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William Maclure and the Louisiana Purchase

Between 1800 and 1815, the philanthropist geologist William Maclure traveled around Europe, trying to understand the geological structure of the old continent while preparing for "the great object of his ambition," a detailed study of the Northeastern United States. A member of the American Philosophical Society, he published his first geological map of the area that stretches from the Saint Lawrence River to the Gulf of Mexico in 1809. In 1803 President Jefferson instructed Maclure to convey to the French authorities the claims of American citizens who had incurred damages between 1798 and 1799 during the undeclared naval war. Maclure lived in Paris for one and a half years and bought a house on 20 rue des Brodeurs, faubourg Saint-Germain. Maclure's mission immediately followed the United States' efforts to acquire Louisiana. Robert R. Livingston, U.S. Minister to France, and James Monroe, Envoy Extraordinary, had agreed to proceed with the purchase of this immense territory in the spring of 1803. Jefferson hoped, however, to use the occasion to get the Treaty of Mortefontaine implemented and sent a special commission, made up of John Fenton Mercer, Isaac Cox Barnet and William Maclure, to work out the details. In the fall of 1804, just before the end of the negotiations, Maclure met Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, and he invited him to dinner at his home to talk about Lesueur's travels with Captain Nicolas Baudin to Australia and Tasmania (1800-1804). In 1815, Maclure proposed to employ Lesueur for at least two years to travel to America and help him finish the revised version of his geological map of the United States.

  • Where did Maclure's fortune and ideas come from?

  • How do we know Abraham Lincoln was passionate about Maclure's project?





    Portrait of William Maclure, by Thomas James Northcote

    Portrait of William Maclure - by Thomas James Northcote (1795)

    Courtesy of the Working Men's Institute in New Harmony


    William Maclure's geological map of 1817

    Map of the United States of America - with boundary lines, roads, distances and proposed canals - designed to illustrate the geological memoir of William Maclure. Published by John Melish, Philadelphia (1817)

    Courtesy of the the Working Men's Institute in New Harmony

    Why did Maclure contract Lesueur?

    Charles-Alexandre Lesueur's extensive knowledge of plants and animals living on the earth's surface and in the deep oceans enabled him to identify fossil remains with great precision - something very few mineralogists were capable of doing. Lesueur was a great zoologist, ornithologist, entomologist, conchologist, ichthyologist, and even botanist. His contributions to Maclure's geological investigations and American paleontology should not be underestimated. Maclure and Lesueur were very much ahead of their time. Both forerunners of modern geology and paleontology, they were perfectly aware that by correlating their knowledge of biology with the geological record, they could analyze the earth's crust with more precision. Fossils, which were by then largely recognized as organic remains, became the key for interpreting the geological register, particularly after Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) and his assistant Alexandre Brongniart (1770-1847) explored the Paris Basin at the beginning of the 1800s. Cuvier, who became the international expert in comparative anatomy, demonstrated the structural differences between fossils and existing animals, which led to an awareness of the great age of the strata. In 1819 Lesueur's technical skills brought him to the frontier between Canada and the United States, having been commissioned by the American government to establish the dividing line between the two countries. This allowed him to meet geologist Amos Eaton, the protégé of Stephen Van Rensselaer, in Albany, New York. About this chapter of Eaton's life, historian John M. Clarke wrote in 1921:

    "Lesueur was a student of Cuvier, and I think New York Paleontology may now confess the measure of its debt to him. Early in 1820 [sic] Lesueur visited Albany at the request of the State Boundary Commission and here he was quickly found by Eaton, then lecturing at the Troy Lyceum. Forthwith he was whisked off, as opportunity presented, into the Helderbergs whose teeming fossils were lying nameless. There [Lesueur's] Cuvierian eyes and his Cuvierian training helped Eaton, the Yankee geologist, to [give] Cuvierian names, the first these fossils ever had."

