Europeans and early Americans both believed that the New World, America included, was made of a climate “harmful to all living creatures, including the Indians, who were the only humans native to the New World.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 386. George Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, wrote in his 36-volume book Natural History that the New World had “some combination of elements and other physical causes, something that opposes the amplification of animated Nature.” Buffon, Natural History, General and Particular, in Henry Steele Commager and Elmo Giordanetti, eds.
Americans were insecure about this fact. Americans knew that America had twice as much rain as Europe, that there could be wild swings in temperature, and that the same regions that would be bitterly cold in winter could be boiling hot in summer. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 389.
America’s leaders came to believe that these conditions, particularly the intense heat and humidity, would routinely lead to the spread of diseases, like yellow fever. The leading intellectuals of the day, including Benjamin Rush, Noah Webster, Samuel Mitchill, Benjamin Latrobe and Charles Caldwell, thought how best to deal with this problem. Charles Caldwell imagined that American cities should be rebuilt as a result of the unusual climate, “requiring lofty buildings, lots of squares, and many trees, especially Lombardy poplars, which were the best kind of tree for soaking up the miasma and emitting vital air.” Id. at 390.
Many Americans began to wonder if the Native Americans’ lack of progress in the thousands of years prior to the colonies was attributed to the circumstances of America’s land, not a difference in nature. Id. at 394. Why did so many Americans wonder this? Because a fear began to develop that Americans might degenerate to a cruder and more savage state, as a result of their environment. Id. at 395.
Some Americans observed that as settlers moved west, they tended to lose their “politeness and refinement.” Id. at 396. Some questioned whether that was a result of the environment and was the beginning of a regressive movement back to a more savage state.
Thomas Jefferson told a different story, however. “The tendency of the American character is then to degenerate, and to degenerate rapidly; and that not from any peculiar vice in the American people, but from the very nature of a spreading population. The population of the country is out-growing its institutions.” Thomas Jefferson to William Ludlow, September 6, 1824.
There are two interesting points of analysis here.
First, there is always a continual sense in American history that the essential element of American-ness is being lost. Rather than being confident that society could preserve its best traditions and attributes, Americans seem to have a fear that because styles, norms, or people change, those traditions and key American attributes are at risk. This fear seems to be misplaced, considering the extraordinary changes that American society has experienced in its over 200 years of existence.
Second, Jefferson’s fear that the spreading population was outgrowing the government was a legitimate fear but one that ultimately did not come to fruition. As the settlers expanded the boundaries of the United States westward, the ability of the federal government and states to keep up was undoubtedly tested. However, the settlers came from the East, with all of its established institutions. Those settlers must have desired to recreate the familiar structure of American life that was familiar to them, and even those who were not familiar with the Eastern lifestyle would quickly have seen the benefits.
Both of these points, the preservation of American virtues and the government’s ability to adapt to its growing and changing population, remain as relevant now as the early 1800s. These same issues are raised and argued over time after time throughout American history, and yet, the Union remains strong. Perhaps the concerns and the worries about these two fundamental issues, while understandable, are misplaced.