Louis Agassiz: His Life and Correspondence
Part 7 out of 10
This conception, of which the present Museum is the expression, was
matured in the brain of the founder before a brick of the building
was laid, or a dollar provided for the support of such an
institution. It existed for him as his picture does for the artist
before it lives upon the canvas. One must have been the intimate
companion of his thoughts to know how and to what degree it
possessed his imagination, to his delight always, yet sometimes to
his sorrow also, for he had it and he had it not. The thought alone
was his; the means of execution were far beyond his reach.
His plan was, however, known to many of his friends, and especially
he had explained it to Mr. Francis C. Gray, whose intellectual
sympathy made him a delightful listener to the presentation of any
enlightened purpose. In 1858 Mr. Gray died, leaving in his will the
sum of fifty thousand dollars for the establishment of a Museum of
Comparative Zoology, with the condition that this sum should be
used neither for the erection of buildings nor for salaries, but
for the purely scientific needs of such an institution. Though this
bequest was not connected in set terms with the collections already
existing in Cambridge, its purpose was well understood; and Mr.
Gray's nephew, Mr. William Gray, acting upon the intention of his
uncle as residuary legatee, gave it into the hands of the President
and Fellows of Harvard University. In passing over this trust, the
following condition, among others, was made, namely: "That neither
the collections nor any building which may contain the same shall
ever be designated by any other name than the Museum of Comparative
Zoology at Harvard." This is worth noting, because the title was
chosen and insisted upon by Agassiz himself in opposition to many
who would have had it called after him. To such honor as might be
found in connecting his own name with a public undertaking of any
kind he was absolutely indifferent. It was characteristic of him to
wish, on the contrary, that the name should be as impersonal and as
comprehensive as the uses and aims of the institution itself. Yet
he could not wholly escape the distinction he deprecated. The
popular imagination, identifying him with his work, has
re-christened the institution; and, spite of its legal title, its
familiar designation is almost invariably the "Agassiz Museum."
Mr. Gray's legacy started a movement which became every day more
active and successful. The university followed up his bequest by a
grant of land suitable for the site of the building, and since the
Gray fund provided for no edifice, an appeal was made to the
Legislature of Massachusetts to make good that deficiency. The
Legislature granted lands to the amount of one hundred thousand
dollars, on condition that a certain additional contribution should
be made by private subscription. The sum of seventy-one thousand
one hundred and twenty-five dollars, somewhat exceeding that
stipulated, was promptly subscribed, chiefly by citizens of Boston
and Cambridge, and Agassiz himself gave all the collections he had
brought together during the last four or five years, estimated,
merely by the outlay made upon them, at ten thousand dollars. The
architects, Mr. Henry Greenough and Mr. George Snell, offered the
plan as their contribution. The former had long been familiar with
Agassiz's views respecting the internal arrangements of the
building. The main features had been discussed between them, and
now, that the opportunity offered, the plan was practically ready
for execution. These events followed each other so rapidly that
although Mr. Gray's bequest was announced only in December, 1858,
the first sod was turned and the corner-stone of the future Museum
was laid on a sunny afternoon in the following June, 1859.* (* The
plan, made with reference to the future increase as well as the
present needs of the Museum, included a main building 364 feet in
length by 64 in width, with wings 205 feet in length by 64 in
width, the whole enclosing a hollow square. The structure erected
1859-60 was but a section of the north wing, being two fifths of
its whole length. This gave ample space at the time for the
immediate requirements of the Museum. Additions have since been
made, and the north wing is completed, while the Peabody Museum
occupies a portion of the ground allotted to the south wing.)
This event, so full of significance for Agassiz, took place a few
days before he sailed for Europe, having determined to devote the
few weeks of the college and school vacation to a flying visit in
Switzerland. The incidents of this visit were of a wholly domestic
nature and hardly belong here. He paused a few days in Ireland and
England to see his old friends, the Earl of Enniskillen and Sir
Philip Egerton, and review their collections. A day or two in
London gave him, in like manner, a few hours at the British Museum,
a day with Owen at Richmond, and an opportunity to greet old
friends and colleagues called together to meet him at Sir Roderick
Murchison's. He allowed himself also a week in Paris, made
delightful by the cordiality and hospitality of the professors of
the Jardin des Plantes, and by the welcome he received at the
Academy, when he made his appearance there. The happiest hours of
this brief sojourn in Paris were perhaps spent with his old and
dear friend Valenciennes, the associate of earlier days in Paris,
when the presence of Cuvier and Humboldt gave a crowning interest
to scientific work there.
From Paris he hastened on to his mother in Switzerland, devoting to
her and to his immediate family all the time which remained to him
before returning to his duties in Cambridge. They were very happy
weeks, passed, for the most part, in absolute retirement, at
Montagny, near the foot of the Jura, where Madame Agassiz was then
residing with her daughter. The days were chiefly spent in an
old-fashioned garden, where a corner shut in by ivy and shaded by
trees made a pleasant out-of-door sitting-room. There he told his
mother, as he had never been able to tell her in letters, of his
life and home in the United States, and of the Museum to which he
was returning, and which was to give him the means of doing for the
study of nature all he had ever hoped to accomplish. His quiet stay
here was interrupted only by a visit of a few days to his sister at
Lausanne, and a trip to the Diablerets, where his brother, then a
great invalid, was staying. He also passed a day or two at Geneva,
where he was called to a meeting of the Helvetic Society, which
gave him an opportunity of renewing old ties of friendship, as well
as scientific relations, with the naturalists of his own country,
with Pictet de la Rive, de Candolle, Favre, and others.
1860-1863: AGE 53-56.
Return to Cambridge.
Removal of Collection to New Museum Building.
Distribution of Work.
Relations with his Students.
Breaking out of the War between North and South.
Interest of Agassiz in the Preservation of the Union.
Commencement of Museum Publications.
Reception of Third and Fourth Volumes of "Contributions."
Lecturing Tour in the West.
Circular Letter concerning Anthropological Collections.
Letter to Mr. Ticknor concerning Geographical Distribution of Fishes
On his return to Cambridge at the end of September, Agassiz found
the Museum building well advanced. It was completed in the course
of the next year, and the dedication took place on the 13th
November, 1860. The transfer of the collections to their new and
safe abode was made as rapidly as possible, and the work of
developing the institution under these more favorable conditions
moved steadily on. The lecture rooms were at once opened, not only
to students but to other persons not connected with the university.
Especially welcome were teachers of schools for whom admittance was
free. It was a great pleasure to Agassiz thus to renew and
strengthen his connection with the teachers of the State, with
whom, from the time of his arrival in this country, he had held
most cordial relations, attending the Teachers' Institutes,
visiting the normal schools, and associating himself actively, as
far as he could, with the interests of public education in
Massachusetts. From this time forward his college lectures were
open to women as well as to men. He had great sympathy with the
desire of women for larger and more various fields of study and
work, and a certain number of women have always been employed as
assistants at the Museum.
The story of the next three years was one of unceasing but
seemingly uneventful work. The daylight hours from nine or ten
o'clock in the morning were spent, with the exception of the hour
devoted to the school, at the Museum, not only in personal
researches and in lecturing, but in organizing, distributing, and
superintending the work of the laboratories, all of which was
directed by him. Passing from bench to bench, from table to table,
with a suggestion here, a kindly but scrutinizing glance there, he
made his sympathetic presence felt by the whole establishment. No
man ever exercised a more genial personal influence over his
students and assistants. His initiatory steps in teaching special
students of natural history were not a little discouraging.
Observation and comparison being in his opinion the intellectual
tools most indispensable to the naturalist, his first lesson was
one in LOOKING. He gave no assistance; he simply left his student
with the specimen, telling him to use his eyes diligently, and
report upon what he saw. He returned from time to time to inquire
after the beginner's progress, but he never asked him a leading
question, never pointed out a single feature of the structure,
never prompted an inference or a conclusion. This process lasted
sometimes for days, the professor requiring the pupil not only to
distinguish the various parts of the animal, but to detect also the
relation of these details to more general typical features. His
students still retain amusing reminiscences of their despair when
thus confronted with their single specimen; no aid to be had from
outside until they had wrung from it the secret of its structure.
But all of them have recognized the fact that this one lesson in
looking, which forced them to such careful scrutiny of the object
before them, influenced all their subsequent habits of observation,
whatever field they might choose for their special subject of
study. One of them who was intending to be an entomologist
concludes a very clever and entertaining account of such a first
lesson, entirely devoted to a single fish, with these words: "This
was the best entomological lesson I ever had,--a lesson whose
influence has extended to the details of every subsequent study; a
legacy the professor has left to me, as he left it to many others,
of inestimable value, which we could not buy, with which we could
not part."* (* "In the Laboratory with Agassiz", by S.H. Scudder.)
But if Agassiz, in order to develop independence and accuracy of
observation, threw his students on their own resources at first,
there was never a more generous teacher in the end than he. All his
intellectual capital was thrown open to his pupils. His original
material, his unpublished investigations, his most precious
specimens, his drawings and illustrations were at their command.
This liberality led in itself to a serviceable training, for he
taught them to use with respect the valuable, often unique, objects
intrusted to their care. Out of the intellectual good-fellowship
which he established and encouraged in the laboratory grew the
warmest relations between his students and himself. Many of them
were deeply attached to him, and he was extremely dependent upon
their sympathy and affection. By some among them he will never be
forgotten. He is still their teacher and their friend, scarcely
more absent from their work now than when the glow of his
enthusiasm made itself felt in his personal presence.
But to return to the distribution of his time in these busy days.
Having passed, as we have seen, the greater part of the day in the
Museum and the school, he had the hours of the night for writing,
and rarely left his desk before one or two o'clock in the morning,
or even later. His last two volumes of the "Contributions," upon
the Acalephs, were completed during these years. In the mean time,
the war between North and South had broken out, and no American
cared more than he for the preservation of the Union and the
institutions it represented. He felt that the task of those who
served letters and science was to hold together the intellectual
aims and resources of the country during this struggle for national
existence, to fortify the strongholds of learning, abating nothing
of their efficiency, but keeping their armories bright against the
return of peace, when the better weapons of civilization should
again be in force. Toward this end he worked with renewed ardor,
and while his friends urged him to suspend operations at the Museum
and husband his resources until the storm should have passed over,
he, on the contrary, stimulated its progress by every means in his
power. Occasionally he was assisted by the Legislature, and early
in this period an additional grant of ten thousand dollars was made
to the Museum. With this grant was begun the series of illustrated
publications already mentioned, known as the "Bulletin of the
Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge."
