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The Polymath From Vermont

ISSUE:  Winter 1999

No American of any century has excelled in a greater number of diverse areas than a New Englander named George Perkins Marsh, who was born in the town of Woodstock, Vermont in 1801. Marsh is best remembered today for his pioneering book on the environment Man and Nature, which was first published in 1864 and is still in print. The book led Lewis Mumford to call Marsh the fountainhead of the environmental movement; as Roderick Nash wrote in Wilderness and the American Mind, Marsh’s ideas became a staple for preservationists. But George Marsh did many other big things in his long life. He was the American expert on the English language, and on Old Icelandic; on camels as well as on forests; on railroad regulation, and perhaps on Renaissance art. He became an influential Congressman, and a leading American diplomat. A visitor today to the American Embassy in Rome will find in the protocol office the photograph of a bearded and elderly George Marsh, whose 21-year term as Minister to Italy remains the record for any Chief of an American diplomatic mission. Earlier, in 1846, when legislation to create the Smithsonian Institution had still not been approved 17 years after James Smithson’s death, it was George Perkins Marsh, member of Congress from Vermont, who rose in the House of Representatives and gave a mighty speech which served to reconcile opposing views on the form the Smithsonian should take.

Marsh spent his childhood at the family home above the Ottauquechee River, outside Woodstock. The Marshes were prominent people, descendants of a John Marsh who had emigrated from England to New England in 1633. Young George’s grandfather had been lieutenant governor of Vermont; his father Charles Marsh was a prominent Vermont lawyer who served in the U.S. Congress during the War of 1812. One day when George was not quite five, his father took him along to attend court in a nearby town. Three decades of settlement had stripped Vermont of much of its virgin forest; unlike today, when most of upper New England has gone back to forest, the Green Mountain State was a land of pastures and sheep. As father and son drove along the country roads, there were a few big trees remaining, and Charles Marsh pointed out to little George the various forest species. He pointed out the long ranges of Vermont hills, and explained how water from rain and snow gathered and ran down the hills. They stopped at the top of a steep hill; his father explained that this was a watershed between two valleys. Decades later, George Marsh wrote that he “. . .never forgot that word, nor any part of my father’s talk that day.” It was from these childhood years, when Marsh learned to love trees and to be shocked by the squandering of forest riches, that he derived the inspiration for Man and Nature.

Marsh learned to read early in childhood, and he was interested in everything. At seven he went through the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and strained his eyes. The doctors said no more reading—for four years—so young George became an outdoorsman. The feel of Vermont’s hills and trails stayed with him and in his late 70’s, admittedly overweight, he was still making his way to the top of good-sized summits in the Alps and Apennines. But he had only one year of formal education, at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts, before he went to college.

In 1816 George Marsh entered Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, 20 miles from his home in Vermont. The college was not quite 50 years old and had less than 150 students. The little institution split in two just after Marsh entered, when the New Hampshire legislature amended the old royal charter to set up a rival “University” controlled by the descendants of Eleazar Wheelock, Dartmouth’s founder. All but a handful of the students remained faithful to the college and its young President Francis Brown, but one of Marsh’s classmates recalled later how “. . .for two long years a hundred or more students were crossing the plain, at every ringing of the bell, to their chapel and various recitation-rooms, while a dozen university students were crossing our paths in other directions, giving ample opportunity to crack a joke and chaff each other.” Real turmoil seems to have come only once. The college had a library of 2,000 volumes; each of the two college clubs, the Social Friends and the United Fraternity, revolved largely around a library of about 1,000 volumes. One night two of the University dissidents broke into the Social’s library. The United members, meeting nearby, captured the miscreants and carried the books of both clubs’ libraries to safekeeping in private houses. Marsh kept on reading, but the overall library resources seemed limited to his inquiring mind. Later, in Congress, he pushed hard to make a great library an integral part of the future Smithsonian Institution.