    In addition to being an excellent geologist and paleontologist, Lesueur was an experienced land surveyor. Trained as a cartographer at the Le Havre School of Mathematics and Hydrography, he drew the first map of Sydney, Australia, in 1802. After his return from the Baudin expedition in 1804, Lesueur became Cuvier's student and personal friend. An interesting example of Lesueur's exceptional Cuvierian abilities can be found in Amos Eaton's 1824 book A Geological and Agricultural Survey of the District Adjoining the Erie Canal, where we read about the pyritiferous rock at the head of Cayuga Lake: "I have seen in this rock encrinites, entrochites, anthocephalites, chamites, gryphites, terebratulites, orthocerites, volutites, turbinites, common madreporites, retiporites, horn-form madreporites, favosites, isidites, alcyonites; all of which were labeled at my request by Le Sueur.

    Quoted from B. R. Rinsma, Eyewitness to Utopia: Scientific Conquest and Communal Settlement in C.-A. Lesueur's Sketches of the Frontier, 48-49.

    William Maclure's Growing Fortune

    William Maclure came from Ayr, in Scotland, and later lived in Glasgow and then in Liverpool to facilitate his father's trade with New York. From the age of fifteen, David McClure's oldest son James went with him on his trips to the United States, and, in 1782, James became a partner in the London-based firm Miller, Hart & Company. He worked for this multinational for fourteen years and, in June 1796, cofounded McClure, Brydie & Company, establishing himself in Richmond, Virginia, to export tobacco. He started to enjoy the leisure his growing fortune afforded him. That same year, James McClure became a naturalized American citizen, altering the spelling of his surname to Maclure, and - though he had been baptized James - changed his first name to William. Maclure's mother gave birth to at least twelve children, but in 1815, only five of them were still alive: Anna and Margaret in Great Britain, and William, Alexander and John in the United States. The other siblings had died before reaching adulthood, with the exception of his sister Helen who died in 1810. She was the spouse of David Hunter, a wealthy merchant from London. Anna and Margaret lived on the generous pension that William allotted to them, and Alexander managed his brother's timber company in Norfolk, on the coast of Virginia.

    Quoted from Rinsma, Eyewitness to Utopia, 28, 33.

    Maclure's Concern for the Working Classes

    Maclure expressed deep concern about the fate of the workers. Of all the motivations that impelled him, the inequality in the distribution of wealth was probably the strongest. "Knowledge is Power," he often exclaimed, appropriating Francis Bacon's maxim, and he actively sought to give this power to the new generation of working-class children. Maclure considered utilitarian knowledge to be "the legitimate source of power and riches." According to him, fair reapportionment would be the only just act: "Whatever tends to equalize knowledge, divides and equalizes in the same proportion power and riches, and, of course, injures those who have by force or fraud obtained a monopoly of both."

    Jeremy Bentham

    William Maclure was greatly inspired by the philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, who preached that society's only legitimate pursuit should be "the greatest happiness of the greatest number." During his stay in Russia, in 1810, Maclure visited one of Bentham's projects, the panopticon; an experimental factory for thieves, who worked under hidden surveillance with the aim of making them more honest. In December 1813 Bentham became Robert Owen's associate in the New Lanark factories in Scotland. In 1824 Maclure described one of his meetings with Bentham as follows: "[I] called on J. Bentham in the evening and spent a few hours with him. [He is] a cheerful old man full of good ideas and [a] liberal. [He] lives in the midst of a large wellcultivated Garden adjoining St. James's Park and [he] has [a] door opening into the Birdcage Walk into which we walked in the evening. He jestingly told me the lamps were an ilumination [sic] that he contrived to receive me. He has been immensely before his age but at present by nature must at least be at a stand[still] when all around him are in motion. This Karlswood School is his hobby."

    Quoted from Rinsma, Eyewitness to Utopia, 42-43.

