Louis MenandAgassiz and Brazil – A story of ideas in America

2.21 Louis Menand, excerpt, Agassiz, p. 97 – 116 and Brazil, p 116 – 148 in The Metaphysical Club – A story of ideas in America, New York, 2001

a) Background

Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (May 28, 1807 – December 14, 1873) was a Swiss biologist, geologist, physician, and a prominent innovator in the study of Earth’s natural history. He grew up in Switzerland and became a professor of natural history at University of Neuchâtel. Later, he accepted a professorship at Harvard University in the United States and became a towering figure of American natural science and an institution builder in the 19th century. The recent biography of Christopher Irmscher, Louis Agassiz (2013) called him in the subtitle Creator of American science.
We include Louis Agassiz in this Anthology in a case study, because he was a proponent of a contested theory of races which became an issue in the 19th and the 20th century among American scientists.and lawyers and in the Swiss political process around the 200rd birthday of Agassiz in Switzerland in 2007 (see text 2.21). Switzerland and Swiss science – “the Swiss get up early but wake up late” – have dealt with the specific involvement of Swiss nationals, Swiss companies and the Swiss government (see text 2.23), in American slavery at a late stage and only under the pressure of public opinion and of scientists usually termed leftist – see also Thomas Maissen text 2.49 with respect to the late analysis of historians of Swiss dealings with South African Apartheid and with the history of World War II. The texts of James Hutson, Swiss and American Civil War (2.12) and the text of Heinz K. Meier, The period of the Civil War (2.13) did not squarely address the issue of Swiss involvement in matters of slavery in the United States. The provocative book of Hans Fessler, Reise in Schwarz-Weiss, Schweizer Ortstermine in Sklaverei (A Travel in Black and White, Swiss locations in the cause of slavery), Zürich 2005, and the summaries of new historic research by Thomas David, Bouda Etemad and Yannick Marina Schauffenbühl, La Suisse et l’esclavage des noirs (Switzerland and the slavery of blacks), Lausanne, 2005, brought to light new facts on the Swiss involvement with American slavery. It is obvious, that Swiss nationals and Swiss companies were involved in financing, trading, importing and manufacturing as well as farming activities in the United States and were a part in this historic triangle. For a stupendous inclusion of the issue of slavery in new views on atlantic history see Bernard Bailyn, Atlantic History, Concept and Contrairs, Harvard University Press, 2005 and for a recent analysis of issues of slavery and race and the rise of the American college see again Steven Wilder Ebony & Ivy Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of American Universities, Bloomsbury Press, 2013.

The Anthology is not the place to pass a judgment on this obviously underresearched issue of Switzerland’s relation to the American issue of slavery. We want to facilitate readers and users access to some basic texts in the context of law and legal culture. There still are many scars and sorrows in that respect. The renowned protestant theologian Karl Barth for instance after his emiritation took a trip to the United States accompanied by members of his family to deliver lectures and receive another honorary doctorate degree. Karl Barth was deeply moved by the issue of American slavery and the South.He listened to Martin Luther King preach in Princeton, he visited American prisons and above all he was most interested in the battlefields of the American Civil War. Karl Barth had a thorough knowledge of the battlefields of the Civil War. According to the biography of Eberhard Busch, Karl Barths Lebenslauf, 5th edition 1993, p.  476. The American Civil War was of great importance to him „Weil ich zu sehen meine: Was damals unter viel Schmerzen und Geschrei geboren wurde, war zugleich die Wirklichkeit und der Mythos des modernen Amerikas. (Because I realized: What was born at that time with many pains and cries at the same time was the reality and the myth of modern America.)

Louis Agassiz was born in Môtier (now part of Haut-Vully) in the Canton of Fribourg, Switzerland. Having adopted medicine as his profession, he studied successively at the universities of Zürich, Heidelberg and Munich; while there he extended his knowledge to natural history, especially to botany. In 1829 he received the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at Erlangen, and in 1830 that of a Doctor of Medicine at Munich. Moving to Paris he fell under the tutelage of Alexander von Humboldt and Georges Cuvier, who launched him on his careers of geology and zoology respectively.