Marsh was credited with learning seven languages as an undergraduate—Greek, Latin, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish—and he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated first in his class in 1820. During his college years Marsh had befriended another future lawyer and statesman, Rufus Choate of the class of 1819, a man whom he could admire as still more brilliant than himself and with whom he was to work later in Washington.

For a time the young graduate did well. He read law in his father’s office, and in 1825 entered into a law partnership in Burlington, Vermont. He married a young woman named Harriet Buell, bought a little house, and began to accumulate what became eventually a library of 12,000 books, and a collection of old etchings and engravings which was unparalleled at least in upper New England. Marsh also began a strict daily schedule which he maintained for the rest of his life, and which helps explain his later productivity as a writer. His secret was to rise every morning, summer and winter alike, at five o’clock and spend three hours reading or writing; then came breakfast and the business day.

Harriet and George had two sons, Charles and George Jr. Alas, Harriet had a weak heart, and died in 1833. Charles died of scarlet fever the following week. The grief-stricken father took little George, a year old, to Woodstock to be cared for by his grandmother, and returned to Burlington alone. Business, at least, looked good, and Marsh acquired several valuable properties. Vermonters were raising sheep on their deforested hillsides, and Marsh bought a big farm at Shelburne where he kept thousands of Merino sheep. To process the wool it seemed sensible to build a mill, to be powered by the falls of the Winooski River—Marsh owned the land adjacent to the falls— and he helped create the Burlington Mill Company in which he became a chief investor. Then came the Panic of 1837, which delayed construction of the mill. Next year the mill, almost finished, was damaged by fire. The year after that, an ice jam damaged the machinery. The tariff cuts of 1839 led to a drop in the price of wool; help came with the tariff of 1842, but new cuts in the tariff of 1846 were disastrous for the industry and for Marsh. Meanwhile, the first railroads were coming to New England. The first locomotive of the Vermont Central Railroad entered Burlington in 1849, and Marsh invested heavily. But he had not foreseen the rapacity of the railroad’s managers, who milked the system and left Marsh and others holding near-worthless stock.

Marsh was a tough Vermonter. He recovered from his personal grief and in 1839 married Caroline Crane, 15 years younger than he. He found he did not care for the practice of law; but he began to make money writing and lecturing, although some of his works, like a grammar of Old Icelandic, sold little. Perhaps his oddest book was The Goths in New-England, which contrasted “the spiritual and intellectual tyranny of Rome” with the free “Gothic” spirit of Raleigh, Shakespeare, and Cromwell. For Marsh “It was the spirit of the Goth, that guided the May-Flower across the trackless ocean; the blood of the Goth, that flowed at Bunker’s Hill.” But a lot of what Marsh talked about was contemporary politics. Marsh was a conservative, a Whig, and he set forth a clear rationale for the Whig stand on a strong protective tariff—which would protect Vermont’s woolen industry. He served a term in the Vermont legislature; people began to say that such a brilliant and well-spoken fellow should go to Congress. In 1842 George Perkins Marsh was elected to the first of his three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Congress provided George Marsh an escape from his continuing business reverses and also his first chance to work on a national scale. When he reached Washington, he found his fellow alumnus Rufus Choate already there, as a Senator from Massachusetts. The two worked closely, Choate in the Senate and Marsh in the House, on legislation to establish the Smithsonian Institution, each wanting to see the Smithsonian built around a great public library. Others had different plans, including the idea of a national museum, and the question long stayed in stalemate. James Smithson, scientist, bachelor, and illegitimate son of the Duke of Northumberland, had died in Genoa in 1829; his will left his estate to the United States government—if his surviving nephew should die without heirs—to create “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” The nephew died, without heirs, in 1835; Richard Rush, former Secretary of the Treasury, was sent to London to see the matter through the British Chancery; Rush returned to Washington in 1838 with the proceeds of the will, a load of gold sovereigns worth the then enormous sum of $515,169.

