Item of the Day: The Natural and Civil History of Vermont (1809)

Full Title:  The Natural and Civil History of Vermont. By Samuel Williams, LL.D. Member of the Meteorological Society in Germany, of the Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, and of the Academy of Arts and Sciences in Massachusetts.  In Two Volumes.  Volume I.  The Second Edition, Corrected and Much Enlarged.  Burlington, VT. Printed by Samuel Mills.  Sold at His Bookstore in Burlington by Mills and White, Middlebury, Isaiah Thomas, Jun.  Worcester, Thomas and Andrews, Boston, Thomas and Whipple and S. Sawyer and Co. Newburyport.  1809.


Three centuries have passed away since America was first discovered by Columbus.  From that time until now, the affairs of America have engaged the attention of historians and philosophers.  The natural productions of this continent, have been one object of general inquiry.  Among the Spanish writers, there are some good essays on the natural history of the southern parts of America.  In Canada, some of the physicians and Jesuits were attentive to the natural productions of that part of the continent; and have left some valuable pieces on the natural history of New France.  This kind of knowledge was not much attended to, by the first settlers of the British colonies; and we have but few of their ancient writings, in which it was contemplated at all.  Obliged to depend upon transient and partial accounts, the best writer upon natural history, M. de Buffon, has fallen into many mistakes respecting the natural productions of America, which, more accurate observations would have corrected.  The subject instead of being fully explored, is yet a treasure but little examined.

The Man of America was an object still more curious and important.  But the age in which the first discoveries and settlements were made, was not enough enlightened, to afford either accurate or impartial observations, on the manners, customs, language, abilities, or state of society, among the Indians.  Prejudiced by their sordid manners, and enraged by their barbarities, the men of Europe never looked for any thing good in such men:  And while interest and revenge joined to destroy that unhappy race, but few were able to consider their customs or rights with calmness, or dared to say any thing in their favor.  It is not more than half a century, since this subject has been properly attended to by philosophers:  And their conclusions have been of the most opposite and contrary kinds.  Some have with great zeal advanced, that the perfection of man was to be found in the savage state; while others have as warmly contended, that this was the lowest state of degradation and abasement, to which the human race can possibly be reduced.  Such opposite and contrary systems make it necessary to examine this part of the natural history of man, with great care and impartiality; that we may distinguish what was valuable in that stage of society, and what was disadvantageous and degrading.

An object of still higher magnitude and importance has been presented to our view by the American Revolution.  The first settlers in the British colonies were left in a great measure by their sovereigns to take care of themselves.  The only situation which they could take, while they were clearing the woods and forming their settlements, was that of equality, industry, and economy.  In such a situation every thing tended to produce, and to establish the spirit of freedom.  Their employments, customs, manners, and habits;  their wants, dangers, and interests, were nearly the same; these, with every other circumstance in their situation, operated with a steady and certain tendency, to preserve that equality and freedom, which nature had made.  This spirit of freedom was in some degree checked by the customary interpositions of royal authority:  But these were too irregular and contradictory, to become masters of veneration, to alter the natural feelings of men, or to change the natural course and tendency of things:  And while the ministers of kings were looking into their laws and records, to decide what should be the rights of men in the colonies, nature was establishing a system of freedom in America, which they could neither comprehend or discern.  The American Revolution explained the business to the world, and served to confirm what nature and society had before produced.

 Having assumed their rank among the nations of the earth, the states of America now present to the world a new state of society; founded on principles, containing arrangements, and producing effects, not visible in any nation before.  The uncommon and increasing prosperity which has attended it, has ascertained its spirit and tendency:  The people are distinguished by the spirit of inquiry, industry, economy, enterprize, and regularity:  The government is dependent upon, but guides, and reverences the people:  And the whole country is rapidly increasing in numbers, extent, wealth, and power.  The highest perfection and felicity, which man is permitted to hope for in the present life, may rationally be expected in such a state of society:  And it becomes of course the object of universal inquiry and attention.  

To represent the state of things in America in a proper light, particular accounts of each part of the federal union seem to be necessary; and would answer other valuable purposes.  An able historian, the Reverend Dr. Belknap, has obliged the world with the history of New Hampshire.  The following treatise is designed to describe the operations of nature and society, in the adjacent state of Vermont.  This is the youngest of the states, an inland country, and now rapidly changing from a vast tract of uncultivated wilderness, to numerous and extensive settlements.  In this stage of society, industry and economy seem to produce the greatest effects, in the shortest periods of time. . . .

The most important of all our philosophical speculations, are those which relate to the history of man.  In most of the productions of nature, the subject is fixed, and may always be found and viewed in the same situation.  And hence a steady course of observation, serves to discover and ascertain the laws by which they are governed, and the situation they will assume in other periods of time.    It is probable the actions and affairs of men are subject to as regular and uniform laws, as other events:  And that the same state of society will produce the same forms of government, the same manners, customs, habits, and pursuits, among different nations, in whatever part of the earth they may reside.  Monarchy, freedom, superstition, truth and all the general causes which actuate mankind, seem every where to bear the same aspect, to operate with the same kind of influence, and to produce similar effects; differing not in their nature and tendency, but only in the circumstances and degrees, in which they influence different nations.  But nothing is stationary, nothing that depends upon the social state, is so unalterably fixed, but that it will change and vary with the degradation or improvement of the human race.  And hence, while the nature of man remains unaltered, the state of society is perpetually changing, and the men of one age and country, in many respects appear different from those of another.  And as men themselves are more or less improved, every thing that constitutes a part of the social state, will bear a different appearance among different nations, and in the same nation in different circumstances, and in different periods of time. To ascertain what there is thus peculiar and distinguishing in the state of society in the Federal Union, to explain the causes which have led to this state, to mark its effect upon human happiness, and to deduce improvement from the whole, are the most important objects which civil history can contemplate in America:  And they are objects, every where more useful to men, than any refinements, distinctions, or discoveries, merely speculative.

I have wished to keep such objects in view, in considering the state of society in this part of the continent.  But it is with diffidence that I submit the attempt to the view of the public. The dispostion of America is to favor such attempts and publications, as are adapted to promote any valuable public purpose:  But speculative and useless essays cannot much engage the attention of a people, whose main object is the prosperity and improvement of their country.  The public sentiment will be a just decision, among which of these, the following work ought to be placed.


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Filed under 1800's, American Indians, American Revolution, Posted by Rebecca Dresser, Vermont

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