Previously he had not paid special attention to the study of ichthyology, but it soon became the great focus of his life’s work. In 1819–1820, Johann Baptist von Spix and Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius were engaged in an expedition to Brazil, and on their return to Europe, amongst other collections of natural objects, they brought home an important set of the fresh water fish of Brazil, especially of the Amazon River. Spix, who died in 1826, did not live long enough to work out the history of these fish, and Agassiz (though fresh out of school) was selected by Martius for this purpose. This became the scientific base of a successful and highly respected international career. In 1832 he was appointed professor of natural history at the University of Neuchâtel. The fossil fish there soon attracted his attention. He travelled in Europe and raised money. The University of Neuchâtel soon became a leading institution for scientific research. He extended his field of research to geology. In 1837 Agassiz was the first to scientifically propose that the Earth had been subject to a past ice age. These labours resulted in 1840, in the publication of his work in two volumes entitled Etudes sur les glaciers (“Study on Glaciers”). With the aid of a grant of money from the king of Prussia, Agassiz crossed the Atlantic in the autumn of 1846 with the twin purposes of investigation, the natural history and geology of North America and delivering a course of 12 lectures on the plan of creation as shown in the animal kingdom by invitation from J. A. Lowell at the Lowell Institute in Boston Massachusetts. The financial offers presented to him in the United States induced him to settle there, where he remained to the end of his life. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1846. His engagement for the Lowell Institute lectures precipitated the establishment of the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University in 1847 with him as its head. Harvard University appointed him professor of zoology and geology, and he founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology there in 1859 serving as the museum’s first director until his death in 1873. During his tenure at Harvard, he was, among many other things, an early student of the effect of the last Ice Age on North America. He made successful expeditions to South America and continued to write on fish and a “Bibliographia Zoologiae et Geologiae”, in four volumes between 1848 and 1854. In 1859 he married Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz, a reputed scientist herself and later president of Ratcliff College. After Louis Agassiz came to the United States he also became a prolific writer in what has been later termed the genre of scientific racism. Agassiz was specifically a believer and advocate in polygenism, that races came from separate origins (specifically separate creations), were endowed with unequal attributes, and could be classified into specific climatic zones, in the same way he felt other animals and plants could be classified. In recent years, critics have cited Agassiz’s racial theories, arguing that these now-unpopular views tarnish his scientific record. Agassiz was never a supporter of slavery, and claimed his views had nothing to do with politics. Agassiz was a creationist who believed nature had order because God has created it directly, and Agassiz viewed his career in science as a search for ideas in the mind of the creator expressed in creation.

In order to facilitate the reader and user’s access to the theory of races of Louis Agassiz, we use in this case study two excerpts at hand of the prize winning seminal book The Metaphysical Club (2001) of Louis Menand on Louis Agassiz as a person and on a expedition he organized in Brazil. This should give an insight in the scientific and social position of Louis Agassiz in the United States at the time. We then turn to a short excerpt of a text of Stephen Jay Gould, which is a scientific analysis and positioning of Louis Agassiz theory of races (see text 2.22). Stephen Jay Gould was a late successorof Louis Agassiz as head of Harvard Museum on Comparative Zoology of which Louis Agassiz was the founder. We further use as part of text 2. 22 a short excpert of the book of the anthropologist, Lee D. Baker in the book From Savage to Negro, anthropology and the construction of race, 1896-1904 positioning the theory of races of Louis Agassiz under the aspect of travels to other social sciences such as anthropology and law. We then use in text 2.23 the interpellation in the parliament of Switzerland in 2007, naming Louis Agassiz as a main culprit of racism, in order to briefly highlight recent findings on the involvement of Switzerland and Swiss in slavery in the United States.

Louis Menand (born January 21, 1952) is an American writer and academic, best known for his book The Metaphysical Club (2001), an intellectual and cultural history of late 19th and early 20th century America. Menand was born in Syracuse, New York, and raised around Boston, Massachusetts. A graduate of Pomona College, Menand attended Harvard Law School for one year (1973-1974) before he left to earn a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University in 1980. Menand thereafter taught at Princeton University and held staff positions at The New Republic and The New Yorker. He served as Distinguished Professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York before accepting a post at Harvard in 2003. Menand published his first book, Discovering Modernism: T. S. Eliot and His Context, in 1987. His long-anticipated second book, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (2001), includes detailed biographical material on Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey, and documents their roles in the development of the philosophy of pragmatism. It received the Pulitzer Prize for History, the 2002 Francis Parkman Prize, and The Heartland Prize for Non-Fiction. In 2002, Menand published American Studies, a collection of essays on prominent figures in American culture. Menand is the Robert M. and Anne T. Bass Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University. His principal field of academic interest is 19th and 20th century American cultural history. He contributes to The New Yorker, for which he remains a staff writer, and The New York Review of Books, among other publications.

b) Summary

The texts at hand are two excerpts dealing with Louis Agassiz, from the book of Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club – a story of ideas in America, which appeared after the turn of the millennium in 2001. He describes the book “An utterly narrative of people, politics, and ideas, Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club is “something very like a history of the American mind at work” (Alan Ryan, The New York Review of Books). Covering American history in the years between the Civil War and the end of the First World War, Menand draws masterful portraits of four giants of American thought – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey – whose ideas changed the way Americans think.”