John Quincy Adams, former president of the United States and a member of the House of Representatives for the past 15 years, became the Congressional conscience for the Smithson funds. Adams fought off what he considered wrong proposals, particularly one by Indiana Congressman Robert Dale Owen, son of the Utopian Socialist Robert Owen, to use much of the funds to establish a normal school. But the stalemate continued until, in April 1846, George Perkins Marsh rose in the House and proposed an overall compromise which quickly passed the House, and later the Senate, and which laid the basis for the great institution. Old Mr. Adams, who was known to doze off when debate dragged, wrote that Marsh’s speech was one of the best ever made in the House. The final bill, signed by President Polk in August 1846, retained Marsh’s and Choate’s ideas for a library—but the Institution’s first Secretary, Joseph Henry, cut back on the library in order to include, in the neo-Romanesque building which soon rose on the Mall, a museum, an art gallery, and an “Apparatus Room” containing modern machines and scientific instruments.(In succeeding decades the Library of Congress, which had been established as a legislative library in 1800, would become the national library that Marsh and Choate wanted.) Marsh was affronted when he was not named to the Smithsonian’s first Board of Regents. He must have felt some satisfaction when in 1847 he was named to replace Robert Dale Owen on the board.

Marsh was a courageous member of Congress. Several times he rose to oppose what were popular causes. He opposed the annexation of Texas because it would bring a new slave state into the Union. Along with other Whigs, he opposed the Mexican War. Marsh was particularly strong on the subject. He called the war a national crime, saying that the United States should expand through slow assimilation and not by “rapacious appropriation.” He was equally frank on the subject of slavery—franker than that other Whig Congressman, Abraham Lincoln. Southern slaveholders, Marsh said, were opposed by most of their own countrymen, by the rest of the civilized world, and by “the universal empire of that just and impartial God who created all men in his own image, and therefore free and equal.”

When Zachary Taylor, a fellow Whig, moved into the White House in 1849, several of Marsh’s friends in the Washington diplomatic corps asked the State Department that he be sent as American Minister to one of their countries.(Until 1893 all top American envoys were granted the title of minister, on grounds that the higher-ranking title of ambassador was too exalted for representatives of a democratic nation. The posts these ministers headed were legations rather than embassies.) Marsh made clear that he too hoped for a diplomatic post, and he may have done a little campaigning behind the scenes on his own behalf. In 1849, after President Taylor received a letter signed by almost all Vermont’s leading men asking that Marsh be given a top diplomatic post, Taylor named him minister to Turkey. His wife Caroline’s health was not good—she seems to have had a stroke during his first Congressional campaign— but off they went to Constantinople.

In the next four and a half years George Marsh made a name for himself at Constantinople, and the couple toured the extensive Turkish Empire. He had to carry her in his arms through the Temple of Karnak on the Nile; they nearly died of fever, camping by the Sea of Galilee. Wherever he went, he collected samples for the new Smithsonian, following guidance sent him by the Institution’s Assistant Secretary Spencer Baird.(“Skulls, at any rate, procure, wherever you may be. . . . Among reptiles, try hard for Salamanders.”) The Smithsonian’s ninth annual report lists among principal donations for the year “Hon. George P. Marsh.- Keg of fishes and reptiles with shells, &c., from Palestine, Syria, &c.” Several such kegs came, adding to a Smithsonian collection which by 1850 numbered 6,000 specimens, gathered by travelers abroad like Minister Marsh and by 26 Army expeditions in the American West.

The minister also enjoyed diplomatic successes. Marsh befriended the young, liberal-minded Turkish sovereign, Sultan Abdul-Mejid, and ably defended American interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. In September 1850, on his own initiative, Marsh invited a ranking Turkish official, Amin Bey, to tour the United States and see American modernity with his own eyes. This was the first such visitor to the United States from the backward Turkish Empire. When Secretary of State Daniel Webster—a fellow Dartmouth alumnus of Minister Marsh—learned what Marsh had done, he got Congress to appropriate $10,000 to cover Amin Bey’s expenses over what became a seven-month stay in America.

