Two Exponents of the Enlightenment: Transatlantic Communication - Review Paper Example

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Sewanee University of the South
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Title of Article: "Two Exponents of the Enlightenment: Transatlantic Communication by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander von Humboldt.

Title of Journal: Southern Quarterly

Volume: 43

Number: 4

Year: 2006

Pages: 126-152

Stable URL:

Accessed: October 16, 2017


Historians agree that much of the Western world, the politics, science, and philosophies we know today would not have happened if not for 19th-century correspondence between Europe and the New World that is the Americas. Starting from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, knowledge and information passed across the Atlantic between the two continents saw revolutions across Europe and liberation fights in South and Central America as countries clamored for independence. For the first time in history countries across continents worked together towards better governance, scientific progress, and better living conditions for the people and development of Industry.

Supporting Arguments:

Correspondence between Europe and America helped decide on borders between nations case in point the Mexico-USA border. Jefferson used the writings of Humboldt concerning the territories of Spanish America were used to ascertain the borders to the southern nation- case in point the state of Louisiana.

The rise of democracies in Europe and liberated nations was a direct consequence of the enlightenment brought by American and European contacts. Over the decades Europe slowly relegated their monarchies to something more ceremonial. Case in point is the French Revolution and Napoleons rise to power in France. America being a young and somewhat successful democracy gave many nations in Europe and those gaining independence in South America to try democracy and democratically elected governments.

The Scientific Revolution was also sped up by collaborative efforts by scientists from different parts of the sphere. With the rise of America as a nation to contend with led to many squabbling European nations to put aside their differences. Case in point in the Britain-USA War of 1812 which afterward made the two countries allies up to now. As a result of this sort of peace between nations, scientists, inventors, and writers formed a global community which would help push the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.

Opposing Argument(s):

The author has focused so much on the personal contact between Jefferson and Humboldt and far less on the effects on countries, continents and the people. There were results of this communication. Much could have been expounded on the Mexican-American deal concerning the purchase of Louisiana. The Scientific expeditions commissioned by Jefferson are shallow. In what way the correspondence influenced governance has not been explained much. Case in point is how Europe turned from the monarch as the executive to democracy as a form of governance is something that is not described.

Authors Conclusion:

Jefferson and Humboldts correspondence would set the stage for much of the future cooperation between Europe and America. The ways the enlightenment changed society also depended on the communitys needs, structure and popular beliefs at the time.

Response Section

Key individuals who utilized the identified ideas in respect to the historical event:

Thomas Jefferson, scientist and politician of the United States of America and Alexander von Humboldt Prussian explorer-scientist and philosopher are perhaps the best representatives of Europe and the New World in the late 18th and early 19th century. These two corresponded personally writing letters to one another for two decades starting from the first time Humboldt visited the United States on 20 May 1804.

The subjects they talked in their letters included Science, geography and exploration, philosophy, politics, and governance. Humboldt before 1804 had spent five years exploring Spanish America- what is now Central and South America including the Caribbean nations. Sharing of knowledge and information was what initiated the first contact between the two esteemed individuals

Current understanding of the historical event and impact on the collective identity of a particular group affected by the event:

The parties most affected by the Jefferson-Humboldt correspondence had to be the scientists, politicians and the ordinary citizenry above everyone else. Both men were an immense contribution to the spread of knowledge and the pursuit of Science. They wrote books. Jefferson's writings tended to be socio-political while Humboldt's were more scientific and biological. Jefferson commissioned scientific quests and explorations. Humboldt wrote many letters of recommendations for many young Scientists both American and European to enable them to travel across continents.

The role of material/cultural artifacts in the shaping of our understanding of the historical event:

The primary sources used by the author focus on the high-esteem Jefferson and Humboldt wrote letters to each other. They also show their qualities. Jefferson is shown to be pragmatic and realistic in his political and scientific pursuits. Humboldt is idealistic with his 19th-century vision for an interconnected world. Both had their differences and similarities, but the key point is they found a way to work together in collaborative efforts. The personal nature of the materials makes us see Humboldt and Jefferson as actual people rather than long gone historical figures


Rebok, Sandra. "Two Exponents of the Enlightenment: Transatlantic Communication by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander von Humboldt1." Southern Quarterly 43, no. 4 (2006): 126-152


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