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Humboldt and Jefferson

A Transatlantic Friendship of the Enlightenment
Sandra Rebok

BUY Cloth · 232 pp. · 5.5 × 9 · ISBN 9780813935690 · $30.00 · May 2014
BUY Ebook · 232 pp. · ISBN 9780813935706 · $30.00 · May 2014

Humboldt and Jefferson explores the relationship between two fascinating personalities: the Prussian explorer, scientist, and geographer Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) and the American statesman, architect, and naturalist Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826). In the wake of his famous expedition through the Spanish colonies in the spring of 1804, Humboldt visited the United States, where he met several times with then-president Jefferson. A warm and fruitful friendship resulted, and the two men corresponded a good deal over the years, speculating together on topics of mutual interest, including natural history, geography, and the formation of an international scientific network. Living in revolutionary societies, both were deeply concerned with the human condition, and each vested hope in the new American nation as a possible answer to many of the deficiencies characterizing European societies at the time.

The intellectual exchange between the two over the next twenty-one years touched on the pivotal events of those times, such as the independence movement in Latin America and the applicability of the democratic model to that region, the relationship between America and Europe, and the latest developments in scientific research and various technological projects. Humboldt and Jefferson explores the world in which these two Enlightenment figures lived and the ways their lives on opposite sides of the Atlantic defined their respective convictions.


The issue of American/European intellectual exchange in the Age of Enlightenment and beyond is wonderfully exemplified in the intertwining of the lives of Jefferson and Humboldt. The timing of the meeting and correspondence of these two men is in such an important era for political and scientific thought that this book will be valuable to readers with a breadth of interests.

Hank Shugart, University of Virginia, author of How the Earthquake Bird Got Its Name and Other Tales of an Unbalanced Nature

In this vibrantly original work, Sandra Rebok explores the personal, scientific, and political exchanges of two of the titans of the Atlantic world in the late Enlightenment era. Drawing upon vast research across several fields of literature, she traces their shared passion for the exploration of the American continent, their thoughts on revolution and social change, and their mutual faith in the progress of science. While Jefferson and Humboldt’s approaches to these questions occasionally diverged, their friendship remained secure, and Rebok brilliantly examines this complex relationship in the context of an Atlantic world struggling to reach consensus on the scientific and political implications of "Enlightenment" in a critical period of history.

James R. Sofka, author, Metternich, Jefferson, and the Enlightenment: Statecraft and Political Theory in the Early Nineteenth Century.

Based upon years of original research in Europe and the United States, this book is the only sustained study of the relationship of two of the great figures of the Enlightenment. It is illuminating particularly of the neglected scientific interests of Thomas Jefferson. It is important for our broader understanding of the Enlightenment by illustrating in depth the correspondence and exchanges of two leading thinkers across the Atlantic.

Dr. Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, author of The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution and the Fate of the Empire

The book covers his travels and scientific accomplishments, such as his measurement of ocean currents (now known as the Humboldt Current). This work will appeal to historians of science and American historians. An appendix includes correspondence between Humboldt and Jefferson. Useful footnotes and a good bibliography.

J. S. Schwartz · Choice: Current Reviews for Academmic Libraries

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