Archival Follies, Now in Actual Work


Or, Nineteenth-Century Natural History and Geopolitics Go Together Like…*


Henry Wheaton was a busy man in 1843. Aside from his official duties as U.S. Minister to Prussia – which included everything from issuing passports and entertaining visiting Americans to more serious affairs like preparing for a treaty negotiations with the Zolleverein, the German Customs Union – he was also intensely engaged in writing reports, as a hobby.

And not just a few. In 1843, Wheaton wrote at least ten reports for the National Institution for the Promotion of Science – aka the “National Institute” – a Washington-based organization that sought to : “to promote Science and the Useful Arts, and to establish a National Museum of Natural History, &c. &c.”

Wheaton’s contributions to the Institute fell firmly in the “&c. &c.” category. Though best known for his legal work – he was the first professional reporter for the Supreme Court, and wrote the standard treatises on international and maritime law – his reports for the National Institute trace a wider circle, and depart significantly from the then-standard definitions of “scientific and useful arts.” He wrote absolutely no treatises on New England ferns or Great Lake mollusks (all popular topics with the Washington professionals cum amateur scientists that made up the bulk of the Institute’s membership), which probably accounts for his failure to get the Institute to help publish his work.

Instead, he wrote on a bewildering array of subjects, including:

The geography of Central Asia; the revival of Greek tragedy in Prussia; German canals; the state of the fine arts in Denmark ; the character of Frederick the Great; the last days of the Emperor Charles V; the genius and labors of Liebniz; the life and writings of Diderot; the Panama canal; the history of the reformation in Germany; Egyptian Antiquities, and the Ptolemaic canal across the Isthmus of Suez.

If we ignore the Teutonic flavor of some of the reports (likely the result of his location and occupation; he had been a diplomat in Prussia since 1835), a striking pattern emerges. Almost uniquely among the corresponding members of the National Institute, Wheaton was concerned with history, culture, art – and, above all commerce and geopolitics.
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