“All are alike designed for freedom”: Humboldt on Race and Slavery

in The Passage to Cosmos

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print September 2009 | ISBN: 9780226871820
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226871844 | DOI:
“All are alike designed for freedom”: Humboldt on Race and Slavery

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This chapter considers Humboldt's views on race and slavery. Humboldt played a key role in American abolitionism or the trajectory of racial science. He was the only major scientist during the nineteenth century to argue consistently, for six decades, that “race” was not a biological category and that, as he declared in Cosmos, “all are alike designed for freedom.” Stephen Jay Gould states in his classic study of racial science that Humboldt should be the hero of modern racial egalitarians, for “he, more than any other scientist of his time, argued forcefully and at length against ranking on mental or aesthetic grounds.” The Humboldt brothers together developed a historical anthropology that sought to appreciate every human group on its own terms, for none were in any meaningful sense “superior” or “inferior” to any other. Their arguments are important both for their own sake, and for the impact they had on modern conceptions of race.

Keywords: Alexander von Humboldt; racial science; American abolitionism; freedom; equality

Chapter.  17090 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas

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