During this period he urged also the foundation of a National
Academy of Sciences, and was active in furthering its organization
and incorporation (1863) by Congress. With respect to this effort,
and to those he was at the same time making for the Museum, he was
wont to recall the history of the University of Berlin. In an
appeal to the people in behalf of the intellectual institutions of
the United States during the early years of the war he says: "A
well known fact in the history of Germany has shown that the moment
of political danger may be that in which the firmest foundations
for the intellectual strength of a country may be laid. When in
1806, after the battle of Jena, the Prussian monarchy had been
crushed and the king was despairing even of the existence of his
realm, he planned the foundation of the University of Berlin, by
the advice of Fichte, the philosopher. It was inaugurated the very
year that the despondent monarch returned to his capital. Since
that time it has been the greatest glory of the Prussian crown, and
has made Berlin the intellectual centre of Germany."
It may be added here as an evidence of Agassiz's faith in the
institutions of the United States and in her intellectual progress
that he was himself naturalized in the darkest hour of the war,
when the final disruption of the country was confidently prophesied
by her enemies. By formally becoming a citizen of the United States
he desired to attest his personal confidence in the stability of
her Constitution and the justice of her cause.
Some light is thrown upon the work and incidents of these years by
the following letters:--
FROM SIR PHILIP DE GREY EGERTON.
LONDON, ALBEMARLE ST., April 16, 1861.
MON CHER AGASS,* (* An affectionate abbreviation which Sir Philip
often used for him.)
I have this morning received your handsome and welcome present of
the third volume of your great undertaking, and this reminds me how
remiss I have been in not writing to you sooner. In fact, I have
had nothing worth writing about, and I know your time is too
valuable to be intrenched upon by letters of mere gossip. I have
not of course had time to peruse any portion of the monograph, but
I have turned over the pages and seen quite enough to sharpen my
appetite for the glorious scientific feast you have so liberally
provided. And now that the weight is off your mind, I hope shortly
to hear that you are about to fulfill this year the promise you
made of returning to England for a good long visit, only postponed
by circumstances you could not have foreseen. Now that you have
your son as the sharer of your labors, you will be able to leave
him in charge during your absence, and so divest your mind of all
care and anxiety with reference to matters over the water. Here we
are all fighting most furiously about Celts and flint implements,
struggle for life, natural selection, the age of the world, races
of men, biblical dates, apes, and gorillas, etc., and the last duel
has been between Owen and Huxley on the anatomical distinction of
the pithecoid brain compared with that of man. Theological
controversy has also been rife, stirred up by the "Essays and
Reviews," of which you have no doubt heard much. For myself, I have
been busy preparing, in conjunction with Huxley, another decade of
fossil fishes, all from the old red of Scotland. . .Enniskillen is
quite well. He is now at Lyme Regis. . .
At about this time the Copley Medal was awarded to Agassiz, a
distinction which was the subject of cordial congratulation from
his English friends.
FROM SIR RODERICK MURCHISON.
BELGRAVE SQUARE, March, 1862.
MY DEAR AGASSIZ,
Your letter of the 14th February was a great surprise to me. I
blamed myself for not writing you sooner than I did on the event
which I had long been anxious to see realized; but I took it for
granted that you had long before received the official announcement
from the foreign secretary that you were, at the last anniversary
of the Royal Society, the recipient of the highest honor which our
body can bestow, whether on a foreigner or a native. . .On going to
the Royal Society to-day I found that the President and Secretaries
were much surprised that you had never answered the official letter
sent to you on the 1st or 2nd December by the Foreign Secretary,
Professor Muller, of Cambridge. He wrote to announce the award, and
told you the Copley Medal was in his safe keeping till you wrote to
say what you wished to have done with it. I have now recommended
him to transmit it officially to you through the United States
Minister, Mr. Adams. In these times of irritation, everything which
soothes and calms down angry feelings ought to be resorted to; and
I hope it may be publicly known that when our newspapers were
reciprocating all sorts of rudenesses, the men of science of
England thought of nothing but honoring a beloved and eminent
savant of America.
I thank you for your clear and manly view of the North and South,
which I shall show to all our mutual friends. Egerton, who is now
here, was delighted to hear of you, as well as Huxley, Lyell, and
many others. . .
In a paper just read to the Geological Society Professor Ramsay has
made a stronger demand on the powers of ice than you ever did. He
imagines that every Swiss lake north and south (Geneva, Neuchatel,
Como, etc.) has been scooped out, and the depressions excavated by
the abrading action of the glaciers.
FROM SIR PHILIP DE GREY EGERTON.
ALBEMARLE ST., LONDON, March 11, 1862.
MON CHER AGASS,
As I am now settled in London for some months, I take the first
opportunity of writing to congratulate you on the distinction which
has been conferred upon you by the Royal Society, and I will say
that you have most fully earned it. I rejoice exceedingly in the
decision the Council have arrived at. I only regret I was not on
the Council myself to have advocated your high claims and taken a
share in promoting your success. It is now long since I have heard
from you, but this terrible disruption between the North and South
has, I suppose, rendered the pursuit of science rather difficult,
and the necessary funds also difficult of attainment. I should like
very much to hear how you are getting on, and whether there is any
likelihood of your being able to come over in the course of the
summer or autumn. I fully expected you last year, and was very much
disappointed that you could not realize your intention. I have this
day sent to you through Bailliere, the last decade of the Jermyn
St. publications.* (* Publications of the Geological Survey of
England.) You will see that Huxley has taken up the subject of the
Devonian fishes in a truly scientific spirit. . .
FROM OWEN TO AGASSIZ.
BRITISH MUSEUM, August 30, 1862.
MY DEAR AGASSIZ,
I have received, and since its reception have devoted most of my
spare moments to the study of, your fourth volume of the "Natural
History of the United States,"--a noble contribution to our
science, and worthy of your great name.
The demonstration of the unity of plan pervading the diversities of
the Polyps, Hydroids, Acalephal and Echinodermal modifications of
your truly natural group of Radiates, is to my mind perfect, and I
trust that the harsh and ugly and essentially error-breeding name
of Coelenterata may have received its final sentence of exile from
lasting and rational zoological terminology.
I shall avail myself of opportunities for bringing myself to your
recollection by such brochures as I have time for. One of them will
open to your view something of the nature of the contest here
waging to obtain for England a suitable Museum of Natural History,
equivalent to her wealth and colonies and maritime business. In
this I find you a valuable ally, and have cited from the Reports of
your Museum of Comparative Zoology in support of my own claims for
I was glad to hear from Mr. Bates that the Megatherium had not gone
to the bottom, but had been rescued, and that it was probably ere
this in your Museum at Cambridge. I trust it may be so.
A line from you or the sight of any friend of yours is always
cheering to me. Our friends Enniskillen and Egerton are both
well. . .
I remain ever truly yours,
As has been seen by a previous letter from Sir Roderick Murchison,
Agassiz tried from time to time to give his English friends more
just views of our national struggle. The letter to which the
following is an answer is missing, but one may easily infer its
tenor, and the pleasure it had given him.
TO SIR PHILIP DE GREY EGERTON.
NAHANT, MASSACHUSETTS, August 15, 1862.
. . .I feel so thankful for your words of sympathy, that I lose not
an hour in expressing my feeling. It has been agonizing week after
week to receive the English papers, and to see there the noble
devotion of the men of the North to their country and its
government, branded as the service of mercenaries. You know I am
not much inclined to meddle with politics; but I can tell you that
I have never seen a more generous and prompt response to the call
of country than was exhibited last year, and is exhibiting now, in
the loyal United States. In the last six weeks nearly 300,000 men
have volunteered, and I am satisfied that the additional 300,000
will be forthcoming without a draft in the course of the next
month. And believe me, it is not for the sake of the bounty they
come forward, for our best young men are the first to enlist; if
anything can be objected to these large numbers of soldiers, it is
that it takes away the best material that the land possesses. I
thank you once more for your warm sympathy. I needed it the more,
as it is almost the first friendly word of that kind I have
received from England, and I began to question the humanity of your
civilization. . .Under present circumstances, you can well imagine
that I cannot think of leaving Cambridge, even for a few weeks,
much as I wish to take some rest, and especially to meet your kind
invitation. But I feel that I have a debt to pay to my adopted
country, and all I can now do is to contribute my share toward
maintaining the scientific activity which has been awakened during
the last few years, and which even at this moment is on the
I am now at Nahant, on the sea-shore, studying embryology chiefly
with reference to paleontology, and the results are most
satisfactory. I have had an opportunity already of tracing the
development of the representatives of three different families,
upon the embryology of which we had not a single observation thus
far, and of making myself familiar with the growth of many others.
With these accessions I propose next winter seriously to return to
my first scientific love. . .
I have taken with me to the sea-shore your and Huxley's
"Contributions to the Devonian Fishes," and also your notice of
Carboniferous fish-fauna; but I have not yet had a chance to study
them critically, from want of time, having been too successful with
the living specimens to have a moment for the fossils. The season
for sea-shore studies is, however, drawing rapidly to an end, and
then I shall have more leisure for my old favorites.
I am very sorry to hear such accounts of the sufferings of the
manufacturing districts in England. I wish I could foretell the end
of our conflict; but I do not believe it can now be ended before
slavery is abolished, though I thought differently six months ago.
The most conservative men at the North have gradually come to this
conviction, and nobody would listen for a moment to a compromise
with the southern slave power. Whether we shall get rid of it by
war measures or by an emancipation proclamation, I suppose the
President himself does not yet know. I do not think that we shall
want more money than the people are willing to give. Private
contributions for the comfort of the army are really unbounded. I
know a gentleman, not among the richest in Boston, who has already
contributed over 30,000 dollars; and I heard yesterday of a
shop-boy who tendered all his earnings of many years to the relief
committee,--2,000 dollars, retaining NOTHING for himself,--and so
it goes all round. Of course we have croakers and despondent
people, but they no longer dare to raise their voices; from which I
infer that there is no stopping the storm until by the natural
course of events the atmosphere is clear and pure again.