    William Maclure's geological map of 1809

    William Maclure's geological map of 1809

    Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

    Maclure's Radical Friends

    William Maclure did not act alone, and his contacts with the utilitarian and rationalist circles of Britain emphasize his leanings. In Maclure's 1824 journal we find the following names: John Black (1783-1855), editor of the London opposition paper The Morning Chronicle; John Bowring (1792-1872), co-editor of the quite radical Westminster Review; Francis Place (1771-1854), union leader and social reformer; James Pierrepont Greaves (1777-1842), socialist educator and founder of several Pestalozzian schools in England; William Allen (1770-1843), chemist in the Royal Society and editor of The Philanthropist; and George Birkbeck (1776-1841), professor of natural history and founder of the Glasgow and London Mechanics' Institutes. Maclure's efforts not only encouraged utilitarian education; they were an integral part of the school of thought initiated by Jeremy Bentham. This link with radical English circles would later facilitate his connection with Robert Owen, who asked for Maclure's help in assuring the success of his utopian enterprise in New Harmony, Indiana.

    Quoted from Rinsma, Eyewitness to Utopia, 42-43.


    Maclure and Pestalozzi

    In 1805 Maclure traveled to Yverdon, Switzerland, to meet Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, a reformer in the field of education who was continuing the efforts begun by the Moravian pastor Johann Amos Comenius (1592-1670) and the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). A forerunner of Montessori education, Pestalozzi proposed an alternative to traditional teaching that, according to him, put too much emphasis on grammar and literature and did not prepare working-class children appropriately for their future role in society. Pestalozzi received numerous illustrious visitors, such as Friedrich Fröbel (1782-1852), who is considered the founder of the Kindergarten, and Andrew Bell (1753-1832), proponent of the mutual system that advocated using the best students as tutors for the others.

    Pestalozzi concentrated on the education of working-class children with the goal of training them to succeed in their lives. This is what attracted Maclure, who met him for the first time in October 1805, and then in 1806, 1811, 1813, and, for the last time, in 1820. Maclure believed classical instruction only served the purposes of the nonproductive ruling class, who maintained this type of education in order to keep workers in a state of ignorance. By opposing the acquisition of practical and scientific knowledge, the elite deprived their fellow citizens of financial independence, while closing off all access to the country's natural resources. "Ignorance is the Devil and the Mother of all Mischief," Maclure lamented in one of his many letters on the subject. Maclure recruited Pestalozzi's newly trained teachers, the only ones he thought capable of bettering the lot of working-class children. Maclure was not a teacher himself, but he planned to personally contribute to the diffusion of knowledge by promoting scientific research and publishing it at an affordable price.

    Quoted from Rinsma, Eyewitness to Utopia, 33, 35.

    Thomas Jefferson's Letter to William Maclure

    "I thank you, dear Sir, for the copy of your Geology of the U.S. which you have been so kind as to send me. I have read it with as much pleasure as I could expect to receive from writings in a branch of science with which I am so little familiar. Considering how little the scratches of 100 feet deep into the crust of a globe of 8000 miles diameter could authorize conjectures as to its internal structure, & the history of its formation. I have neglected these theories, believing them to be as superficial as the foundations on which they were built. Much too of what has been claimed by geology belongs equally to minerology and chemistry. You have wisely therefore confined yourself to the truly useful part of this science, the relative positions of the different kinds of rocks, stones, ores & other minerals. And your researches into these give us valuable information as to the treasures of our own country & where to search for them.

    I recall to mind with fondness the pleasure I recieved [sic] from your society in Philadelphia, with [Constantin-François] Volney, [Julian Ursyn] Niemcewicz, [Benjamin Henry] Latrobe & others. Time has not effaced it, & knowing your attachment to that kind of society, I am not without a hope that a literary establishment we are making near Charlottesville may become considerable enough to attract your summer peregrinations towards it sometimes, should it be adopted by legislature, as I have some hope it will. Their abundant funds will enable us to place it in the first order of those institutions in the U.S. Should this or any other circumstance invite you again to our neighborhood I shall fondly hope you will make Monticello your head quarters, and that in the mean time you will be assured of my sincere attachment & respect."

    Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, November 2, 1817. Courtesy of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

    Francis Bacon's Natural History in Ten Centuries, containing the New Atlantis

    Francis Bacon's Sylva Sylvarum or Natural History in Ten Centuries

    Maclure's Utopia

    William Maclure had close ties with Claude-Henri de Rouvroy de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), and they met frequently at his home, 20 rue des Brodeurs, faubourg Saint- Germain. The French socialist thinker had taken part in the American Revolution before becoming a philosopher and reformist; the precursor of positivism and sociology. In 1816 he started a magazine called L'Industrie, followed by L'Organisateur in 1819, in collaboration with Auguste Comte (1798-1857). Comte, who soon became famous, worked in Maclure's school in Paris with Guillaume Phiquepal from 1821 to 1824. In 1823 Maclure was even planning to send Comte to Spain as the head of a Lancasterian school in Alicante. Had the young man accepted, his career would certainly have taken a different turn.

    Both Comte and Saint-Simon advocated collective action so that all members of society would have "rank and benefits proportional with their capacities and their investment, which forms the basis of the highest degree of equality possible and desirable." They criticized private property because it led to an anarchical system of production, which, in turn, resulted in people being exploited, whereas "in cooperatives, where all contribute with a capacity and an investment, there is true association, and there is no inequality except for [the quantities of] capacity and investment, which are both necessary […]." Property should be beneficial to the whole of society, not just for the exclusive use of a privileged class. Many of Saint-Simon and Comte's ideas are similar to those of another acquaintance of Maclure, Charles Fourier, who saw the creation of cooperative communities as the solution to society's problems. Fourier wrote that humanity was in the fifth stage of its history, having passed through "Eden," "Savagery," "Patriarchy" and "Barbarism." His own era, that of capitalism, he named "Civilization." It was to be followed by "Harmony." This harmony would not come about by itself; society needed to be reconfigured progressively by the creation of phalanxes.

    As he mentioned in one of his 1830 letters, Maclure regularly corresponded with Fourier, but clearly his interest in cooperative villages existed well before Fourier's influence. Born in Ayr, Scotland, where the Moravians established their first religious utopian commune in 1765, Maclure's interest in social works and cooperative villages was not a coincidence. His enthusiasm clearly took root in his youth and went far beyond the New Harmony experiment. Maclure followed Francis Bacon's scientific method in his geological work, and he was also deeply influenced by Bacon's last book: The New Atlantis (1626).

    In the form of a novel, the Francis Bacon gives a detailed picture of the perfect community, which, according to him, must be governed by scientists. Based on this principle, Maclure would bring his friends of the Academy of Natural Sciences (as well as his schools) from Philadelphia to New Harmony, thus wedding Bacon's ideas to those of Owen. Much like Thomas Jefferson, Maclure saw the founding of cooperative agricultural villages as the immediate solution to the problems of his era, and he hoped to improve Owen's chances of success by bringing in elements of The New Atlantis.

    More about Maclure's Baconian ideas

    The Successes of New Harmony's Utopia

    In early March 1826, William Maclure, Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and their colleagues had to unpack some fifty tons of tools, books and mineralogical samples, brought from Philadelphia to New Harmony by steamboat. Soon the west wing of the brick church would be filled with bones, skeletons and all kinds of instruments, whereas the east wing was to hold the immense library of Maclure and Lesueur. They would make important scientific contributions from their outpost on the American frontier, the avant-garde colony of New Harmony.

    Between 1826 and 1828, with Lesueur's aid, Thomas Say finished his famous three volume work American Entomology. From 1830 to 1834, Say also published the three-hundred-page pioneering book American Conchology. Lesueur himself continued to work on his Fishes of North America and described two Wabash turtles in a publication that appeared in Paris in 1827. Moreover, together with Gerard Troost, he wrote five articles on geology, which all appeared in the New-Harmony Gazette and the American Journal of Science and Arts.

