The Great American Debate

The Dispute of the New World: The History of a Polemic, 1750-1900

by Antonello Gerbi, translated by Jeremy Moyle
University of Pittsburgh Press, 700 pp., $19.95

American Genesis: Captain John Smith and the Founding of Virginia

by Alden Vaughan
Little, Brown, 207 pp., $6.95

Bartolomé de Las Casas in History

edited by Juan Friede, edited by Benjamin Keen
Northern Illinois University Press, 632 pp., $20.00

All Mankind Is One

by Lewis Hanke
Northern Illinois University Press, 205 pp., $15.00

In Defense of the Indians

by Bartolomé de Las Casas, translated, edited, and annotated by Stafford Poole C.M.
Northern Illinois University Press, 385 pp., $25.00

Anyone who is bothered by the marked absence of elephants from the woods and forests of America has only to turn to the pages of that great eighteenth-century naturalist, Buffon, to find the reason for this sad lacuna. Nature in America is less active, less varied, and less vigorous than in Europe because America is a new continent. Therefore the best it can manage in the line of pachyderms is the modest tapir. With time, perhaps, things may change—not that the tapir can ever hope to grow into an elephant, but at least those European breeds which, like the sheep and goat, have made the transatlantic crossing will no longer actually decrease in size in their new environment.

Buffon was a large man—a fact which may help to explain his predilection for the bigger animals as representing a higher level on the scale of creation. But within the large frame there dwelled a generous spirit, and when he moved from American quadrupeds to bipeds he treated the latter with relative moderation. The natives of America could not, of course, escape the general rule that governed the natural phenomena of the New World. “The savage is feeble and small in his organs of generation; he has neither body hair nor beard, and no ardour for the female of his kind. Although lighter than the European, on account of his habit of running more, he is nevertheless much less strong in body; …he lacks vivacity, and is lifeless in his soul.”

But Buffon was ready enough to leave the question there. Not so, however, the abbé Cornelius de Pauw. In his Recherches philosophiques sur les Américains of 1768, this querulous dogmatist, suitably fortified by the rationalism of the eighteenth century at its most irrational, was unwilling to allow the human inhabitants of the New World the benefits of Buffon’s doubts. For De Pauw the native American, so far from being an immature animal or an overgrown child, was a degenerate being; and this was because De Pauw’s America was not young but corrupt. In that debased environment only insects and reptiles prospered, and even these suffered from notable deficiencies, for “the American crocodiles and alligators have neither the impetuosity nor the fury of those of Africa.”

Not surprisingly De Pauw’s provocative assertions conjured up a storm of protest on both sides of the Atlantic. The virility of American men, the ardor of American women, the fecundity of American animals—all these became the subjects of furious and often erudite debate. Was America youthful or degenerate, innocent or corrupt? For the eccentric Lord Kames, South Carolina was the only exception to the general rule: “Europeans there die so fast that they have not time to degenerate.” For Benjamin West, on the other hand, a Mohawk was comparable to the Apollo Belvedere, while Thomas Jefferson assembled a formidable array of statistics to refute the pernicious thesis of American degeneracy.

This great American debate, which long outlasted its eighteenth-century proponents …

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