Ever truly your friend,
Agassiz had now his time more at his own disposal since he had
given up his school and had completed also the fourth volume of his
"Contributions." Leisure time he could never be said to have, but
he was free to give all his spare time and strength to the Museum,
and to this undivided aim, directly or indirectly, the remainder of
his life was devoted. Although at intervals he received generous
aid from the Legislature or from private individuals for the
further development of the Museum, its growth outran such
provision, and especially during the years of the war the problem
of meeting expenses was often difficult of solution. To provide for
such a contingency Agassiz made in the winter of 1863 the most
extensive lecturing tour he had ever undertaken, even in his
busiest lecturing days. He visited all the large cities and some of
the smaller towns from Buffalo to St. Louis. While very
remunerative, and in many respects delightful, since he was
received with the greatest cordiality, and lectured everywhere to
enthusiastic crowds, this enterprise was, nevertheless, of doubtful
economy even for his scientific aims. Agassiz was but fifty-six,
yet his fine constitution began to show a fatigue hardly justified
by his years, and the state of his health was already a source of
serious anxiety to his friends. He returned much exhausted, and
passed the summer at Nahant, where the climate always benefited
him, while his laboratory afforded the best conditions for work. If
this summer home had a fault, it was its want of remoteness. He was
almost as much beset there, by the interruptions to which a man in
his position is liable, as in Cambridge.
His letters show how constantly during this nominal vacation his
Museum and its interests occupied his thoughts. One is to his
brother-in-law, Thomas G. Cary, whose residence was in San
Francisco, and who had been for years his most efficient aid in
obtaining collections from the Pacific Coast.
TO MR. THOMAS G. CARY.
CAMBRIDGE, March 23, 1863.
For many years past your aid in fostering the plans of the Museum
in Cambridge has greatly facilitated the progress of that
establishment in everything relating to the Natural History of
California, and now that it has become desirable to extend our
scheme to objects which have thus far been neglected I make another
appeal to you.
Every day the history of mankind is brought into more and more
intimate connection with the natural history of the animal
creation, and it is now indispensable that we should organize an
extensive collection to illustrate the natural history of the
uncivilized races. Your personal acquaintance with business friends
in almost every part of the globe has suggested to me the propriety
of addressing to you a circular letter, setting forth the objects
wanted, and requesting of you the favor to communicate it as widely
as possible among your friends.
To make the most instructive collections relative to the natural
history of mankind, two classes of specimens should be brought
together, one concerning the habits and pursuits of the races, the
other concerning the physical constitution of the races themselves.
With reference to the first it would be desirable to collect
articles of clothing and ornaments of all the races of men, their
implements, tools, weapons, and such models or drawings of their
dwellings as may give an idea of their construction; small canoes
and oars as models of their vessels, or indications of their
progress in navigation; in one word, everything that relates to
their avocations, their pursuits, their habits, their mode of
worship, and whatever may indicate the dawn or progress of the arts
among them. As to articles of clothing, it would be preferable to
select such specimens as have actually been worn or even cast off,
rather than new things which may be more or less fanciful and not
indicate the real natural condition and habits of a race.
With regard to the collections intended to illustrate the physical
constitution of the races it is more difficult to obtain
instructive specimens, as the savage races are generally inclined
to hold sacred all that relates to their dead; yet whenever an
opportunity is afforded to obtain skulls of the natives of
different parts of the world, it should be industriously improved,
and good care taken to mark the skulls in such a way that their
origin cannot be mistaken. Beside this, every possible effort
should be made to obtain perfect heads, preserved in alcohol, so
that all their features may be studied minutely and compared. Where
this cannot be done portraits or photographs may be substituted.
Trusting that you may help me in this way to bring together in
Cambridge a more complete collection, illustrative of the natural
history of mankind than exists thus far anywhere,* (* All the
ethnographical collections of the Museum of Comparative Zoology
have now been transferred to the Peabody Museum, where they more
I remain, ever truly your friend and brother,
The following letter to Mr. Ticknor is in the same spirit as
previous ones to Mr. Haldeman and others, concerning the
distribution of fishes in America. It is given at the risk of some
repetition, because it illustrates Agassiz's favorite idea that a
key to the original combination of faunae in any given system of
fresh waters, might be reached through a closer study than has yet
been possible of the geographical or local circumscription of their
TO MR. GEORGE TICKNOR.
NAHANT, October 24, 1863.
MY DEAR SIR,
Among the schemes which I have devised for the improvement of the
Museum, there is one for the realization of which I appeal to your
aid and sympathy. Thus far the natural productions of the rivers
and lakes of the world have not been compared with one another,
except what I have done in comparing the fishes of the Danube with
those of the Rhine and of the Rhone, and those of the great
Canadian lakes with those of the Swiss lakes.
I now propose to resume this subject on the most extensive scale,
since I see that it has the most direct bearing upon the
transmutation theory. . .First let me submit to you my plan.
Rivers and lakes are isolated by the land and sea from one another.
The question is, then, how they came to be peopled with inhabitants
differing both from those on land and those in the sea, and how
does it come that every hydrographic basin has its own inhabitants
more or less different from those of any other basin? Take the
Ganges, the Nile, and the Amazons. There is not a living being in
the one alike to any one in the others, etc. Now to advance the
investigation to the point where it may tell with reference to the
scientific doctrines at present under discussion, it is essential
to know the facts in detail, with reference to every fresh-water
basin on earth. I have already taken means to obtain the tenants of
all the rivers of Brazil, and partly of Russia, and I hope you may
be able to put me in the way of getting those of Spain, if not of
some other country beside. The plan I propose for that country
would be worthy of the Doctors of Salamanca in her brightest days.
If this alone were carried out, it would be, I believe, sufficient
to settle the whole question.
My idea is to obtain separate collections from all the principal
rivers of Spain and Portugal, and even to have several separate
collections from the larger rivers, one from their lower course,
one from their middle course, and another from their head-waters.
Take, for instance, the Douro. One collection ought to be made at
Oporto, and several higher up, among its various tributaries and in
its upper course; say, one at Zamora and Valladolid, one at
Salamanca from the Tormes River, one at Leon from the Esla River,
one at Burgos and Palencia from the northern tributaries, one at
Soria and Segovia from the southern tributaries. If this could be
done on such a scale as I propose, it would in itself be a work
worthy of the Spanish government, and most creditable to any man
who should undertake it. The fact is that nothing of the kind has
ever been done yet anywhere. A single collection from the Minho
would be sufficient, say from Orense or Melgaco. From the northern
rivers along the gulf of Biscay all that would be necessary would
be one thoroughly complete collection from one of the little rivers
that come down from the mountains of Asturias, say from Oviedo.
The Ebro would require a more elaborate survey. From its upper
course, one collection would be needed from Haro or Frias or
Miranda; another from Saragossa, and one from its mouth, including
the minnows common among the brackish waters near the mouth of
large rivers. In addition to this, one or two of the tributaries of
the Ebro, coming down from the Pyrenees, should be explored in the
same manner; say one collection from Pampeluna, and one from Urgel,
or any other place on the southern slope of the Pyrenees. A
collection made at Barcelona from the river and the brackish
marshes would be equally desirable; another from the river at
Valencia, and, if possible, also from its head-waters at Ternel;
another from the river Segura at Murcia, and somewhere in the
mountains from its head-waters. Granada would afford particular
interest as showing what its mountain streams feed. A collection
from the Almeria River at Almeria, or from any of the small rivers
of the southern coast of Spain, would do; and it would be the more
interesting if another from the river Xenil could be obtained at or
near Granada, to compare with the inhabitants of the waters upon
the southern slope of the Sierra Nevada.
Next would come the Guadalquivir, from which a collection should be
made at San Lucar, with the brackish water species; another at
Seville or Cordova, one among the head-waters from the Sierra
Nevada, and another from the mountains of the Mancha. From the
Guadiana a collection from Villa Real, with the brackish species;
one from Badajoz, and one from the easternmost headwaters, and
about where the river is lost under ground.
The Tagus would again require an extensive exploration. In the
first place a thorough collection of all the species found in the
great estuary ought to be made with the view of ascertaining how
far marine Atlantic species penetrate into the river basin; then
one from Santarem, and another either from Talavera or Toledo or
Aranjuez, and one from the head-waters in Guadalaxara, and another
The collections made at different stations ought carefully to be
kept in distinct jars or kegs, with labels so secure that no
confusion or mistake can arise. But the specimens collected at the
same station may be put together in the same jar. These collections
require, in fact, very little care. (Here some details about mode
of putting up specimens, transportation, etc.) If the same person
should collect upon different stations, either in the same or in
different hydrographic basins, the similarity of the specimens
should not be a reason for neglecting to preserve them. What is
aimed at is not to secure a variety of species, but to learn in
what localities the same species may occur again and again, and
what are the localities which nourish different species, no matter
whether these species are in themselves interesting or not, new to
science or known for ages, whether valuable for the table or unfit
to eat. The mere fact of their distribution is the point to be
ascertained, and this, as you see, requires the most extensive
collections, affording in themselves comparatively little interest,
but likely to lead, by a proper discussion of the facts, to the
most unexpected philosophical results. . .Do, please, what you can
in this matter. Spain alone might give us the materials to solve
the question of transmutation versus creation. I am going to make a
similar appeal to my friends in Russia for materials from that
country, including Siberia and Kamschatka. Our own rivers are not
easily accessible now.
Ever truly your friend,
1863-1864: AGE 56-57.
Correspondence with Dr. S.G. Howe.
Bearing of the War on the Position of the Negro Race.
Affection for Harvard College.
Interest in her General Progress.
Correspondence with Emerson concerning Harvard.
Glacial Phenomena in Maine.
AGASSIZ'S letters give little idea of the deep interest he felt in
the war between North and South, and its probable issue with
reference to the general policy of the nation, and especially to
the relation between the black and white races. Although any
judgment upon the accuracy of its conclusions would now be
premature, the following correspondence between Agassiz and Dr. S.
G. Howe is nevertheless worth considering, as showing how the
problem presented itself to the philanthropist and the naturalist
from their different stand-points.
FROM DR. S.G. HOWE.
PORTSMOUTH, August 3, 1863.
MY DEAR AGASSIZ,
You will learn by a glance at the inclosed circular the object of
the commission of which I am a member.