    After Troost's and Maclure's departure, Lesueur started to train Richard and David Dale Owen, Robert Owen's youngest sons. He instructed them in geology and natural history, making them part of his scientific fieldtrips and sharing his experience with them. In the summer of 1836, David Dale Owen went to Nashville to complete his training as a geologist under the tutelage of Gerard Troost (Lesueur did not go with him, as he was extremely ill for several months and only recovered near the end of September). In December 1831, Dr. Troost had been appointed state geologist of Tennessee. He and Lesueur were working on the mineralogical inventory of Tennessee and continued to do so. This allowed Troost to publish a detailed geological map in 1835. David Dale Owen's official work as Gerard Troost's field assistant led to a rich career. David Dale was appointed state geologist of Indiana in 1837, of Kentucky in 1854, and of Arkansas in 1857. Other areas he surveyed included Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, West Virginia, Ohio, South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska and the plains of western Canada. David Dale died in 1860 while working for the federal government. In this twenty-three-year time span, Lesueur's most talented apprentice trained legions of American surveyors and geologists.

    After David Dale Owen's death, his younger brother Richard Owen became Indiana's next state geologist until his nomination, in 1872, as the first president of Purdue University in West Lafayette. Some of the drawings Lesueur gave to his friends are still preserved in the Purdue University Libraries Archives and Special Collections. After Maclure and Lesueur's arrival in New Harmony, the commune had been rapidly transformed into a scientific utopia. After 1827 it no longer functioned as the socialistic settlement Owen once envisioned. Instead, it now resembled the ideal city Francis Bacon described in his New Atlantis. Just before he died, Bacon wrote a book about the perfect community, governed by scientists who, according to the English statesman, were the only persons capable of ensuring happiness to all mankind.

    Owen's communitarian project was abandoned, but the contributions of Maclure and Lesueur allowed the New Atlantis on the Wabash River to become the geological center of an entire nation, and until 1856, the United States Geological Survey had its headquarters in New Harmony, depending largely on the mineralogical collections brought from, France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Spain, Russia, Great Britain, the West Indies, Mexico and the United States by Maclure and Lesueur. When, in 1856, the new buildings of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C., were ready to house the New Harmony collections, they took in the major part of these minerals. It appeared their volume was too important, so one third of the Geological Survey's collection was given to the American Museum of Natural History in Central Park, New York. The rest of the remaining samples were donated to Indiana University in Bloomington. On March 3, 1879, Congress enacted and approved the creation of the office of Director of the Geological Survey, who, from then on, would be directly appointed by the United States President with the advice and consent of the Senate.

    Church Street, New Harmony (1831), by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur

    Church Street, New Harmony – by C.-A. Lesueur, November 15, 1831. This drawing shows all the buildings historically related to the United States Geological Survey and the Smithsonian Institution. On the left: the immense brick-and-stone Harmonist granary, i.e. the national headquarters of the Geological Survey between 1843 and 1856 (also holding its mineralogical collections and those of the Owen brothers). On the left corner of Church Street: Charles-Alexandre Lesueur's house. On the right: the large Harmonist church, home of William Maclure's library and all the geological collections brought from Europe and North America by Maclure and Lesueur. Most of these collections were moved to the granary in 1843 and remained there until the opening of the Smithsonian building in Washington, D.C., in 1857. Maclure's library was donated to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1835, i.e. the year following Thomas Say's death. See Was New Harmony a Failure? on this website.

    Read more about the amazing New Harmony experiment in Bauke Ritsert Rinsma, Eyewitness to Utopia: Scientific Conquest and Communal Settlement in C.-A. Lesueur’s Sketches of the Frontier, drawings and sketches by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, foreword by Edouard Philippe, Donald E. Pitzer and Ralph G. Schwarz, translated by Leslie J. Roberts (Heuqueville, France: Heiligon, 2019).

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