”For a time Europeans had invented an AMERICA peopled by noble savages, men uncorrupted by civilization; as Montaigne wrote, quoting Seneca, they were “fresh from the gods”. But Europe has never stopped reinventing the New World. The eighteenth-century debate took off when the Comte de Buffon, the famous French naturalist, proposed a thesis of American biological inferiority, producing an array of quasi-scientific reasons to explain “why the reptiles and insects are so large, the quadrupeds so small, and the men so cold, in the New World.” The idea quickly spread. In Britain, Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village portrayed a dank and gloomy land where no birds sang and no dogs barked.
Soon the philosophe the Abbe Corneille de Pauw described America as “so ill-favored by nature that all it contains is either degenerate of monstrous” and Americans as “degenerate species of the human race, cowardly, impotent, without physical strength, without vitality, without elevation of mind”. As for the conquest of the New World, this, De Pauw concluded, “has been the greatest of all misfortunes to befall mankind”. ( Arthur Schlesinger Jr. )
And to what purpose was the ”New World”, The eighteenth century and the colonizing efforts in the America’s that drained Europe of her population and plunged almost every European nation into interminable wars seemed to have no purpose and assumed a life of its own.
It was gold and silver that lured the conquistadors into Mexico and Peru, and wherever rumor told of the ”Seven Cities of Cibola” . They found the gold and silver, but the result was not wealth but inflation and impoverishment. Moreover, the New World, the world of the East as well as the West Indies, flooded the Old with articles that were useless and pernicious. What use was that noxious weed, tobacco? What use were furs and silks, the precious stones and the precious metals, and all the luxuries that distracted Christian men and women from the simple life enjoined alike by moralists and economists?
In addition, the New World took revenge upon the conquerors by afflicting them with the most terible of diseases, which they brought back to the Old World. For it was America that infected Europe with venereal disease; that was an article of faith, and of science, of course. But the worst was yet to come, the worst and most indisputable: slavery. How the critics rang the changes on that evil. First the conquistadors had killed off the gentle natives of the islands; then they had stolen hapless Africans from the coasts and sold them into slavery. And remember that slavery was dying out in the Old World when America revived it; in the eyes of history it was America that must bear the responsibility.
”The American genius for showmanship and spectacle began with the Revolution and has never abated. After its splendid introduction, Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence descended swiftly into a blood libel on the American Indian, and an excoriation worthy of the Nuremberg prosecutors, of King George III, the awkward, unstable, but likeable “Farmer George.”
Jefferson even included in his original arraignment of the British monarchy the shameful importation of slavery into America. It was suggested that given his status as a slaveholder, this was hardly appropriate. The later notorious fact of his dalliances with comely female slaves, who provided six of his nine progeny, and his failure to emancipate them in the 50 (to the day) years that he lived on from July 4, 1776, would have made such an allegation especially hollow. (If the Americans had delayed their revolution until a few years after Jefferson’s death, the British abolition of slavery would have applied to them and it would have been disposed of a good deal less painfully than with the death of 700,000 Americans in the Civil War.)” ( Conrad Black )
Suppose these speculations were ill founded? There was always one further argument. That was, if America did succeed, if somehow the American colonies should survive and flourish and become prosperous and powerful states, they would inevitably turn on the Old World, they would drain her of her best stock, they would steal her commerce, they would subvert her governments, they would rend her and destroy her.
So much then, for the critics and the malcontents. But even as they wrote, history had passed them by; some recognition of this creeps into their complaints and diatribes and explains the shrillness of their style. How few of them had the good sense to stay their hand when the situation changed; the good sense to recognize what the sagacious Dr. William Robertson acknowledged when, in the fateful year 1775, he abandoned his plan to bring his ”History of America” up to date. He wrote, ”It is lucky that my American History was finished before this event. How many possible theories, that I should have been entitled to form , are contradicted by what has now happened.”
”The generalized summary of the savage tribes of the eastern American seaboard and the Caribbean that results is, in the main,dreary, flat, essentially accurate, yet markedly biased with unflattering value judgments. For Robertson, although a rationalist, was very much a Scotch Presbyterian moralist. His Indians were, therefore, loosely portrayed as feeble, indolent,
improvident, lacking in the virtues engendered by developed property interests, intellectually unimaginative, devoid of love between the sexes, and near anarchists in civil affairs. It was only when he examined the aberrant, which forced him to treat of details, that this phase of his treatise acquired a descriptive quality of interest for the modern reader.” ( E.Adamson Hoebel )
The swift rush of events was to vindicate the champions of the New World. For now the defenders entered the fray, armored with the arguments of philosophy and of history, and, more to the point, armored with facts. Whether the defenders were really champions of the New World, or merely critics of the Old, enthusiasts for the American Revolution or precursors of the French, is not important; doubtless they were a bit of both. It was not, in any event, the whole of the New World that they now undertook to defend against the calumnies and slanders of a de Pauw or Raynal, which converted faith based pseudo-science into a derisive polemic on the New World where humans and animals ”degenerate” across the Atlantic.
”Americans, of course, looked on Raynal with considerable irritation. Benjamin Franklin once had to endure at his own Paris dinner table a monologue by the diminutive abbe on the way everything shrank in the New World. “Let us try this question by the fact before us,” Franklin suggested in his practical way, and called on his guests, French and American, to stand up and measure themselves back to back. “There was not one American president,” recalled Thomas Jefferson, who was among them, “who could have tost out the Windows any one or perhaps two of the rest of the Company.”
In one of the earliest Federalist papers, Alexander Hamilton responded with vigor to what he called “these arrogant pretensions of the European.” European writers “admired as profound philosophers,” Hamilton said, “…have gravely asserted that all animals, and with them the human species, degenerate in AMERICA – that even dogs cease to bark after having breathed awhile in our atmosphere.” Europe, Hamilton continued, had succumbed to the temptation “to plume herself as the Mistress of the World, and to consider the rest of mankind as created for her benefit…Let Americans disdain to be the instruments of European greatness!”
The slanders were all but forgotten now, or pushed aside as irrelevant. As a practical matter, America, sooner or later, was fated to be found by a Europe bursting at the seams with its own dynamism, greed, and evangelical zeal. Now the intellectuals were writing about the new United States rather than the New World; now they were writing economics and history rather than philosophy. A good many of the champions knew America at firsthand.
These were the years when soldiers from half a dozen countries fought on American soil and when refugees from almost as many countries found asylum there. Oddly enough, the most learned of the champions, men like Condorcet in france, or Freidrich von Gentz in Germany, saw America only through the eyes of history. Perhaps that is why they saw more deeply than most of the others.