In 1852 Marsh received instructions from Webster to proceed to Athens, where, although Greece had won its independence from Turkey, the United States had no minister but only a consular agent. This agent, a Protestant missionary named Jonas King, had been imprisoned briefly by the Greek authorities on charges of slandering the Greek Orthodox Church. In addition, two valuable acres of land which King had bought years earlier near the Acropolis were taken from him, and he was ordered to leave Greece. Secretary Webster believed American missionaries abroad deserved strong American government support, and this was made clear to the Greek authorities by Marsh’s arrival at Piraeus on board the U.S. steam frigate San Jacinto. It nevertheless took Marsh’s best efforts to get the Greeks to rescind King’s banishment and compensate him for his land; in the end he succeeded.

Marsh returned to Constantinople to another crisis. A Hungarian revolutionary named Martin Koszta, who had left the Austrian Empire and lived for some time in the United States, was seized by the captain of an Austrian vessel at Izmir. An American sloop of war was also in Izmir harbor, and in Minister Marsh’s absence his deputy John Porter Brown, after hearing that the Austrian commander was threatening to hang Koszta from the yardarm, sent word to the American commander that if the Austrians did not surrender Koszta the Americans should “take him out of the vessel.” Although Brown had acted without instructions from Washington, there was strong popular support in the United States for the Hungarians, who had risen against Austrian rule in 1849. Louis Kossuth, the leader of the Hungarian revolution, had fled into the Turkish Empire after his revolution was put down by troops from Austria’s friend Russia, and some months before the Koszta incident Marsh had arranged for Kossuth and his deputies to sail to America on an American naval vessel. Conflict in the case of Martin Koszta, a very real possibility, was finally avoided when the Austrian captain discreetly handed Koszta over to the French consul. But Turkish sovereignty had been called in question by both Austrian and American actions, and Marsh had to work hard to calm the diplomatic waters.

General Winfield Scott’s 1852 electoral defeat ended Whig control of the White House and, consequently, George Marsh’s mission to Turkey. Marsh returned to the United States in 1854 with an enthusiasm for camels, which had carried him and Caroline across many miles of Mideast wastes and deserts. Marsh told a Smithsonian audience that the camel could maintain over long distances an average speed of 2.52 miles per hour, could climb a slippery 15-degree slope with a load, and could go for days without food or drink. The U.S. Army, he urged, should use the camel in our own Great American Desert. The Army in time agreed, and used camels in the West until the Civil War.

Marsh found himself deeply in debt on his return to the United States, thanks to a low official salary (a tenth of what his British counterpart was paid at Constantinople), to official expenses for which the government had not reimbursed him, and to an incompetent if not crooked brother-in-law who had mismanaged his property in his absence. Marsh was now in his 50’s, with few apparent prospects. He would have been better off if he had not sold his print collection, which included three dozen works by Durer and a number of Rembrandt engravings. But he had sold it—to the Smithsonian— before going to Turkey, at less than cost.

In 1857 Marsh’s fortunes took an upward turn when he was appointed Vermont railroad commissioner. He went to work with pleasure on the sorry affairs of the Vermont Central. Marsh was a conservative, but he wanted government supervision of transport service, viewing such supervision as decidedly better than private corruption. He looked into Vermont railroad finances, management, and physical structure, covering every mile of track in Vermont at least twice, and wrote a report which his biographer David Lowenthal described as a devastating condemnation of corporate irresponsibility.

Marsh’s 1858—59 lectures on the English language at Columbia College in New York, and a similar series the next winter in Boston, established him as the American authority on the language. People liked his insistence that English and not French was “. . .the language of commerce, of civilization . . .the cosmopolite speech.”

In 1860 Congress finally reimbursed Marsh for the expenses of his diplomatic mission to Greece to help Jonas King.(King himself had been indemnified by the Greeks five years earlier for his expropriated land.) Marsh was now out of debt, and almost 60. He dreamed of becoming minister to Italy, but people said that the writer William Cullen Bryant wanted the post. No, said Bryant, I’ll support Marsh for the post. More important, from the new president’s point of view, was apparently the “intense pressure” which, Lincoln wrote to Secretary of State Seward, came on Marsh’s behalf from his home state, Vermont.