The more I consider the subject to be examined and reported upon,
the more I am impressed by its vastness; the more I see that its
proper treatment requires a consideration of political,
physiological, and ethnological principles. Before deciding upon
any political policy, it is necessary to decide several important
questions, which require more knowledge for their solution than I
Among these questions, this one occupies me most now. Is it
probable that the African race, represented by less than two
million blacks and a little more than two million mulattoes,
unrecruited by immigration, will be a persistent race in this
country? or will it be absorbed, diluted, and finally effaced by
the white race, numbering twenty-four millions, and continually
increased by immigration, beside natural causes.
Will not the general practical amalgamation fostered by slavery
become more general after its abolition? If so, will not the
proportion of mulattoes become greater and that of the pure blacks
less? With an increase and final numerical prevalence of mulattoes
the question of the fertility of the latter becomes a very
important element in the calculation. Can it be a persistent race
here where pure blacks are represented by 2, and the whites by
Is it not true that in the Northern States at least the mulatto is
unfertile, leaving but few children, and those mainly lymphatic and
In those sections where the blacks and mulattoes together make from
seventy to eighty and even ninety per cent of the whole population
will there be, after the abolition of slavery, a sufficiently large
influx of whites to counteract the present numerical preponderance
It looks now as if the whites would EXPLOITER the labors of the
blacks, and that social servitude will continue long in spite of
You will see the importance of considering carefully the natural
laws of increase and their modification by existing causes before
deciding upon any line of policy.
If there be irresistible natural tendencies to the growth of a
persistent black race in the Gulf and river States, we must not
make bad worse by futile attempts to resist it. If, on the other
hand, the natural tendencies are to the diffusion and final
disappearance of the black (and colored) race, then our policy
should be modified accordingly.
I should be very glad, my dear sir, if you could give me your views
upon this and cognate matters. If, however, your occupations will
not permit you to give time to this matter, perhaps you will assist
me by pointing to works calculated to throw light upon the subject
of my inquiry, or by putting me in correspondence with persons who
have the ability and the leisure to write about it.
I remain, dear sir, faithfully,
SAMUEL G. HOWE.
TO DR. S.G. HOWE.
NAHANT, August 9, 1863.
MY DEAR DOCTOR,
When I acknowledged a few days ago the receipt of your invitation
to put in writing my views upon the management of the negro race as
part of the free population of the United States, I stated to you
that there was a preliminary question of the utmost importance to
be examined first, since whatever convictions may be formed upon
that point must necessarily influence everything else relating to
the subject. The question is simply this: Is there to be a
permanent black population upon the continent after slavery is
everywhere abolished and no inducement remains to foster its
increase? Should this question be answered in the negative, it is
evident that a wise policy would look to the best mode of removing
that race from these States, by the encouragement and acceleration
of emigration. Should the question be answered, on the contrary, in
the affirmative, then it is plain that we have before us one of the
most difficult problems, upon the solution of which the welfare of
our own race may in a measure depend, namely, the combination in
one social organization of two races more widely different from one
another than all the other races. In effecting this combination it
becomes our duty to avoid the recurrence of great evils, one of
which is already foreshadowed in the advantage which unscrupulous
managers are taking of the freedmen, whenever the latter are
brought into contact with new social relations.
I will, for the present, consider only the case of the unmixed
negroes of the Southern States, the number of which I suppose to be
about two millions. It is certainly not less,--it may be a little
more. From whatever point of view you look upon these people you
must come to the conclusion that, left to themselves, they will
perpetuate their race ad infinitum where they are. According to the
prevalent theory of the unity of mankind it is assumed that the
different races have become what they are in consequence of their
settlement in different parts of the world, and that the whole
globe is everywhere a fit abode for human beings who adapt
themselves to the conditions under which they live. According to
the theory of a multiple origin of mankind the different races have
first appeared in various parts of the globe, each with the
peculiarities best suited to their primitive home. Aside from these
theoretical views the fact is, that some races inhabit very
extensive tracts of the earth's surface, and are now found upon
separate continents, while others are very limited in their range.
This distribution is such that there is no reason for supposing
that the negro is less fitted permanently to occupy at least the
warmer parts of North and South America, than is the white race to
retain possession of their more temperate portions. Assuming our
pure black race to be only two millions, it is yet larger than the
whole number of several races that have held uninterrupted
possession of different parts of the globe ever since they have
been known to the white race. Thus the Hottentots and the
Abyssinians have maintained themselves in their respective homes
without change ever since their existence has been known to us,
even though their number is less than that of our pure black
population. The same, also, is the case with the population of
Australia and of the Pacific islands. The Papuan race, the Negrillo
race, the Australian race proper, distinct from one another, as
well as from all other inhabitants of the earth, number each fewer
inhabitants than already exist of the negro race in the United
States alone, not to speak of Central and South America.
This being the case there is, it seems to me, no more reason to
expect a disappearance of the negro race from the continent of
America without violent interference, than to expect a
disappearance of the races inhabiting respectively the South Sea
Islands, Australia, the Cape of Good Hope, or any other part of the
globe tenanted by the less populous races. The case of the American
Indians, who gradually disappear before the white race, should not
mislead us, as it is readily accounted for by the peculiar
character of that race. The negro exhibits by nature a pliability,
a readiness to accommodate himself to circumstances, a proneness to
imitate those among whom he lives,--characteristics which are
entirely foreign to the Indian, while they facilitate in every way
the increase of the negro. I infer, therefore, from all these
circumstances that the negro race must be considered as permanently
settled upon this continent, no less firmly than the white race,
and that it is our duty to look upon them as co-tenants in the
possession of this part of the world.
Remember that I have thus far presented the case only with
reference to the Southern States, where the climate is particularly
favorable to the maintenance and multiplication of the negro race.
Before drawing any inference, however, from my first assertion that
the negro will easily and without foreign assistance maintain
himself and multiply in the warmer parts of this continent, let us
consider a few other features of this momentous question of race.
Whites and blacks may multiply together, but their offspring is
never either white or black; it is always mulatto. It is a
half-breed, and shares all the peculiarities of half-breeds, among
whose most important characteristics is their sterility, or at
least their reduced fecundity. This shows the connection to be
contrary to the normal state of the races, as it is contrary to the
preservation of species in the animal kingdom. . .Far from
presenting to me a natural solution of our difficulties, the idea
of amalgamation is most repugnant to my feelings. It is now the
foundation of some of the most ill-advised schemes. But wherever it
is practiced, amalgamation among different races produces shades of
population, the social position of which can never be regular and
settled. From a physiological point of view, it is sound policy to
put every possible obstacle to the crossing of the races, and the
increase of half-breeds. It is unnatural, as shown by their very
constitution, their sickly physique, and their impaired fecundity.
It is immoral and destructive of social equality as it creates
unnatural relations and multiplies the differences among members of
the same community in a wrong direction.
From all this it is plain that the policy to be adopted toward the
miscellaneous colored population with reference to a more or less
distant future should be totally different from that which applies
to the pure black; for while I believe that a wise social economy
will foster the progress of every pure race, according to its
natural dispositions and abilities, and aim at securing for it a
proper field for the fullest development of all its capabilities, I
am convinced also that no efforts should be spared to check that
which is inconsistent with the progress of a higher civilization
and a purer morality. I hope and trust that as soon as the
condition of the negro in the warmer parts of our States has been
regulated according to the laws of freedom, the colored population
in the more northern parts of the country will diminish. By a
natural consequence of unconquerable affinities, the colored people
in whom the negro nature prevails will tend toward the South, while
the weaker and lighter ones will remain and die out among us.
Entertaining these views upon the fundamental questions concerning
the races, the next point for consideration is the policy to be
adopted under present circumstances, in order to increase the
amount of good which is within our grasp and lessen the evil which
we may avert. This will be for another letter.
Very truly yours,
FROM THE SAME TO THE SAME.
August 10, 1863.
MY DEAR DOCTOR,
I am so deeply impressed with the dangers awaiting the progress of
civilization, should the ideas now generally prevalent about
amalgamation gain sufficient ascendancy to exert a practical
influence upon the management of the affairs of the nation, that I
beg leave to urge a few more considerations upon that point.
In the first place let me insist upon the fact that the population
arising from the amalgamation of two races is always degenerate,
that it loses the excellences of both primitive stocks to retain
the vices or defects of both, and never to enjoy the physical vigor
of either. In order clearly to appreciate the tendencies of
amalgamation, it is indispensable to discriminate correctly between
the differences distinguishing one race from another and those
existing between different nationalities of the same race. For
while the mixture of nationalities of the same race has always
proved beneficial as far as we are taught by history, the mixture
of races has produced a very different result. We need only look at
the inhabitants of Central America, where the white, the negro, and
the Indian races are more or less blended, to see the baneful
effects of such an amalgamation. The condition of the Indians on
the borders of civilization in the United States and in Canada, in
their contact with the Anglo-Saxons as well as with the French,
testifies equally to the pernicious influence of amalgamation of
races. The experience of the Old World points in the same direction
at the Cape of Good Hope, in Australia; everywhere, in fact,
history speaks as loudly in favor of the mixture of clearly related
nations as she does in condemnation of the amalgamation of remote
races. We need only think of the origin of the English nation, of
that of the United States, etc. The question of breeding in-and-in,
that of marriage among close relations, is again quite distinct. In
fact, there is hardly a more complicated subject in physiology, or
one requiring nicer discriminations, than that of the
multiplication of man, and yet it is constantly acted upon as if it
needed no special knowledge. I beseech you, therefore, while you
are in a position to exert a leading influence in the councils of
the nation upon this most important subject to allow no
preconceived view, no favorite schemes, no immediate object, to
bias your judgment and mislead you. I do not pretend to be in
possession of absolute truth. I only urge upon you the
consideration of unquestionable facts before you form a final
opinion and decide upon a fixed policy. Conceive for a moment the
difference it would make in future ages for the prospects of
republican institutions, and our civilization generally, if instead
of the manly population descended from cognate nations the United
States should be inhabited by the effeminate progeny of mixed
races, half Indian, half negro, sprinkled with white blood. Can you
devise a scheme to rescue the Spaniards of Mexico from their
degradation? Beware, then, of any policy which may bring our own
race to their level.
