in the essay, Jefferson also addresses Buffon's claim that Europeans who relocate to America degenerate in their mental and artistic abilities, insisting that the American climate has "given hopeful proofs of genius."

But Jefferson finds his most compelling evidence for the superiority of the American environment in the existence of the "mammoth" or "mastodon," a giant quadruped six times the size of an elephant ,whose bones had been found in some fossil pits. Insisting that the mammoth was not extinct and still roamed in the western territories (when he sent the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific in 1804, Jefferson believed they would locate a live mammoth), Jefferson saw the existence of this enormous animal as proof of American superiority and uniqueness. Although the mastodon eventually proved to be an extinct, herbivorous creature, eighteenth-century Americans, in awe of the enormous teeth found on the fossilized mammoth jawbones, assumed that it had been a formidable carnivore. This investment in the fierceness and power of the mastodon testifies to the American desire to showcase an impressive, even frightening, natural specimen that would be superior in size and power to any creature found in Europe.

In 1801, Jefferson's hopes for further evidence of the mastodon were fulfilled when a pit of fossilized mammoth bones was discovered on a farm in upstate New York. His friend, the painter, inventor, naturalist, museum curator, and businessman Charles Willson Peale, immediately set out to exhume the bones and assemble a complete mastodon skeleton. Peale hired more than twenty-five men to help him with the labor of digging out the bones, transported the skeleton to Philadelphia, enlisted sculptor William Rush to create wooden models of missing bones, and finally assembled a complete skeleton. Considered a "wonder" and a "curiosity," the mastodon skeleton attracted a great deal of attention both in America and in Europe. Peale traveled with it, sold tickets to view it, and even auctioned off opportunities to eat dinner within the skeleton. He eventually brought it back to Philadelphia and made it the centerpiece of his museum of natural history there.

Peale's museum, housed for a time in Independence Hall, was itself an expression of the conjunction of national ideals and natural history. Intended to be a "world in miniature," Peale's collection of preserved natural specimens was carefully arranged to instruct spectators in the harmonious structure of nature. The museum did its best to reflect the diversity of the natural world: it housed 1824 birds, 250 quadrupeds, and 650 fish, all preserved through Peale's special taxidermy technique and all displayed against painted backdrops designed to evoke their natural environments. Tickets to the museum urged visitors to "explore the wondrous work!" presumably alluding both to the divine creation of the natural world represented in the museum and to Peale's labor in collecting and organizing the objects on display. Significantly, the walls of the museum were surmounted by a large collection of portraits of American politicians and leaders. (Peale had originally hoped to display mummified corpses of important men as specimens of the "highest order of nature," but when this proved impossible he settled for painted images.) The museum was meant to visually reinforce the idea that the world is organized by a "great chain of being," a universal hierarchy in which all existence is arranged from the lowest rung (minerals and plants) to the highest and most perfect (humans, and, ultimately, God). The paintings of American leaders ringing the tops of the galleries' walls visually asserted the dominance of human beings--and of the American political structure--over nature.

  1. Comprehension: What was the nature of Jefferson's argument with Buffon?

  2. Comprehension: Why were Americans so interested in mammoth bones in the late eighteenth century?

  3. Context: How might eighteenth-century Americans' fascination with the mammoth bones relate to ideas of the sublime? Can fossilized bones be considered sublime objects?

  4. Context: Read Jefferson's discussion of Native Americans in Query VI (the complete text is featured in the archive). What qualities and characteristics does he attribute to Native Americans? How does William Apess's account of Native American life complicate Jefferson's analysis?

  5. Exploration: Dinosaurs and dinosaur bones continue to fascinate Americans. The assembled bones of a Tyrannosaurus Rex nicknamed "Sue" caused a sensation in the late 1990s, and contemporary films such as Jurassic Park and Land Before Time celebrate the power and size of prehistoric creatures. Does contemporary American interest in dinosaurs have anything in common with the eighteenth-century interest in the mammoth bones? Why are we as a nation so fascinated by dinosaurs?

  6. Exploration: Compare Peale's museum to a contemporary science or history museum you have visited. How do twenty-first-century museums differ in their organization and mission from Peale's museum? What do they have in common?

  7. Exploration: What values and assumptions underwrite contemporary discussions of the American wilderness and its place in national society? You might consider debates over the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge, Pacific Northwest old-growth forests, and the use of national parks and forests.

[1051] George Catlin, Catlin and His Indian Guide Approaching Buffalo under White Wolf Skins (c.1846),
courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, American Art Museum.
Prairie wolves often followed buffalo herds, preying on sick and weak animals. Native Americans donned wolf skins in order to approach within arrow range of a buffalo herd.

[7342] William Winterbotham, Bones of the Mammoth (1795),
courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.
Like many of his contemporaries, Thomas Jefferson was excited by the bones of mammoths found in the New World. He believed that mammoths still roamed the lands to the west and hoped that Lewis and Clark would find them on their expedition.

[7343] Thomas Ashe, Skeleton of the Young Mammoth in the Museum at Philadelphia (1806),
courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.
Charles Peale's Philadelphia museum embodied the Jeffersonian conviction in the interconnectedness of American ideals and American natural history.

[9029] T. W. Ingersoll, U.S. Smithsonian Institute--Interior View (1888),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-95631].
Photograph of a dinosaur skeleton and various stuffed animals in the Museum of Natural History.

[9030] Thomas Jefferson, Query VI, from Notes on the State of Virginia (1785),
courtesy of XRoads Virginia.
This Query describes the animals and people native to North America and defends against the charge that North American natural resources were inferior to those of Europe.

[9031] Anonymous, Captain Lewis & Clark Holding a Council with the Indians (1810),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-17372].
This etching shows Lewis and Clark standing over a council of Native Americans; it originally appeared in an 1810 book entitled A Journal of the Voyages and Travels of a Corps of Discovery.

[9042] Laura Arnold, "The Great Chain of Being" (2003),
courtesy of Laura Arnold.
From the beginning of the Middle Ages through the start of the nineteenth century, "educated" Europeans conceived of the universe in terms of a hierarchical Great Chain of Being, with God at its apex. The roots of this vertical hierarchy are still pervasive in Western theology and thought and stand in opposition to Native American and other belief systems that view the human and the spiritual as coexisting on a horizontal plane.

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