Abraham Lincoln named George Perkins Marsh the American minister to Italy in March 1861. He and Caroline sailed just after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. He could not have guessed that he would remain Minister to Italy for more than two decades—and never see America again. Marsh’s first months in Italy were difficult ones. One of his first instructions from Secretary of State Seward begins “Sir: You will be pained by the intelligence of a reverse of our arms near Manassas Junction, and I fear it will, for a time, operate to excite apprehensions and encourage the enemies of the Union in Europe. . . .” Marsh worked hard and succeeded in keeping the Italian government pro-Union, and in keeping Confederate shipping out of Italian ports. This last task was all the more important because there was only one Union warship detailed to the Mediterranean. Another difficult, and delicate, task was giving polite turndowns to Italians who wanted to send whole units to join the Union Army— including Giuseppe Garibaldi, the liberator of Italy, who told the Americans that he was willing to become commander-in-chief of the Union forces. In the end Garibaldi was offered, but refused, a commission as major general. Marsh was relieved; he wrote Seward that he had had serious objections to employing a general who viewed himself as on a par with governments and sovereigns.

Before going to Italy Marsh told his Smithsonian friend Spencer Baird that he was working on a new book that would argue, contrary to the dictum that the earth made man, that “man in fact made the earth.” The book had been a long time coming. It really stemmed from Marsh’s childhood experience in Vermont, and many of its themes were presaged in a long talk which Congressman Marsh gave to the Agricultural Society of Rutland County, in 1847. Marsh had spoken plainly then to his fellow Vermonters about their cut-over state:

”. . . Every middle-aged man, who revisits his birthplace after a few years of absence, looks upon another landscape than that which formed the theatre of his youthful toils and pleasures . . .the bald and barren hills, the dry beds of the smaller streams, the ravines furrowed out by the torrents of spring . . .seem sad substitutes for the pleasant groves and brooks and broad meadows of his ancient paternal domain. . . .”

Marsh was equally frank in his new book, Man in Nature. He finished it in Turin in 1863; it was published in America in 1864, and slowly began to find the readership it has kept until today. Before Marsh, many American and European writers welcomed the mark that modern humans were making on the natural world; this was progress. Marsh warned that humans were despoilers, and must become conservers and restorers of natural resources if the human environment was not to worsen. The human race was part of nature, and not above it. Marsh called for caution about any large-scale operations tending to interfere with the natural world; one suspects he would not have been surprised by global warming. Above all, Marsh’s book is a eulogy to forests. He contrasts the ancient prosperity of the well-forested Roman Empire with the deforested, devastated slopes and the human poverty he had seen at first hand in his travels through the Mediterranean world. He emphasizes the value of trees: a forest can produce a valuable crop, and it also serves as a reservoir for water; it protects the soil; it can prevent floods, and even mitigate climate. Roderick Nash noted in Wilderness and the American Mind, that Marsh “. . .stood practically alone among his contemporaries in bringing a rudimentary scientific analysis to man-land relations. It was clear to Marsh that wilderness was characterized by the balance that developed land usually lacked.” (A less scientific but equally compelling approach was taken by Henry David Thoreau in The Maine Woods, published the same year as Marsh’s Man and Nature. The modern American could, Thoreau wrote, “. . .grub up all this waving forest. . .but he cannot converse with the spirit of the tree he fells, he cannot read the poetry and mythology which retire as he advances.”)

Marsh did not think that private interests could be counted on to protect America’s forests. It was, said this conservative and conservationist, “. . .a great misfortune to the American Union that the State Governments have so generally disposed of their original domain to private citizens.” Man and Nature went into several editions in English, was translated into several other languages, and is still in print in this country. The preface to the Russian edition of 1866 expressed the hope that officials reading the book might realize the need for better management of Russia’s vast natural resources. Given the awful state of environmental protection in today’s Russia, a new Russian edition would seem in order.

