Barton is probably remembered best for his role in preparing Thomas Jefferson’s secretary Meriwether Lewis for the botanical aspects of the scientific demands of the expedition “to have the Missouri explored & whatever river, heading with that, runs into the Western ocean.” (Letter from Jefferson to Barton, February 27, 1803. Sources are listed below.)
Jefferson charged Barton with the task of ensuring that, during the trek into the unknown West, Lewis would be able to find “the objects most desirable . . . in the lines of botany, zoology, or . . . Indian history which you think most worthy of inquiry & observation.” It was a teaching task that the President knew his fellow member of the American Philosophical Society was eminently qualified to fulfill. Barton, a practicing physician, held a professorship at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching natural history, botany, and materia medica (pharmaceutical chemistry in which medicinal plants figured prominently). In 1803, he published the first botany textbook in America, titled Elements of Botany: or, Outlines of the Natural History of Vegetables. The cover page and first plate of the 1804 edition published in England appear below. Barton identified this flower as the “Purple Side-Saddle-flower” (Sarracenia purpurea), a carnivorous plant native to North America.
Barton’s interests ranged well beyond his professional responsibilities. His fascination with Indian culture (particularly Indian mounds) and language led to publishing on both. In his New Views of the Origin of the Tribes and Nations of America (1798), he posited that, based on his study of Indian languages and some Asian tribal languages, American Natives had originated in Asia. He dipped into paleontology as well, with a particular interest in mammoth and mastodon bones.
In mid-spring, 1803, Lewis visited Barton at his home in Philadelphia at 44 North Fifth Street and undertook a course of study. [Later edit: I previously listed 184 Mulberry as Barton's home in 1803. That was in error as Part II of this posting will make clear. He was living at 184 Mulberry in 1807 when Lewis visited to ask his assistance with the publications stemming from the expedition.] Barton became so caught up in the spirit of the adventure and its possibilities that he even considered joining his student on the expedition, but presumably long standing health issues militated against the academic taking that bold step. Possibly his most important contribution to the ultimate success of the expedition was reflected in the skill Lewis showed in identifying, collecting, preserving, and labeling his floral finds.
Barton’s complex personality came to the fore in his later relationship with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Soon after the explorers returned East, Barton agreed to prepare the volume on natural history for the expedition’s published accounts. First approached about the task in 1807 by Meriwether Lewis, he renewed his commitment in 1810 with Nicholas Biddle who assumed the editorial responsibilities for the project after Lewis committed suicide in 1809. But Barton failed to follow through, dying in 1815 with the volume unprepared, and, as a result,
later naturalists gained credit for ‘discovering’ plants and animals that Lewis and Clark had painstakingly described years earlier. (Duncan and Burns, Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, p. 218)Why, then, from 1807 until his death in 1815, was Barton unable to meet this obligation? Historian Stephen Ambrose attributed the inaction to Barton’s ongoing ill health. Others have suggested other causes. Botanist Joseph Ewan evinced little patience with Barton’s lack of follow through, writing that Barton
hampered the publication of the Lewis and Clark discoveries, hoping to incorporate their findings with what he had accumulated into one grand work. (Ewan, From Calcutta and New Orleans, or Tales from Barton’s Greenhouse, 1983, p. 133.)In fact, though ill health cannot be ignored, this was probably a manifestation of a basic personality trait that played out through his adult life, beginning, perhaps, with the medical degree he claimed to have earned while abroad, but apparently never did. Francis W. Pennell, curator of plants at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, in summing up this aspect of Barton’s personality, wrote
All his life long there remained this menace of poor health. His enthusiasm was constantly meeting handicaps, so that achievement was repeatedly curtailed. As we glance at Professor Barton’s works, we are conscious of a remarkable number of endeavours, commenced but not fulfilled. I would not lay all the responsibility for this upon Barton’s poor health, for we know of the marvelous achievements of a Darwin under like conditions. There was doubtless also something temperamental, that led Barton to see the possibilities of subject after subject, each soon abandoned with the tedium of effort. I suspect that this course is one into which a person of Barton’s semi-invalidism very readily drifts. (Benjamin Smith Barton as Naturalist, 1942, p. 111)Setting up Darwin as a benchmark for what is possible is pretty unreasonable, though I am attracted to the argument that Barton’s string of promises unmet may be attributable to the combined effect of chronic health problems and “something temperamental.”
