Alexander von Humboldt was once among the most famous names in all America, a fact testified to by the dozens of cities, rivers, bays, and species that were named after him. An explorer, commentator, and philosopher, he is best remembered today, if he is remembered at all, as the father of the 19th century scientific movement that bears his name and stresses the interrelatedness of the various aspects of nature and of humanity and nature.
More interesting to me, however, are these comments he made about liberty in America. For as strong as America’s love was for Humboldt–and for a time Humboldt returned that affection, particularly through a personal friendship with Thomas Jefferson–Humboldt proved himself a willing and able critic of American hypocrisy. At a time when the American rhetoric about liberty was its most eloquent and its failure to live up to that rhetoric most obvious, Humboldt made this observation:
In the United States there has, it is true, arisen a great love for me, but the whole there presents to my mind the sad spectacle of liberty reduced to a mere mechanism in the element of utility, exercising little ennobling or elevating influence upon mind and soul, which, after all, should be the aim of political liberty. Hence indifference on the subject of slavery. But the United States are a Cartesian vortex, carrying everything with them, grading everything to the level of monotony.
Americans are less philosophical in their ideals and less overt in their failure to live up to them, but I suspect that Humboldt’s criticism remains largely accurate.