These considerations lead me naturally to the inquiry into the
peculiarities of the two races, in order to find out what may be
most beneficial for each. I rejoice in the prospect of universal
emancipation, not only from a philanthropic point of view, but also
because hereafter the physiologist and ethnographer may discuss the
question of the races and advocate a discriminating policy
regarding them, without seeming to support legal inequality. There
is no more one-sided doctrine concerning human nature than the idea
that all men are equal, in the sense of being equally capable of
fostering human progress and advancing civilization, especially in
the various spheres of intellectual and moral activity. If this be
so, then it is one of our primary obligations to remove every
obstacle that may retard the highest development, while it is
equally our duty to promote the humblest aspirations that may
contribute to raise the lowest individual to a better condition in
The question is, then, what kind of common treatment is likely to
be the best for all men, and what do the different races, taken
singly, require for themselves? That legal equality should be the
common boon of humanity can hardly be matter for doubt nowadays,
but it does not follow that social equality is a necessary
complement of legal equality. I say purposely legal equality, and
not political equality, because political equality involves an
equal right to every public station in life, and I trust we shall
be wise enough not to complicate at once our whole system with new
conflicting interests, before we have ascertained what may be the
practical working of universal freedom and legal equality for two
races, so different as the whites and negroes, living under one
government. We ought to remember that what we know of the negro,
from the experience we have had of the colored population of the
North, affords but a very inadequate standard by which to judge of
the capabilities of the pure blacks as they exist in the South. We
ought, further, to remember that the black population is likely at
all times to outnumber the white in the Southern States. We should
therefore beware how we give to the blacks rights, by virtue of
which they may endanger the progress of the whites before their
temper has been tested by a prolonged experience. Social equality I
deem at all times impracticable,--a natural impossibility, from the
very character of the negro race. Let us consider for a moment the
natural endowments of the negro race as they are manifested in
history on their native continent, as far as we can trace them
back, and compare the result with what we know of our own
destinies, in order to ascertain, within the limits of probability,
whether social equality with the negro is really an impossibility.
We know of the existence of the negro race, with all its physical
peculiarities, from the Egyptian monuments, several thousand years
before the Christian era. Upon these monuments the negroes are so
represented as to show that in natural propensities and mental
abilities they were pretty much what we find them at the present
day,--indolent, playful, sensual, imitative, subservient,
good-natured, versatile, unsteady in their purpose, devoted and
affectionate. From this picture I exclude the character of the
half-breeds, who have, more or less, the character of their white
parents. Originally found in Africa, the negroes seem at all times
to have presented the same characteristics wherever they have been
brought into contact with the white race; as in Upper Egypt, along
the borders of the Carthaginian and Roman settlements in Africa, in
Senegal in juxtaposition with the French, in Congo in juxtaposition
with the Portuguese, about the Cape and on the eastern coast of
Africa in juxtaposition with the Dutch and the English. While Egypt
and Carthage grew into powerful empires and attained a high degree
of civilization; while in Babylon, Syria, and Greece were developed
the highest culture of antiquity, the negro race groped in
barbarism and NEVER ORIGINATED A REGULAR ORGANIZATION AMONG
THEMSELVES. This is important to keep in mind, and to urge upon the
attention of those who ascribe the condition of the modern negro
wholly to the influence of slavery. I do not mean to say that
slavery is a necessary condition for the organization of the negro
race. Far from it. They are entitled to their freedom, to the
regulation of their own destiny, to the enjoyment of their life, of
their earnings, of their family circle. But with all this nowhere
do they appear to have been capable of rising, by themselves, to
the level of the civilized communities of the whites, and therefore
I hold that they are incapable of living on a footing of social
equality with the whites in one and the same community without
becoming an element of social disorder.* (* I fear the expression
"social equality" may be misunderstood in this connection. It means
here only the relations which would arise from the mixture of the
two races, and thus affect the organization of society as a whole.
It does not refer to any superficial or local social rules, such as
sharing on common ground public conveyances, public accommodations,
and the like.--ED.)
I am not prepared to state what political privileges they are fit
to enjoy now; though I have no hesitation in saying that they
should be equal to other men before the law. The right of owning
property, of bearing witness, of entering into contracts, of buying
and selling, of choosing their own domicile, would give them ample
opportunity of showing in a comparatively short time what political
rights might properly and safely be granted to them in successive
installments. No man has a right to what he is unfit to use. Our
own best rights have been acquired successively. I cannot,
therefore, think it just or safe to grant at once to the negro all
the privileges which we ourselves have acquired by long struggles.
History teaches us what terrible reactions have followed too
extensive and too rapid changes. Let us beware of granting too much
to the negro race in the beginning, lest it become necessary
hereafter to deprive them of some of the privileges which they may
use to their own and our detriment. All this I urge with reference
to the pure blacks of the South. As to the half-breeds, especially
in the Northern States, I have already stated it to be my opinion
that their very existence is likely to be only transient, and that
all legislation with reference to them should be regulated with
this view, and so ordained as to accelerate their disappearance
from the Northern States.
Let me now sum up my answer to some of your direct questions.
1st. Is it probable that the African race will be a persistent race
in this country, or will it be absorbed, diluted, and finally
effaced by the white race?
I believe it will continue in the Southern States, and I hope it
may gradually die out at the North, where it has only an artificial
foothold, being chiefly represented by half-breeds, who do not
constitute a race by themselves.
2nd. Will not the practical amalgamation fostered by slavery become
more general after its abolition?
Being the result of the vices engendered by slavery, it is to be
hoped that the emancipation of the blacks, by securing to them a
legal recognition of their natural ties, will tend to diminish this
unnatural amalgamation and lessen everywhere the number of these
unfortunate half-breeds. My reason for believing that the colored
population of the North will gradually vanish is founded in great
degree upon the fact that that population does not increase where
it exists now, but is constantly recruited by an influx from the
South. The southern half-breeds feel their false position at the
South more keenly than the blacks, and are more inclined to escape
to the North than the individuals of purer black blood. Remove the
oppression under which the colored population now suffers, and the
current will at once be reversed; blacks and mulattoes of the North
will seek the sunny South. But I see no cause which should check
the increase of the black population in the Southern States. The
climate is genial to them; the soil rewards the slightest labor
with a rich harvest. The country cannot well be cultivated without
real or fancied danger to the white man, who, therefore, will not
probably compete with the black in the labors of the field, thus
leaving to him an opportunity for easy and desirable support.
3rd. In those sections where the blacks and mulattoes together make
from seventy to eighty and even ninety per cent of the population
will there be, after the abolition of slavery, a sufficiently large
influx of whites to counteract the present numerical preponderance
To answer this question correctly we must take into consideration
the mode of distribution of the white and of the colored population
in the more Southern States. The whites inhabit invariably the
sea-shores and the more elevated grounds, while the blacks are
scattered over the lowlands. This peculiar localization is rendered
necessary by the physical constitution of the country. The lowlands
are not habitable in summer by the whites between sunset and
sunrise. All the wealthy whites, and in the less healthy regions
even the overseers, repair in the evening to the sea-shore or to
the woodlands, and return only in the morning to the plantation,
except during the winter months, after the first hard frost, when
the country is everywhere habitable by all. This necessarily limits
the area which can be tenanted by the whites, and in some States
that area is very small as compared with that habitable by the
blacks. It is therefore clear that with a free black population,
enjoying identical rights with the whites, these States will sooner
or later become negro States, with a comparatively small white
population. This is inevitable; we might as soon expect to change
the laws of nature as to avert this result. I believe it may in a
certain sense work well in the end. But any policy based upon
different expectations is doomed to disappointment.
4th. How to prevent the whites from securing the lion's share of
the labor of the blacks?
This is a question which my want of familiarity with the operations
of the laboring classes prevents me from answering in a manner
satisfactory to myself. Is it not possible to apply to the
superintendence of the working negroes something like the system
which regulates the duties of the foreman in all our manufacturing
I should like to go on and attempt to devise some scheme in
conformity with the convictions I have expressed in these letters.
But I have little ability in the way of organizing, and then the
subject is so novel that I am not prepared to propose anything very
Ever truly yours,
FROM DR. S.G. HOWE.
NEW YORK, August 18, 1863.
MY DEAR AGASSIZ,
I cannot refrain from expressing my thanks for your prompt
compliance with my request, and for your two valuable letters.
Be assured I shall try to keep my mind open to conviction and to
forbear forming any theory before observing a wide circle of facts.
I do not know how you got the idea that I had decided in favor of
anything about the future of the colored population. I have
corresponded with the founders of "La Societe Cosmopolite pour la
fusion des races humaines" in France,--an amalgamation society,
founded upon the theory that the perfect man is to be the result of
the fusion of all the races upon earth. I have not, however, the
honor of being a member thereof. Indeed, I think it hardly exists.
I hear, too, that several of our prominent anti-slavery gentlemen,
worthy of respect for their zeal and ability, have publicly
advocated the doctrines of amalgamation; but I do not know upon
I do, indeed, hold that in this, as in other matters, we are to do
the manifest right, regardless of consequences. If you ask me who
is to decide what is the manifest right, I answer, that in morals,
as well as in mathematics, there are certain truths so simple as to
be admitted at sight as axioms by every one of common intelligence
and honesty. The right to life is as clear as that two and two make
four, and none dispute it. The right to liberty and to ownership of
property fairly earned is just as clear to the enlightened mind as
that 5 x 6 = 30; but the less enlightened may require to reflect
about it, just as they may want concrete signs to show that five
times six do really make thirty. As we ascend in numbers and in
morals, the intuitive perceptions become less and less; and though
the truths are there, and ought to be admitted as axiomatic, they
are not at once seen and felt by ordinary minds.
Now so far as the rights of blacks and the duties of whites are
manifest to common and honest minds, so far would I admit the first
and perform the second, though the heavens fall. I would not only
advocate entire freedom, equal rights and privileges, and open
competition for social distinction, but what now seems to me the
shocking and downward policy of amalgamation. But the heavens are
not going to fall, and we are not going to be called upon to favor
any policy discordant with natural instincts and cultivated tastes.
A case may be supposed in which the higher race ought to submit to
the sad fate of dilution and debasement of its blood,--as on an
island, and where long continued wrong and suffering had to be
atoned for. But this is hardly conceivable, because, even in what
seems punishment and atonement, the law of harmonious development
still rules. God does not punish wrong and violence done to one
part of our nature, by requiring us to do wrong and violence to
another part. Even Nemesis wields rather a guiding-rod than a
scourge. We need take no step backward, but only aside, to get
sooner into the right path.
