The Library of America collection of William Bartram’s writings is a slim volume by the series standards but rich in material. It contains his major work, Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida (1791), his report to John Fothergill on those travels, and eight essays. My perspective on Bartram, which I will develop as I re-read this works this week, is that he was a naturalist of the American Revolution and in his own way was as much of a founder as John Adams or Thomas Paine. Although I am not sure he knew this, he was tasked with providing an American understanding of the North American natural world. He went to frontier areas, as far as he could away from the European influence still felt in the urban areas. He attempted to study the American Indians of the Southeast, not as part of nature or as savages, but as a potential bridge between the settler societies and the continent they established. His vision of the natural world is one as dynamic and changing as the world he saw around him. His writings also show the influence of the revolutionary turmoil in American religion at the later 18th century, when people sought an emotional connection to God. That places Bartram in his time, but he speaks to us by giving us a model for a degree of solidarity of nature even as he poses a warning about our tendencies to idealize the natural world.
The Travels begins with a powerful description of Bartram’s fascination with Nature, he feelings about its divine origins, and the familiarity between the human world and nature. Without going so far as to call humans part of nature, he does suggest the possibility of some solidarity of feelings between humans and their brothers and sisters in nature. Of course, he begins with a discussion of creation. “This world, as a glorious apartment of the boundless palace of the sovereign Creator, is furnished with an infinite variety of animated scenes, inexpressibly beautiful and pleasing, equally free to the inspection and enjoyment of all his creation.” (13) Mixed with these shouts of religious awe are lists of the Linnaean taxonomy of plant life of America. He presents a fascination with the order of nature. “Nature seems to have furnished them [Sarracenia] with this cordated appendage or lid, which turns over, to prevent a too sudden and copious supply of water from heavy showers of rain, which would bend down the leaves, never to rise again. . . . These latent waters undoubtedly contribute to the support and refreshment of the plant: perhaps designed as a reservoir in case of long continued droughts, or other casualties,” (16) Nothing here surprising in a pre-Darwinian thinker. I cannot help but notice that no advocate of intelligent design in the present world can produce as beautiful prose as Bartram does in this introduction.
Bartram goes beyond the elegant design of the natural world to suggest a moral center to animal life. “If then the visible, the mechanical part of the animal creation, the mere material part, is so admirably beautiful, harmonious, and incomprehensible, what must be the intellectual system? That inexpressibly more essential principle, which secretly operates within? that which animates the inimitable machines, which gives them motion, empowers them to act, speak, and preform, this must be divine and immortal? I am sensible that the general opinion of philosophers, has distinguished the moral system of the brute creature from that of mankind, by an epithet which implies a mere mechanical impulse, which leads and impels them to necessary actions, without any premeditated design or contrivance; this we term instinct, which faculty we suppose to be inferior to reason in man.” (19) Bartram will have none of that prejudice. He describes filial love in animals, birds socializing, emotion among animals suggesting love. At one point he contrasts the hunting skill of a spider with that of a Seminole. This is the foundation, for Bartram, of a possible solidarity with nature. The Indians, however, are not part of nature, or at least no more so than Europeans. He ends his introduction with a belief that the Indians could enter into civil society. Clearly, Bartram still sees a divide between Nature and humans, but he is close to breaking it down, not by bringing humanity to the level of animals, but rather by lifting up the plants and animals he observed into our brothers and sisters.
Chapter one describes Bartram’s arrival in Charleston. During his travels he is reminded of how powerful nature is. “how vain and uncertain are human expectations! how quickly is the flattering scene changed! The powerful winds, now rushing forth from their secret abodes, suddenly spread terror and devastation; and the wide ocean, which, a few moments past, was gentle and placid, is now thrown into disorder, and heaped into mountains, whose white curling crests seem to sweep the skies.” (27) The “majesty” of the oceans is on his mind as he travels by ship, but he was incapable of applying his scientific knowledge to the oceans.
He does not stay long in Charleston and soon travels to Savannah. His expertise is soon applied as he can carefully define and categorize the animals and plants of the land. He also makes note of the human settlements, the frontier religion, agriculture, and mixed economy. The human successes in development matter little in the face of nature, represented in a violent thunderstorm. “When instantly the lightning, as i were, opening a fiery chasm in the black cloud, darted with inconceivable rapidity on the trunk of a large pine tree, that stood thirty or forty yards from me, and set it in a blaze.” (36) As he did in his introduction, in this chapter he gave animals human characteristics. In this case, it is the bald eagle, who stands above his subjects through “rapine and violence” extracting “tribute and subsidy from all the feathered nations.” (32)
In chapter three, Bartram begins his consideration of the American Indian people. When he first met an armed Indian, like Rowlandsen, Bartram surrendered himself to God’s will. His safe passage into the Indian settlement convinced him of the universal morality shared between all humans (and it seems many animals who seem to him driven my a moral compass). “Can it be denied, but that the moral principle, which directs the savages to virtuous and praiseworthy actions, is natural or innate? It is certain they have not the assistance of letters, or those means of education in the schools of philosophy, where the virtuous sentiments and actions of the most illustrious characters are recorded, and carefully laid before the youth of civilized nations; therefore this moral principle must be innate, or they must be under immediate influence and guidance of a more diving and powerful preceptor, who, on these occasions, instantly inspires them, and as with a ray of divine light, points out to them at once the dignity, propriety and beauty of virtue.” (45) Without evolutionary theory, and without Darwin, Bartram could not come to a evolutionary model of morality but he is close.
Chapters four and five, complete part 1 of Bartram’s Travels. These chapters develop some of the same themes of the power of nature, its divine spark, and descriptions of Indian settlements. Bartram is the naturalist of the American Revolution and far more than arguing for a nationalist picture of the American ecosystem, he is calling for a broader solidarity with nature, at the same time Thomas Paine is demanded the universal rights of man.