Cornelius de Pauw and the Degenerate Americas

  • Helen Piel


The journals of travellers, or their reports back home, have always offered fascinating insights into the unknown for those left behind. But they are not the only source about exotic places that have been available to the interested reader. As there have been travel accounts, there also always have been books and analyses by writers who had never left their home country. This chapter will deal with one of these books. First published in two volumes in 1768 and 1769, Les Recherches Philosophiques sur les Américains, ou Mémoires Intéressante pour servir à l’Histoire de l’Espèce Humaine made its formerly unknown author almost instantly into one of the most-discussed writers of his time. The Dutchborn clergyman Cornelius de Pauw was going to be the centre of cultural attention for the rest of his lifetime, to be translated almost immediately into German and Dutch, and to be asked to contribute to the Encyclopédie. His fame was not only due to his early work: two more philosophical dissertations followed, first on the Egyptians and Chinese (1773) and then on the Greek (1787/88). His second work again caused great discussion, which epitomised in Voltaire writing his Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartares à M. Pauw, par un bénédictin (1776) in defence of the Asian nations against de Pauw’s polemic. Today, however, Cornelius de Pauw is as good as forgotten and in my opinion wrongly so. Despite what one scholar called an “exceedingly uneventful” life (Church, 1936, p.181), the clergyman is a fascinating character, which admittedly is probably revealed more through his writing than his acting. He understood to popularise and polemicise topics that were much debated among scholars and in courts. His writing style was fashioned after the encyclopedists, his tone was characterised by the “leicht geschürzte(n) Plauderton des Friderizianischen Salons” – the “slightly arrogant conversation tone of the Frederickian salon” (Beyerhaus, 1926, p.470). On top of offering an explanation for de Pauw’s great success during his lifetime, all this makes his work still very accessible today. Why he then sank into oblivion so soon after his death, will not be part of this chapter however. Instead, it will focus on his first work, the Recherches sur les Américains, and deal with it in relation to its depiction of the American peoples as well as in relation to the so called “degeneracy theory”, which is the idea that the New World is inferior to the Old – an idea that has prevailed to our days in the form of anti-Americanism.


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