John Ledyard to Thomas Jefferson, July 1788
Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress
The renowned explorer shares his thoughts on racial/ethnic differences, and the possibility of Noah's Flood as an explanation for human diversity.
When men of genius want matter of fact to reason from it is bad; though it is worseto reason without it: it is the fate of genius not to make, or to misapply this reflexion, and do it from theories: humble minds admirethese theories because they cannot comprehendthem & disbelieve them for the same reason.
Simplify the efforts & attainments of all the antient worlds in science & it amounts to nothing but theory: to a riddle: the sublime of the antient wisdom was to form a riddle & the Delphic god bore the palm: men had then greatencouragement to do something were made priestsprophets, kings & gods. & when they had gainedthese distinctions by riddles it was necessary by riddles to question them.
Men have since tho but very lately& not yet universally sought impartially for truth& we now a days seek truth not only for its ownenchanting beauty, but from a principle tho notmore valuable yet more generous viz the pleasure of communicating it to one another. The soothsayers, magicians, prophets, & princes of old would think us as errant fools as we think them knaves.
In my travels I have made it my rule to compare the written with the living history of Men, & as I have seen all kinds of men so I have not hesitated to make use of all kinds of history (yrs I am acquainted with) in the comparison: & I give in many cases as much credit to traditions as to other history: implicit credit to none nor implicit credit to inferences that I myself draw from this Comparison except rarely:& thenI am as sure as I want to be. Thus I know & feel myself above prejudice: Moses, Albrigassi, & the writers of the last 20 years are all alike to me as to what I am seeking for: I would only understand if I cauld what man has been from what he is: notwhat he may be hereafter tho all mention the tale I would also know what the earth has been from observinghow it is at present: not how it may hereafter be, thoall mention also this tale. You know how ignorant& plain a man I am, but I declare to you that in this temper of mind & from this information incident to the extent & nature of my travels I find myself at my ease concerning things which some cannot & others will not believe that are of considerable importance: & I will tell you in avery few words what some of them are I wish I had time to mention them all, or if I do that it was more in detail.
Sir I am certain (the negroes excepted because I have not personaly visited them) that the differences in the colour of man is the effect of natural causes. Sir I am certain that all the people you call red people on the continent of American & on the continents of Europe & Asia as far south as the southern parts of China are all one people by whatever names Distinguished & that the best general one would be Tartar.
I suspect that all red people are of the same family. I am satisfied myself that American was peopled from Asia & had some if not all its animals from there. I am satisfied myself that the great generalanalogy in the customs of man can only be accounted for but by supposing them all to compose one family : & by extending the Idea & uniting Customs, traidtions & history I am satisfied that this common origin was such or nearly as related by Moses & commonly believed among all the nations of the earth.
There is a transposition of things on the globe that must have been produced by some cause equal to the effect which is vast & curious: whether I repose an argument drawn from facts observed by myself.
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or send imagination forth to find a causethey both declare to me a general Deluge.