What disappointed you about moving to Philadelphia?

Alexander von Humboldt in the USA
Between enthusiasm and disappointment

Humboldt's stay in the United States after his tour of Spanish America is not given the importance it deserves. More than just a short visit on his way back to Europe, it was the beginning of an intensive scientific cooperation.

At the end of his expedition through the Spanish colonies in America (1799-1804), Alexander von Humboldt visited the young United States for six weeks. It was only a small part of the country that he was able to see in this short time in the company of his two travel companions, the French botanist Aimé Bonpland and Carlos de Montúfar, a nobleman from Quito.

From Havana they arrived by ship on May 20th near Philadelphia and stayed in the city for five days, where Humboldt passed through the American Philosophical Society was introduced to the scientific community. Then they traveled south with some of their new North American acquaintances, including the painter and natural scientist Charles Willson Peale, to the new capital Washington. There they spent the next twelve days with various visits, excursions and social invitations. The highlight here was undoubtedly the meeting with Thomas Jefferson, the enlightened President of the country who was interested in scientific questions. Via Lancaster it went back to Philadelphia, where the travelers spent just under two weeks before their return to Europe.

Early interest in the US

His interest in the United States was aroused during his time as a student at the Hamburg Commercial Academy, an internationally renowned institution founded by Johann Georg Büsch in 1768, which Humboldt attended from August 1790 to April 1791. Christoph Daniel Ebeling, then the best-known expert on North American geography and history, was Humboldt's teacher there. Ebeling had created an important library on the USA, in which the young Alexander also familiarized himself with the writings of American authors. Even then he would have liked to travel to the USA, as he announced to a college friend in 1791. A further impulse for this came in February 1801 in Cuba when he met the Scottish botanist John Fraser, who had already traveled extensively through the United States.

More than a decade later, during his stay in New Spain, Humboldt saw the opportunity come: The purchase of Louisiana territory by the USA in 1803 was the trigger for Jefferson's long-sought exploration of the West. To Humboldt, the prospect of being able to take part in this scientific challenge himself was a very promising prospect. Now he was able to make the necessary contacts. In addition, after having experienced the negative effects of the colonial system in all its facets in the Spanish territories for almost five years, he showed a clear curiosity to get to know the part of America that had already achieved its independence.

Promotion of scientific knowledge

Despite his “ardent desire” to see Paris again to begin working on his research, he could not resist the temptation to get to know a society that “understands the precious gift of freedom”. It was his "moral interest" to become familiar with the United States, a country that was "ruled wisely."
After he was able to experience the impressive natural phenomena in South America, it was here the "great personalities" with whom he wanted to exchange ideas. Humboldt was fascinated by the country's political system and social freedom and saw this as a future-oriented model for both the monarchies of Europe and the colonial areas of the world. The USA embodied Humboldt's ideal not only in a political sense, but also in the implementation of the enlightened principles with regard to the progress of science. Humboldt was particularly impressed with the active role the Jefferson government played in promoting scientific knowledge.

Slavery point of criticism

To his great disappointment, however, he also encountered some social evils here, which he had previously only considered to be a consequence of colonialism and for which, in his opinion, there should no longer be a place in the young republic. First and foremost, this concerned slavery, which he deeply despised. Despite his initial enthusiasm for "Jefferson's Empire of Liberty," he was not deterred over the years from expressing his criticism openly when he realized that this concept of freedom was limited to only a small section of society.

Nevertheless, Humboldt maintained a lively interest in the United States throughout his life. Even if, contrary to his plans, he was ultimately unable to visit them a second time, he was still able to participate in the scientific and political development of the country from a distance through his extensive networks.


Sandra Rebok is a science historian and conducts research in Spain, Germany and the USA on networks, the globalization of knowledge and transnational scientific cooperation in the 19th century. In addition to numerous publications on Humboldt, she has published three of his works in Spanish.