Slavery has acted as a disturbing force in the development of our
national character and produced monstrous deformities of a bodily
as well as moral nature, for it has impaired the purity and lowered
the quality of the national blood. It imported Africans, and, to
prevent their extinction by competition with a more vigorous race,
it set a high premium on colored blood. It has fostered and
multiplied a vigorous black race, and engendered a feeble mulatto
breed. Many of each of these classes have drifted northward, right
in the teeth of thermal laws, to find homes where they would never
live by natural election. Now, by utterly rooting out slavery, and
by that means alone, shall we remove these disturbing forces and
allow fair play to natural laws, by the operation of which, it
seems to me, the colored population will disappear from the
Northern and Middle States, if not from the continent, before the
more vigorous and prolific white race. It will be the duty of the
statesman to favor, by wise measures, the operation of these laws
and the purification and elevation of the national blood.
In the way of this is the existence of the colored population of
the Northern and Middle States. Now, while we should grant to every
human being all the rights we claim for ourselves, and bear in mind
the cases of individual excellence of colored people, we must, I
think, admit that mulattoism is hybridism, and that it is unnatural
and undesirable. It has been brought to its present formidable
proportions by several causes,--mainly by slavery. Its evils are to
be met and lessened as far as may be, by wise statesmanship and by
enlightenment of public opinion. These may do much.
Some proclaim amalgamation as the remedy, upon the theory that by
diluting black blood with white blood in larger and larger
proportions, it will finally be so far diluted as to be
imperceptible and will disappear. They forget that we may not do
the wrong that right may come of it. They forget that no amount of
diffusion will exterminate whatever exists; that a pint of ink
diffused in a lake is still there, and the water is only the less
Others persist that mulattoism is not and cannot be persistent
beyond four generations. In other words, that like some other
abnormal and diseased conditions it is self-limiting, and that the
body social will be purged of it.
In the face of these and other theories, it is our duty to gather
as many facts and as much knowledge as is possible, in order to
throw light upon every part of the subject; nobody can furnish more
than you can.
SAMUEL G. HOWE.* (* In this correspondence with Dr. Howe, one or
two phrases in Agassiz's letters are interpolated from a third
unfinished letter, which was never forwarded to Dr. Howe. These
sentences connect themselves so directly with the sense of the
previous letters that it seemed worth while to add them.--ED.)
The Museum and his own more immediate scientific work must
naturally take precedence in any biography of Agassiz, and perhaps,
for this reason, too little prominence has been given in these
pages to his interest in general education, and especially in the
general welfare and progress of Harvard College. He was deeply
attached to the University with which he had identified himself in
America. While he strained every nerve to develop his own
scientific department, which had no existence at Harvard until his
advent there, no one of her professors was more concerned than
himself for the organization of the college as a whole. A lover of
letters as well as a devotee of nature, he valued every provision
for a well proportioned intellectual training. He welcomed the
creation of an Academic Council for the promotion of free and
frequent interchange of opinion between the different heads of
departments, and, when in Cambridge, he was never absent from the
meetings. He urged, also, the introduction of university lectures,
to the establishment of which he largely contributed, and which he
would fain have opened to all the students. He advocated the
extension of the elective system, believing that while it might
perhaps give a pretext for easy evasion of duty to the more
inefficient and lazy students, it gave larger opportunities to the
better class, and that the University should adapt itself to the
latter rather than the former. "The bright students," he writes to
a friend, "are now deprived of the best advantages to be had here,
because the dull or the indifferent must still be treated as
The two following letters, from their bearing on general university
questions, are not out of place here. Though occasioned by a slight
misconception, they are so characteristic of the writers, and of
their relation to each other, that it would be a pity to omit them.
TO RALPH WALDO EMERSON.
December 12, 1864.
MY DEAR EMERSON,
If your lecture on universities, the first of your course, has been
correctly reported to me, I am almost inclined to quarrel with you
for having missed an excellent chance to help me, and advance the
true interests of the college. You say that Natural History is
getting too great an ascendancy among us, that it is out of
proportion to other departments, and hint that a check-rein would
not be amiss on the enthusiastic professor who is responsible for
Do you not see that the way to bring about a well-proportioned
development of all the resources of the University is not to check
the natural history department, but to stimulate all the others?
not that the zoological school grows too fast, but that the others
do not grow fast enough? This sounds invidious and perhaps somewhat
boastful; but it is you and not I who have instituted the
comparison. It strikes me you have not hit upon the best remedy for
this want of balance. If symmetry is to be obtained by cutting down
the most vigorous growth, it seems to me it would be better to have
a little irregularity here and there. In stimulating, by every
means in my power, the growth of the Museum and the means of
education connected with it, I am far from having a selfish wish to
see my own department tower above the others. I wish that every one
of my colleagues would make it hard for me to keep up with him, and
there are some among them, I am happy to say, who are ready to run
a race with me. Perhaps, after all, I am taking up the cudgels
against you rather prematurely. If I had not been called to New
Haven, Sunday before last, by Professor Silliman's funeral, I
should have been present at your lecture myself. Having missed it,
I may have heard this passage inaccurately repeated. If so, you
must forgive me, and believe me always, whatever you did or did not
Ever truly your friend,
FROM RALPH WALDO EMERSON.
CONCORD, December 13, 1864.
I pray you have no fear that I did, or can, say any word unfriendly
to you or to the Museum, for both of which blessings--the cause and
the effect--I daily thank Heaven! May you both increase and
multiply for ages!
I cannot defend my lectures,--they are prone to be clumsy and
hurried botches,--still less answer for any report,--which I never
dare read; but I can tell you the amount of my chiding. I vented
some of the old grudge I owe the college now for forty-five years,
for the cruel waste of two years of college time on mathematics
without any attempt to adapt, by skillful tutors, or by private
instruction, these tasks to the capacity of slow learners. I still
remember the useless pains I took, and my serious recourse to my
tutor for aid which he did not know how to give me. And now I see
to-day the same indiscriminate imposing of mathematics on all
students during two years,--ear or no ear, you shall all learn
music,--to the waste of time and health of a large part of every
class. It is both natural and laudable in each professor to magnify
his department, and to seek to make it the first in the world if he
can. But of course this tendency must be corrected by securing in
the constitution of the college a power in the head (whether
singular or plural) of coordinating all the parts. Else, important
departments will be overlaid, as in Oxford and in Harvard, natural
history was until now. Now, it looks as if natural history would
obtain in time to come the like predominance as mathematics have
here, or Greek at Oxford. It will not grieve me if it should, for
we are all curious of nature, but not of algebra. But the necessity
of check on the instructors in the head of the college, I am sure
you will agree with me, is indispensable. You will see that my
allusion to naturalists is only incidental to my statement of my
But I have made my letter ridiculously long, and pray you to
remember that you have brought it on your own head. I do not know
that I ever attempted before an explanation of any speech.
Always with entire regard yours,
At about this time, in September, 1864, Agassiz made an excursion
into Maine, partly to examine the drift phenomena on the islands
and coast of that State, and partly to study the so-called
"horse-backs." The journey proved to be one of the most interesting
he had made in this country with reference to local glacial
phenomena. Compass in hand, he followed the extraordinary ridges of
morainic material lying between Bangor and Katahdin, to the Ebeene
Mountains, at the foot of which are the Katahdin Iron Works.
Returning to Bangor, he pursued, with the same minute
investigation, the glacial tracks and erratic material from that
place to the seacoast and to Mount Desert. The details of this
journey and its results are given in one of the papers contained in
the second volume of his "Geological Sketches." In conclusion, he
says; "I suppose these facts must be far less expressive to the
general observer than to one who has seen this whole set of
phenomena in active operation. To me they have been for many years
so familiar in the Alpine valleys, and their aspect in those
regions is so identical with the facts above described, that
paradoxical as the statement may seem, the presence of the ice is
now an unimportant element to me in the study of glacial phenomena;
no more essential than is the flesh to the anatomist who studies
the skeleton of a fossil animal."
This journey in Maine, undertaken in the most beautiful season of
the American year, when the autumn glow lined the forest roads with
red and gold, was a great refreshment to Agassiz. He had been far
from well, but he returned to his winter's work invigorated and
with a new sense of hope and courage.
1865-1868: AGE 58-61.
Letter to his Mother announcing Journey to Brazil.
Sketch of Journey.
Kindness of the Emperor.
Liberality of the Brazilian Government.
Correspondence with Charles Sumner.
Letter to his Mother at Close of Brazil Journey.
Letter from Martius concerning Journey in Brazil.
Return to Cambridge.
Lectures in Boston and New York.
Summer at Nahant.
Letter to Professor Peirce on the Survey of Boston Harbor.
Death of his Mother.
Correspondence with Oswald Heer.
Summer Journey in the West.
Letter from Longfellow.
THE next important event in the life of Agassiz, due in the first
instance to his failing health, which made some change of scene and
climate necessary, is best announced by himself in the following
TO HIS MOTHER.
CAMBRIDGE, March 22, 1865.
You will shed tears of joy when you read this, but such tears are
harmless. Listen, then, to what has happened. A few weeks ago I was
thinking how I should employ my summer. I foresaw that in going to
Nahant I should not find the rest I need after all the fatigue of
the two last years, or, at least, not enough of change and
relaxation. I felt that I must have new scenes to give me new life.
But where to go and what to do?
Perhaps I wrote you last year of the many marks of kindness I have
received from the Emperor of Brazil, and you remember that at the
time of my debut as an author, my attention was turned to the
natural history of that country. Lately, also, in a course of
lectures at the Lowell Institute, I have been led to compare the
Alps, where I have passed so many happy years, with the Andes,
which I have never seen. In short, the idea came to me gradually,
that I might spend the summer at Rio de Janeiro, and that, with the
present facilities for travel, the journey would not be too
fatiguing for my wife. . .Upon this, then, I had decided, when most
unexpectedly, and as the consummation of all my wishes, my pleasure
trip was transformed into an important scientific expedition for
the benefit of the Museum, by the intervention of one of my
friends, Mr. Nathaniel Thayer. By chance I met him a week ago in
Boston. He laughed at me a little about my roving disposition, and
then asked me what plans I had formed for the Museum, in connection
with my journey. I answered that, thinking especially of my health,
I had provided only for the needs of myself and my wife during an
absence of six or eight months. Then ensued the following
"But, Agassiz, that is hardly like you; you have never been away
from Cambridge without thinking of your Museum."
"True enough; but I am tired,--I need rest. I am going to loaf a
little in Brazil."