In a book-length treatment of Barton, Ewan and his botanist wife Nesta viewed the issue from a different perspective, asking whether Barton’s health issues may have, in fact, stemmed at least in part from this character flaw. They focused on Barton’s efforts over the years to hide his failure to earn his medical degree and posed the question, “How much did this shame contribute to his suffering from chronic gout and other ills?” (Benjamin Smith Barton, p. xii)
I find it hard to avoid some pop psychologizing at this juncture. There’s an aspect of Barton’s childhood that I find truly remarkable, and I have to assume was traumatizing for the young boy. Perhaps the propensity to lose one’s self in myriad projects, to always have the future “booked” so to speak, without the ability or true intention of bringing them all to closure, might have had its roots here. Perhaps it was a way to gain some control over a future that had shown itself to be capricious.
In 1774, the Anglican Reverend Thomas Barton and his wife Esther Barton lived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where Barton had a church. Esther died that year, leaving behind eight children, including an eight year old Benjamin. Though the Reverend remarried in 1776, the family was about to be destroyed by the internecine demands of the American Revolution.
As a matter of conscience, Thomas Barton professed loyalty to the crown and refused to take an oath of allegiance to the United States Government which included formally disavowing the King. He continued to include blessings for the King and Queen of England in his sermons. As a result, he lost his congregation and ultimately his family. In 1778, he petitioned the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania for permission to sell his property and cross into New York City, then held by British forces. The Council acceded to his request, but, as recounted by the Ewans,
stipulated that the children must stay and be educated in loyalty to the United States of America. (Benjamin Smith Barton, p. 9)We so easily forget or ignore the harsh realities of the Revolution. It was war, make no mistake about it, and Loyalists suffered severely for their choice. The Barton family had already shown strains under the pressure of the Revolution, with Barton’s oldest children having joined the Patriots.
Thomas Barton, faced with either maintaining his principles or keeping his family, chose the former, writing,
How melancholy and distressing is my situation! . . . . [N]o choice was left me, but either to take the oath or to suffer painful separation from my dearest connexions. . . . [T]hat many conscientious and good men have conformed to the test-act, yet my own conscience always revolted at the adjuration part of it. . . . I now suffer banishment from all that are most dear to me; with an interdict, ‘not to return again.’ (Benjamin Smith Barton, p. 9-10)He traveled to New York City alone in 1778, where he died in 1780, ill health having prevented his departure for England. Thus, by age 14, Benjamin had lost both of his biological parents, his father under particularly painful circumstances.
What a very disturbing turn of events, even when viewed at a distance of over 230 years – the Revolution made manifest in the dissolution of a family. A father choosing conscience over family, not the choice I would make. Truly a melancholy scene, worthy of the imagination of Charles Dickens. Thomas Barton was anguished over this choice. Still, I am puzzled that it came down to such a black or white decision. Were there no other options that would keep the father and his minor children together without violating his principles? Fleeing to Canada?
Though before his departure, the Reverend had made arrangements for the care of his minor children, this was nothing less than an act of abandonment. One that, with his death, became coldly permanent. I don’t image that 14 year old Benjamin Smith Barton emerged unscathed from this harsh severing of parental bonds.
Note: None of these sources, with the exception of the Jefferson letter, is fully available online for free. Most of the articles were obtained through JSTOR, a subscription service. Portions of some of the books are available on Amazon or at Google books.
Ambrose, Stephen E., Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (1996).
Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, Lewis & Clark: the Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997).
Ewan, Joseph, From Calcutta and New Orleans, or, Tales from Barton’s Greenhouse, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 127, No. 3 (June 16, 1983).
Ewan, Joseph and Nesta Dunn Ewan, Benjamin Smith Barton: Naturalist and Physician in Jeffersonian America (2007).
Jefferson, Thomas, to Benjamin Smith Barton, letter of February 27, 1803. Appears at the website, Envisaging the West: Thomas Jefferson and the Roots of Lewis and Clark, a joint project of the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, and the University of Virginia.
Jeffries, Theodore W., A Biographical Note on Benjamin Smith Barton (1766-1815), Isis, Vol 60, No. 2 (summer, 1969).
McCourt, Richard and Earle Spamer, Jefferson’s Botanists: Lewis and Clark Discover the Plants of the West (2004).
Pennell, Francis W., Benjamin Smith Barton as Naturalist, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vo. 86, No. 1 (September 25, 1942).
The photograph of the portrait of Barton, by Samuel Jennings, is from Wikimedia Commons and it is asserted there that it is in the public domain.