Man and Nature did not make Marsh rich, nor did his government salary as American Minister to Italy. His finances were strained by the expense of having to move his household, in following the Italian government in its changes of capital from Turin to Florence in 1865 and finally to Rome in 1871. So Marsh kept on writing. Johnson’s New Universal Encyclopaedia, published between 1874 and 1878, contains 39 articles by George P. Marsh, who was then in his seventies, on subjects ranging from Catalan writers to irrigation and the Sicilian Vespers. For the Nation Marsh contributed many articles—often under the pseudonym of “Viator”—on subjects ranging from the Bible to the protection of naturalized citizens.

During his mission in Italy, Marsh defended American interests with zeal and ability. Unlike other diplomats who have stayed long, or over-long, in a country, he seems to have kept his objectivity and avoided the tendency to like or dislike the place too much. At one point Marsh was seriously embarrassed, by the State Department’s publication of a confidential despatch to the department in which he had commented that the Italian government was practically under France’s thumb. But Marsh enjoyed close personal relationships with Italian leaders, and the storm passed.

Marsh made no secret of his dislike for the Papacy of Pius IX. Marsh’s 1876 book Mediaeval and Modern Saints and Miracles denounced the Pope’s Mariolatry and the 1870 Vatican declaration of Papal infallibility in faith and morals, which was published just two months before the troops of the Italian kingdom stormed the walls of Rome and destroyed the Pope’s temporal dominion. Marsh was a Protestant, but his sentiments were shared by many in what Marsh called “the sound portion of the Catholic clergy.” (Interestingly, the only detailed study of Marsh’s long mission in Italy was written by a Catholic nun—who, to be clear, did not justify his attitude toward the Vatican.)

We had no career Foreign Service in Marsh’s time, but in both of his diplomatic posts he could lean heavily on experienced deputies: John Porter Brown, who spent 40 years in the American Legation at Constantinople, and George Washington Wurts in Italy. In 1882 Minister Marsh turned 81. His health seemed good, but it was really Wurts who was running the legation. When he learned that Wurts was to be replaced, Marsh realized that he, too, must finally resign. In July he and Caroline were at Vallombrosa, up in the cool Apennines, where his friend Adolfo di Berenger had established a forestry school. One fine afternoon of billowing clouds Marsh went indoors to take a nap, and never got up. His mortal remains were sent back to Rome and were met on arrival by Foreign Minister Mancini, the diplomatic corps, and a regiment of Italian lancers. Italy had lost a great friend, America a great citizen, and the natural world one of its great defenders. He was laid to rest in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, not far from the tombs of Keats and Shelley.

Marsh had some flaws. He was probably too stern a father, and his son George died a bitter alcoholic in a New York flophouse. Even for his century, his absences from his diplomatic posts tended to be over-long, and he knew he was fortunate to have Brown and Wurts to cover for him. But Marsh was a hard-working and a liberal man as well as a brilliant one, a man who for example encouraged his wife Caroline in her own work as poet and translator, and who insisted that we would never know how far women could go in life until we “. . .make woman legally and socially the peer of man.” Marsh’s contributions to our society—above all, Man and Nature— were extraordinary and lasting. His name is memorialized by the first research center, at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, created to study the human dimensions of global environmental change. In June 1998 the Marsh-Billings National Historical Park opened at Woodstock, Vermont, on the property where George Perkins Marsh was born and which was later purchased by Frederick Billings, a decent and honest Vermonter who, unlike the rapacious Vermont railroaders Marsh had known, saved the Northern Pacific Railway after the Panic of 1873. And the waters of the Ottauquechee River flow past George Marsh’s early home down into the George Perkins Marsh Conservation Lake, dedicated by Lady Bird Johnson in 1967, on their long way to the sea.


1 The two single best sources for Marsh’s life are David Lowenthal’s George Perkins Marsh: Versatile Vermonter (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958) and Caroline Marsh’s uncompleted biography of her husband, Life and Letters of George Perkins Marsh, the only volume of which was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in New York in 1888.



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