A Modest, Humboldt Request of an American President

On December 26, 1811, the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt sat in his office in Paris and composed a short letter (in French) to an American acquaintance, asking for a quintessentially American product. He wanted tobacco seeds.

The Newberry holds this letter in its Ayer Collection, but, owing to the absence of an addressee, the catalog record simply notes the anonymity of Humboldt’s correspondent and a few details on the content of his request. Reinhard Andress, professor of German at Loyola University Chicago, has now established that the letter was, in all likelihood, written to Thomas Jefferson.

Best known for his extended trip to colonial Central and South America from 1799 to 1804, Humboldt visited President Jefferson in Washington at the tail-end of his travels. The two had a lively exchange on a series of political, social, and scientific matters, an experience that would fuel their correspondence years later.

According to Professor Andress, the December 26, 1811, letter from Humboldt forms a kind of postscript to a more extensive letter he had written to Jefferson on December 20 of the same year. In a response dated December 6, 1813, Jefferson confirms having received Humboldt’s two letters from nearly two years before, and promises to send the tobacco seeds.

One might assume the seeds were an important part of Humboldt’s extensive botanical research. And Humboldt didn’t take any chances in securing the raw material for study. In a time of pirates, privateers, and tense relations among the U.S., Great Britain, and France, Humboldt hedged against the possibility of his correspondence never crossing the Atlantic by sending his request for tobacco to multiple American contacts. In addition to prevailing upon Jefferson, Humboldt also wrote to then-Secretary of State Albert Gallatin.

Professor Andress plans to publish on the significance of his finding in the Newberry collection in the near future.