In the preface of the book Louis Menand writes: “ It is a remarkable fact about the United States that it fought a civil war without undergoing a change in its form of government. The Constitution was not abandoned during the American Civil War; elections were not suspended; there was no coup d’êtat. The war was fought to preserve the system of government that had been established at the nation’s founding – to prove, in fact, that the system was worth preserving, that the idea of democracy had not failed. This is the meaning of the Gettysburg Address and of the great fighting cry of the North: “Union.” And the system was preserved; the Union did survive. But in almost every other respect, the United States became a different country. The war alone did not make America modern, but the war marks the birth of modern America.”  (Introduction (IX)) Louis Menand further writes: “The Civil War swept away the slave civilization of the South, but it swept away almost the whole intellectual culture of the North along with it. It took nearly half a century for the United States to develop a culture to replace it, to find a set of ideas, and a way of thinking, that would help people cope with the conditions of modern life. That struggle is the subject of this book. There are many paths through this story. The one that is followed here runs through the lives of four people:

Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles S. Peirce, and John Dewey. These people had highly distinctive personalities, and they did not always agree with one another, but their careers intersected as many points, and together they were more responsible than any other group for moving American thought into the modern world. They not only had an unparalleled influence on other writers and thinkers; they had an enormous influence on American life. Their ideas changed the way Americans thought – and continue to think – about education, democracy, liberty, justice, and tolerance.” (Introduction (XI))

In that sense, the book at hand is a show piece of the nature of intellectual life after the Civil War. According to Louis Menand, what the four thinkers had in common was not a group of ideas, but a single idea. They believed, that ideas are produced not by individuals, but by groups of individuals – that ideas are social. They believed, that ideas do not develop, according to some inner logic of their own, but are entirely dependant, like germs, on their human careers and the environment.

They believe, that ideas should never become ideologies – either justifying the status quo or dictating some transcendent imperative for renouncing it – was according to Louis Menand the essence of what they taught. As Louis Menand writes, the book is an effort to write about these ideas in their own spirit, that is, to try to see ideas as always soaked trough by the personal and social situations in which we find them.

Louis Agassiz not being one of the four philosophers described in the book is introduced in a chapter called “Agassiz”, like a rock which has been carried by a glacier to its place in the Metaphysical Club. The text vividly describes Agassiz life at Harvard, briefly touches upon his Swiss background and the methods of Agassiz developped in his natural science world, which made him become a towering figure of the time on a national as well as international level in natural science. The portrait focuses on Agassiz’ attitude on the theory of races and pits his opinions to other scientists of the time such Nathaniel Shaler and Samuel George Morton. The text describes Agassiz’ first encounter with black men “Agassiz delivered his inaugural Lowell Lecture later that month and he announced for the first time in his career, that while Negros and Whites belong to the same species, they had separate origins.” (page 106) Louis Menand then draws a broader picture of the function of the theory of polygenysm in that time. According to Louis Menand, despite its obvious usefulness in defense of slavery, polygenysm was a controversial doctrine in the South because it contradicted the account in Genesis. As the political temperature rose, polygenysm was cited in support of the view, that slavery did not violate the spirit of the Delcaration of Independence, on grounds that Jeffersons term “all men” “did not, scientifically, mean blacks.” Agassiz is particularly described in his creationist attitudes.

The second short chapter at hand with the title Brazil, which immediately follows the text with the title “Agassiz”, describes William James’ first encounter with Louis Agassiz in September 1861, five months after the outbreak of the Civil War. William James attended a Lowell lecture as a 19 year old student of Louis Agassiz. He was fascinated by Agassiz teaching methods and became a student of Charles William Elliot, who eventually would become president of Harvard, at Lawrence. The text describes a Brazil expedition of Agassiz. The text contrasts Agassiz opinion of the later published origin of species of Charles Darwin, the scientist which Agassiz considered as his main opponent. The text further describes the participation of William James in the Brazil expeditions for some months and his first encounters with Agassiz theory on polygenysm. It ends with characterizing William James attitude towards the debates on the Civil War using a speech that William James gave in 1897. The early encounters of Henri James with Louis Agassiz and his first hand observations of the work of Louis Agassiz on the expedition in Brazil are introduced by Louis Menand to build a later bridge of William James’ own attitude towards the Civil War as part of the opening of the intellectual discourse of the four giants described in the book.

c) Text

You can find a scan (PDF) of the original text here:
A_2.21_MENAND_Agassiz Brasil


© Prof. Jens Drolshammer, office@drolshammer.com,  www.drolshammer.net

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