"When you have had a fortnight of that kind of thing you will be as
ready for work as ever, and you will be sorry that you have not
made some preparation to utilize the occasion and the localities in
the interest of the Museum."
"Yes, I have some such misgiving; but I have no means for anything
beyond my personal expenses, and it is no time to ask sacrifices
from any one in behalf of science. The country claims all our
"But suppose some one offered you a scientific assistant, all
expenses paid, what would you say?"
"Of that I had never thought."
"How many assistants could you employ?"
"Half a dozen."
"And what would be the expense of each one?"
"I suppose about twenty-five hundred dollars; at least, that is
what I have counted upon for myself."
After a moment's reflection he resumed:--
"If it suits you then, Agassiz, and interferes in no way with the
plans for your health, choose your assistants among the employees
of your Museum or elsewhere, and I will be responsible for all the
scientific expenses of the expedition.". . .
My preparations are made. I leave probably next week, from New
York, with a staff of assistants more numerous, and, I think, as
well chosen, as those of any previous undertaking of the kind.* (*
Beside the six assistants provided for by Mr. Thayer, there were a
number of young volunteer aids who did excellent work on the
. . .All those who know me seem to have combined to heighten the
attraction of the journey, and facilitate it in every respect. The
Pacific Mail Steamship Company has invited me to take passage with
my whole party on their fine steamer, the Colorado. They will take
us, free of all expense, as far as Rio de Janeiro,--an economy of
fifteen thousand francs at the start. Yesterday evening I received
a letter from the Secretary of the Navy, at Washington, desiring
the officers of all vessels of war stationed along the coasts I am
to visit, to give me aid and support in everything concerning my
expedition. The letter was written in the kindest terms, and
gratified me the more because it was quite unsolicited. I am really
touched by the marks of sympathy I receive, not only from near
friends, but even from strangers. . .I seem like the spoiled child
of the country, and I hope God will give me strength to repay in
devotion to her institutions and to her scientific and intellectual
development, all that her citizens have done for me.
I am forgetting that you will be anxious to know what special work
I propose to do in the interest of science in Brazil. First, I hope
to make large collections of all such objects as properly belong in
a Museum of Natural History, and to this end I have chosen from
among the employees of our Museum one representative from each
department. My only regret is that I must leave Alex in Cambridge
to take care of the Museum itself. He will have an immense amount
of work to do, for I leave him only six out of our usual staff of
assistants. In the second place, I intend to make a special study
of the habits, metamorphoses, anatomy, etc., of the Amazonian
fishes. Finally, I dream sometimes of an ascension of the Andes, if
I do not find myself too old and too heavy for climbing. I should
like to see if there were not also large glaciers in this chain of
mountains, at the period when the glaciers of the Alps extended to
the Jura. . .But this latter part of my plan is quite uncertain,
and must depend in great degree upon our success on the Amazons.
Accompanied as I am with a number of aides naturalistes, we ought
to be able among us to bring together large collections, and even
to add duplicates, which I can then, on my return, distribute to
the European Museums, in exchange for valuable specimens.
We leave next week, and I hope to write you from Rio a letter which
will reach you about the date of my birthday. A steamer leaves
Brazil once a month for England. If my arrival coincides with her
departure you shall not be disappointed in this.
With all my heart,
The story of this expedition has been told in the partly
scientific, partly personal diary published after Agassiz's return,
under the title of "A Journey in Brazil," and therefore a full
account of it here would be mere repetition. He was absent sixteen
months. The first three were spent in Rio de Janeiro, and in
excursions about the neighborhood of her beautiful bay and the
surrounding mountains. For greater efficiency and promptness he
divided his party into companies, each working separately, some in
collecting, others in geological surveys, but all under one
combined plan of action.
The next ten months were passed in the Amazonian region. This part
of the journey had the charm of purely tropical scenery, and
Agassiz, who was no less a lover of nature than a naturalist,
enjoyed to the utmost its beauty and picturesqueness. Much of the
time he and his companions were living on the great river itself,
and the deck of the steamer was by turns laboratory, dining-room,
and dormitory. Often, as they passed close under the banks of the
river, or between the many islands which break its broad expanse
into narrow channels, their improvised working room was
overshadowed by the lofty wall of vegetation, which lifted its
dense mass of trees and soft drapery of vines on either side. Still
more beautiful was it when they left the track of the main river
for the water-paths hidden in the forest. Here they were rowed by
Indians in "montarias," a peculiar kind of boat used by the
natives. It has a thatched hood at one end for shelter from rain or
sun. Little sun penetrates, however, to the shaded "igarape"
(boat-path), along which the montaria winds its way under a vault
of green. When traveling in this manner, they stopped for the
night, and indeed sometimes lingered for days, in Indian
settlements, or in the more secluded single Indian lodges, which
are to be found on the shores of almost every lake or channel. In
this net-work of fresh waters, threading the otherwise impenetrable
woods, the humblest habitation has its boat and landing-place. With
his montaria and his hammock, his little plantation of bananas and
mandioca, and the dwelling, for which the forest about him supplies
the material, the Amazonian Indian is supplied with all the
necessities of life.
Sometimes the party were settled, for weeks at a time, in more
civilized fashion, in the towns or villages on the banks of the
main river, or its immediate neighborhood, at Manaos, Ega, Obydos,
and elsewhere. Wherever they sojourned, whether for a longer or a
shorter time, the scientific work went on uninterruptedly. There
was not an idle member in the company.
From the time he left Rio de Janeiro, Agassiz had the companionship
of a young Brazilian officer of the engineer corps, Major Coutinho.
Thoroughly familiar with the Amazons and its affluents, at home
with the Indians, among whom he had often lived, he was the pearl
of traveling companions as well as a valuable addition to the
scientific force. Agassiz left the Amazonian valley in April, and
the two remaining months of his stay in Brazil were devoted to
excursions along the coast, especially in the mountains back of
Ceara, and in the Organ mountains near Rio de Janeiro.
From beginning to end this journey fulfilled Agassiz's brightest
anticipations. Mr. Thayer, whose generosity first placed the
expedition on so broad a scientific basis, continued to give it his
cordial support till the last specimen was stored in the Museum.
The interest taken in it by the Emperor of Brazil, and the
liberality of the government toward it, also facilitated all
Agassiz's aims and smoothed every difficulty in the path. On
starting he had set before himself two subjects of inquiry. These
were, first, the fresh-water fauna of Brazil, of the greater
interest to him, because of the work on the Brazilian Fishes, with
which his scientific career had opened; and second, her glacial
history, for he believed that even these latitudes must have been,
to a greater or less degree, included in the ice-period. The first
three months spent in Rio de Janeiro and its environs gave him the
key to phenomena connected with both these subjects, and he
followed them from there to the head-waters of the Amazons, as an
Indian follows a trail. The distribution of life in the rivers and
lakes of Brazil, the immense number of species and their local
circumscription, as distinct faunae in definite areas of the same
water-basin, amazed him; while the character of the soil and other
geological features confirmed him in his preconceived belief that
the glacial period could not have been less than cosmic in its
influence. He was satisfied that the tropical, as well as the
temperate and arctic regions, had been, although in a less degree,
fashioned by ice.
Just before leaving the United States he received a letter of
friendly farewell from Charles Sumner, and his answer, written on
the Rio Negro, gives some idea of the conditions under which he
traveled, and of the results he had obtained. As the letters
explain each other, both are given here.
FROM CHARLES SUMNER.
WASHINGTON, March 20, 1865.
MY DEAR AGASSIZ,
It is a beautiful expedition that you are about to commence,--in
contrast with the deeds of war. And yet you are going forth to
conquer new realms, and bring them under a sway they have not yet
known. But science is peaceful and bloodless in her conquests. May
you return victorious! I am sure you will. Of course you will see
the Emperor of Brazil, whose enlightened character is one of the
happy accidents of government. . .You are a naturalist; but you are
a patriot also. If you can take advantage of the opportunities
which you will surely enjoy, and plead for our country, to the end
that its rights may be understood, and the hardships it has been
obliged to endure may be appreciated, you will render a service to
the cause of international peace and good-will.
You are to have great enjoyment. I imagine you already very happy
in the scenes before you. I, too, should like to see Nature in her
most splendid robes; but I must stay at home and help keep the
peace. Good-by--Bon voyage!
Ever sincerely yours,
TO CHARLES SUMNER.
RIO NEGRO; ON BOARD THE BRAZILIAN WAR STEAMER IBICUHY, December 26,
MY DEAR SUMNER,
The heading of these lines tells a long and interesting story. Here
I am, sailing on the Rio Negro, with my wife and a young Brazilian
friend, provided with all the facilities which modern improvements,
the extraordinary liberality of the Brazilian government, and the
kindness of our commander can bestow, and pursuing my scientific
investigations with as much ease as if I were in my study, or in
the Museum at Cambridge,--with this enormous difference, that I am
writing on deck, protected by an awning from the hot sun, and
surrounded by all the luxuriance of the richest tropical
The kind reception I met at the hands of the emperor on my arrival
at Rio has been followed by every possible attention and mark of
good-will toward me personally, but usually tendered in such a way
as to show that an expression of cordiality toward the United
States was intended also in the friendly feeling with which
everything was done to facilitate my researches. In the first
place, the emperor gave me as a traveling companion an extremely
intelligent and well-educated Brazilian, the man of all others whom
I should have chosen had I been consulted beforehand; and for the
six months during which we have been on our journey here, I have
not been able to spend a dollar except for my personal comfort, and
for my collections. All charges for transportation of persons and
baggage in public conveyances, as well as for specimens, have
everywhere been remitted by order of the government. This is not
all; when we reached Para the Brazilian Steamship Company placed a
steamer at my disposal, that I might stop where I pleased on the
way, and tarry as long as I liked instead of following the ordinary
line of travel. In this way I ascended the Amazons to Manaos, and
from there, by the ordinary steamer, reached the borders of Peru,
making prolonged stays at Manaos and at Ega, and sending out
exploring parties up the Javary, the Jutay, the Ica, etc. On my
return to Manaos, at the junction of the Rio Negro and the Amazons,
I found the Ibicuhy awaiting me with an order from the Minister of
Public Works, placing her at my disposal for the remainder of my
stay in the waters of the Amazons.
