To Europeans intellectuals of the eighteenth century, America was a battleground of ideas; the war between Nature and civilization.And its proponents did not mince words. Respected academics like Comte de Buffon reported that domesticated animals imported from Europe as well as mammals common to both Europe and America had degenerated (i.e., were smaller) in the New World. He also regarded the Native Americans as a degenerated variety of humans:
“In the savage, the organs of generation are small and feeble. He has no hair, no beard, no ardour for the female. Though nimbler than the European, because more accustomed to running, his strength is not so great. His sensations are less acute; and yet he is more timid and cowardly. He has no vivacity, no activity of mind.”
Nevertheless, nature was coming into her own at last. Even Voltaire could not resist her. Did not ”Candide” end with the observation ”we must cultivate our garden”?.Now romanticism was challenging the claims of rationalism, or what was called rationalism was in some measure pseudo-science with little factual basis. America was the prize exhibit. The controversy over the New World was part of the larger issue dividing romanticism and rationalism. The Enlightenment, which exalted order, classification, and common sense, looked with suspicion on an America that was wild, impetuous, and disorderly; on animals that were strange and exotic and did not readily fit into the great chain of being; on vast shaggy forests, rivers that were like lakes, and lakes that were like oceans; on savages who were primitive but claimed to be noble; on societies that did not acknowledge order and degree.
But the romantics saw a different America, and America where the savage was indeed noble, where the landscape was no longer wild or primitive but had been tamed into a pastoral stage setting, where the inhabitants were simple, virtuous and wise. They were ready, like the dashing Irish exile Lord Fitzgerald, to cast their lot with the Indians; like Albert Gallatin to abandon Geneva for the wilds of Pennsylvania; like Crevecoeur to find happiness in tilling the soil of some frontier farm. There were so many of these refugees from civilization, living in the woods of Maine, or wandering along the Ohio frontier painting the hundreds of birds of that rich country or setting up a utopia in some American wilderness.
America was involved in still another controversy besides that between nature and civilization, and romanticism and rationalism. It was deeply involved in the controversy between the physiocrats, who believed that nature was the only proper source of wealth, and the mercantilists. Mercantilism was irretrievably committed to world-wide trade, commerce, cities, manufatures, colonies, empire, and of course war. It drained the New World of precious metals that played hob with the economy of the Old. It caught up thousands of virtuous young men and sent them off to distant continents to waste away their lives fighting for trivial causes in futile wars or trading in some obscure factory for useless luxuries, joined in unholy union with some dark-hued stranger.
True happiness, the physiocrats maintained, was not to be found in colonies or in trade, in wealth or in luxury; true happiness was to be found in cultivating the soil, and true wealth as well. And where do you find such happiness except in America? There was still another thread in this tangled skein of argument about America, and doubtless it was the most important of all. To attack or to defend America was a way of criticizing the evils of government and economy and society in the Old World. It was a risky business, in that century of censorship and the Bastille and the Inquisition, to attacl king or law or Church head on; even a Buffon, even a Voltaire, even a Diderot, had to watch himself. But what could not be done directly might be done by indirection, by innuendo, and by contrast.