The Ibicuhy is a pretty little war steamer of 120 horse power,
carrying six thirty-two pound guns. On board of her, and in company
with the President of the Province, I have already visited that
extraordinary network of river anastomoses and lakes, stretching
between the river Madeira and the Amazons to the river Tapajos, and
now I am ascending the Rio Negro, with the intention of going up as
far as the junction of the Rio Branco with the Rio Negro. That the
Brazilian government should be able and willing to offer such
facilities for the benefit of science, during a time of war, when
all the resources of the nation are called upon in order to put an
end to the barbarism of Paraguay, is a most significant sign of the
tendencies prevailing in the administration. There can be no doubt
that the emperor is the soul of the whole. This liberality has
enabled me to devote all my resources to the making of collections,
and the result of my researches has, of course, been proportionate
to the facilities I have enjoyed. Thus far, the whole number of
fishes known from the Amazons has amounted to a little over one
hundred, counting everything that may exist from these waters, in
the Jardin des Plantes, the British Museum, the museums of Munich,
Berlin, Vienna, etc.; while I have collected and now hold, in good
state of preservation, fourteen hundred and forty-two species, and
may get a few hundred more before returning to Para. I have so many
duplicates that I may make every other museum tributary to ours, so
far as the fresh-water animals of Brazil are concerned. This may
seem very unimportant to a statesman. But I am satisfied that it
affords a standard by which to estimate the resources of Brazil, as
they may be hereafter developed. The basin of the Amazons is
another Mississippi, having a tropical climate, tempered by
moisture. Here is room for a hundred million happy human beings.
Ever truly your friend,
The repose of the return voyage, after sixteen months of such
uninterrupted work, and of fresh impressions daily crowding upon
each other, was most grateful to Agassiz. The summary of this
delightful journey may close as it began with a letter to his
AT SEA, July 7, 1866.
When you receive this letter we shall be, I hope, at Nahant, where
our children and grandchildren are waiting for us. To-morrow we
shall stop at Pernambuco, where I shall mail my letter to you by a
I leave Brazil with great regret. I have passed nearly sixteen
months in the uninterrupted enjoyment of this incomparable tropical
nature, and I have learned many things which have enlarged my range
of thought, both concerning organized beings and concerning the
structure of the earth. I have found traces of glaciers under this
burning sky; a proof that our earth has undergone changes of
temperature more considerable than even our most advanced
glacialists have dared to suggest. Imagine, if you can, floating
ice under the equator, such as now exists on the coasts of
Greenland, and you will probably have an approximate idea of the
aspect of the Atlantic Ocean at that epoch.
It is, however, in the basin of the Amazons especially, that my
researches have been crowned with an unexpected success. Spix and
Martius, for whose journey I wrote, as you doubtless remember, my
first work on fishes, brought back from there some fifty species,
and the sum total known now, taking the results of all the
travelers who have followed up the inquiry, does not amount to two
hundred. I had hoped, in making fishes the special object of my
researches, to add perhaps a hundred more. You will understand my
surprise when I rapidly obtained five or six hundred, and finally,
on leaving Para, brought away nearly two thousand,--that is to say,
ten times more than were known when I began my journey.* (* This
estimate was made in the field when close comparison of specimens
from distant localities was out of the question. The whole
collection has never been worked up, and it is possible that the
number of new species it contains, though undoubtedly greatly in
excess of those previously known from the Amazons, may prove to be
less than was at first supposed.--ED.) A great part of this success
is due to the unusual facilities granted me by the Brazilian
government. . .To the Emperor of Brazil I owe the warmest
gratitude. His kindness to me has been beyond all bounds. . .He
even made for me, while he was with the army last summer, a
collection of fishes from the province of Rio Grande du Sud. This
collection would do honor to a professional naturalist. . .
Good-by, dear mother.
With all my heart,
The following letter from old Professor Martius in Munich, of
uncertain date, but probably in answer to one of March, 1866, is
interesting, as connecting this journey with his own Brazilian
expedition almost half a century before.
FROM PROFESSOR MARTIUS.
February 26, 1867.
MY DEAR FRIEND,
Your letter of March 20th last year was most gratifying to me as a
token of your affectionate remembrance. You will easily believe
that I followed your journey on the Amazons with the greatest
interest, and without any alloy of envy, though your expedition was
undertaken forty years later than mine, and under circumstances so
much more favorable. Bates, who lived for years in that country,
has borne me witness that I was not wanting in courage and industry
during an exploration which lasted eleven months; and I therefore
believe that you also, in reviewing on the spot my description of
the journey, will not have passed an unfavorable judgment. Our
greatest difficulty was the small size of our boat which was so
weak as to make the crossing of the river always dangerous. I shall
look forward with great pleasure to the more detailed account of
your journey, and also the plan of your route, which I hope you
will send me. Can you tell me anything about the human skeletons at
the Rio St. Antonio in St. Paul? I am very glad to know that you
have paid especial attention to the palms, and I entreat you to
send me the essential parts of every species which you hold to be
new, because I wish to work out the palms for the Flora
Brasiliensis this year. I wish I might find among them some new
genus or species, which then should bear your name.
Do you intend to publish an account of your journey, or shall you
confine yourself entirely to a report on your observations on
Natural History? With a desire to explain the numerous names of
animals, plants, and places, which are derived from the Tupee
language, I have studied it for years that I might be able to use
it fluently. Perhaps you have seen my "Glossaria lignareus
brasiliensium." It contains also 1150 names of animals. To this
work belong, likewise, my ethnographical contributions, of which
forty-five sheets are already printed, to be published I hope next
year. I am curious to hear your geological conclusions. I am myself
inclined to the belief that men existed in South America previous
to the latest geological catastrophes. As you have seen so many
North American Indians, you will be able to give interesting
explanations of their somatic relations to the South American
Indians. Why could you not send me, as secretary of the
mathematical and physical section, a short report of your principal
results? It would then be printed in the report of our meetings,
which, as the forerunner of other publications, could hardly fail
to be agreeable to you. You no doubt see our friend Asa Gray
occasionally. Remember me cordially to him, and tell him I look
eagerly for an answer to my last letter. The year 'sixty-six has
taken from us many eminent botanists, Gusone, Mettenius, Von
Schlechtendal, and Fresenius. I hear but rarely from our excellent
friend Alexander Braun. He does not resist the approach of old age
so well as you, my dear friend. You are still the active
naturalist, fresh and well preserved, to judge by your photograph.
Thank you for it; I send mine in return. My wife still holds in
warm remembrance the days when you, a bright, pleasant young
fellow, used to come and see us,--what a long stretch of time lies
between. Much is changed about me. Of former friends only Kobell
and Vogel remain; Zuccarini, Wagner, Oken, Schelling, Sieber,
Fuchs, Walther,--all these have gone home. All the pleasanter is it
that you, on the other side of the ocean, think sometimes of your
old friend, to whom a letter from you will be always welcome.
Remember me to your family, though I am not known to them. May the
present year bring you health, cheerfulness, and the full enjoyment
of your great and glorious success.
With warm esteem and friendship, always yours,
Agassiz arrived in Cambridge toward the end of August, 1866. After
the first excitement of meeting family and friends was over, he
took up his college and museum work again. He had left for Brazil
at the close of a course before the Lowell Institute, and his first
public appearance after his return was on the same platform. The
rush for tickets was far in excess of the supply, and he was
welcomed with the most ardent enthusiasm. It continued unabated to
the close, although the lectures borrowed no interest from personal
adventure or incidents of travel, but dealt almost wholly with the
intellectual results and larger scientific generalizations growing
out of the expedition. Later in the winter he gave a course also at
the Cooper Institute, in New York, which awakened the same interest
and drew crowds of listeners. The resolution offered by Bancroft,
the historian, at the close of the course, gives an idea of its
character, and coming from such a source, may not unfitly be
RESOLVED, That the thanks of this great assembly of delighted
hearers be given to the illustrious Professor Agassiz, for the
fullness of his instruction, for the clearness of his method of
illustration, for his exposition of the idea as antecedent to form;
of the superiority of the undying, original, and eternal force over
its transient manifestations; for happy hours which passed too
rapidly away; for genial influences of which the memory will last
through our lives.
All his leisure hours during the winter of 1867 were given to the
review and arrangement of the great collections he had brought
TO SIR PHILIP DE GREY EGERTON.
MUSEUM OF COMPARATIVE ZOOLOGY, CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS., March 26,
I know you will be pleased to hear that I have returned to the
study of fishes, and that I am not likely to give it up again for
years to come. My success in collecting in the Amazons has been so
unexpected that it will take me years to give an account of what I
have found, and I am bound to show that the strange statements that
have gone abroad are strictly correct. Yes, I have about eighteen
hundred new species of fishes from the basin of the Amazons! The
collection is now in Cambridge, for the most part in good
preservation. It suggests at once the idea that either the other
rivers of the world have been very indifferently explored, or that
tropical America nourishes a variety of animals unknown to other
regions. In this dilemma it would be worth while to send some
naturalist to investigate the Ganges or the Bramaputra, or some of
the great Chinese rivers. Can it not be done by order of the
Please send me whatever you may publish upon the fossil fishes in
your possession. I frequently sigh for another session in your
museum, and it is not improbable that I shall solicit an invitation
from you in a few years, in order to revise my views of the whole
subject in connection with what I am now learning of the living
fishes. By the way, I have eleven hundred colored drawings of the
species of Brazil made from life by my old friend Burkhardt, who
accompanied me on this journey.
My recent studies have made me more adverse than ever to the new
scientific doctrines which are flourishing now in England. This
sensational zeal reminds me of what I experienced as a young man in
Germany, when the physio-philosophy of Oken had invaded every
centre of scientific activity; and yet, what is there left of it? I
trust to outlive this mania also. As usual, I do not ask beforehand
what you think of it, and I may have put my hand into a hornet's
nest; but you know your old friend Agass, and will forgive him if
he hits a tender spot. . .
The summer of 1867 was passed very tranquilly at his Nahant
laboratory, in that quiet work with his specimens and his
microscope which pleased him best. The following letter to
Professor Benjamin Peirce, who was then Superintendent of the Coast
Survey, shows, however, his unfailing interest in the bearing of
scientific researches on questions of public utility.
TO PROFESSOR PEIRCE, SUPERINTENDENT OF THE COAST SURVEY.
NAHANT, September 11, 1867.
Far from considering your request a tax upon my time, it gives me
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