William Bartram: The Moral Philosophy of a Quaker Botanist

Sarah Werner

William Bartram (1739-1823) was one of the first scientists to explore the southern colonies of the United States in the 18th century. He is best known for his widely popular account of his journey, Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws. His experience of the natural landscape of these new lands was mediated through his Quaker worldview, just as his travels affected his religious notions about the place of humans in God’s creation.

Bartram’s encounter with the natural world led him to question the prevailing hierarchical notions of the universe as a Great Chain of Being. He saw humans as corruptions of nature rather than the pinnacle of creation, and his growing knowledge of the natural world led him to believe that nature presented humanity with a moral imperative to live in harmony with other animals. The philosophical reflections found in the letters and other works of William Bartram illustrate how his religious perspective was shaped by an encounter with the natural world and the emerging field of biological science.

William Bartram was born in 1739 to Ann Mendenhall and the renowned botanist John Bartram (Whitfield, 2008: 488). He grew up on a farm in Kingsessing, just outside of Philadelphia, and he accompanied his father from a young age on his various plant-collecting travels throughout the Northeast (Hallock and Hoffman, 2010: 3). As a young man he struggled to find his calling in the world, failing as a merchant in North Carolina and then as a rice planter in Florida. In 1773 he embarked on an expedition to the Carolinas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Florida under the patronage of London Quaker Dr. John Fothergill to collect plants and make drawings of the local flora and fauna (Whitfield, 2008: 489). Called “Flower Hunter” by local Native Americans, he travelled widely in the southern colonies, even during the Revolutionary War, unimpeded (Whitfield, 2008: 488). There he marveled at the natural wonders of the landscape, and the peaceful societies of the Native Americans. After four years, he returned in January of 1778 to the family farm on the Schuylkill to live with his brother John, who had taken over the farm after their father’s death (Hallock and Hoffman, 2010: 4).

Bartram settled into life at the farm in Kingsessing and spent the next ten years compiling and editing his account of his journey in the southern colonies for Travels, which was finally published in 1791 (Hallock and Hoffman, 2010: 5). He spent the remainder of his life at the farm, corresponding with colleagues, working on manuscripts and plant drawings, and becoming a mentor to a variety of young naturalists (Hallock and Hoffman, 2010: 6-7). In his later years he became an influential figure in eighteenth-century American botany as well as a social commentator, and was active until his death in 1823 at the age of 84 (Hallock and Hoffman, 2010: 6).

Natural History in the Eighteenth Century

William Bartram practiced botany at a time when modern science was first developing into the discipline it is today. A hundred years before Darwin would publish his famous treatise on evolution, On the Origin of Species, scientists such as Linnaeus were first attempting to categorize living organisms in a systematic way. Botany was popular in eighteenth-century America as individuals explored the New World and catalogued its strange botanical wonders. It was still common well into the nineteenth century to attribute natural features to the work of a divine actor, and Historian Clarence Glacken refers to these kinds of natural histories as “physico-theologies” (1967: 502). Glacken explains in Traces on the Rhodian Shore that natural history emerged as a field the eighteenth century, and that it was “a prosperous time for physico-theologies, propitious for finding the traces of the Creator’s wisdom even in the study of stones and insects”(502). These natural historians went on voyages and returned to write and publish accounts of their travels and the flora and fauna they encountered in a variety of exotic locations (502).There is a strong emphasis on teleology in the writings of these early natural historians, and these physico-theologies are concerned with establishing proof’s for the existence of God and the orderliness of the natural world (504).

Another main feature of these physico-theologies was the idea of creation as a Great Chain of Being, an elaborate hierarchy that stretched all the way from God at the pinnacle down to the smallest microorganisms. Leibniz was an influential proponent of the idea of the Great Chain of Being, that there is an order to the created world that is based on reason and harmony, with humans lower than God, but higher than all other animals (Glacken, 1967: 508). He also argued that creation was progressing towards greater order, an order that was aided by the work of humans in improving creation (506). Great advances in technology, including the invention of both the microscope and telescope, allowed humans to see the magnificent design of creation with increasing intricacy, enhancing Leibniz’s argument even further (506). Despite the prevalence of the Great Chain of Being paradigm during the eighteenth century, Bartram was deeply troubled by the implications of such a worldview that placed humans in a superior position to animals despite their moral failings.

Though ecology as a formal scientific discipline did not emerge until the latter part of the nineteenth century, its roots stretch back to the eighteenth-century period when natural history was becoming prominent in early modern science (Worster, 1994: x). Environmental historian Donald Worster identifies two traditions in early ecology that emerged in the eighteenth-century “Age of Reason.” The first he calls an “arcadian” stance, which “advocated a simple, humble life for man with the aim of restoring him to a peaceful coexistence with other organisms,” and which is characterized by the nature writing of Gilbert White. The second he names the “imperial” tradition, which sought to “establish through the exercise of reason and by hard work, man’s dominion over nature,” and which is characterized by the work of Carl Linnaeus to categorize all plants (2).

Carl Linnaeus had a passion for finding order in nature, and he traveled extensively in his native Scandinavian region, cataloguing plants and forming his own comprehensive classification system, the Systema Naturae, which has become the foundation for modern taxonomy. Worster writes that Linnaeus “seemed to demonstrate in his work the reconciliation between religious belief and scientific rationalism, “ and he found a strong following in John and William Bartram (1994: 33). In 1749 Linnaeus wrote an essay entitled “The Oeconomy of Nature,” which detailed an ecological point of view in depicting nature, one of the earliest of its kind (33). The underlying purpose of the essay was to find evidence of God’s handiwork in the natural world (33).

Linnaeus uses a three category system, dividing the terrestrial ecosystem into mineral, vegetable, and animal. He describes how the economy of nature involves the cyclical processing of materials in each of the three categories (Worster, 1994: 34). Worster writes, “Circulating in the natural economy is a dazzling profusion of species, all made of perform together with symphonic precision” (34-35). God created this perfect system so that all creatures can coexist peacefully, each having its basic needs met by the rest of the organisms in the system (35). In this system, in the words of Linnaeus, all creatures “‘are so connected, so chained together, that they all aim at the same end, and to this end a cast number of intermediate ends are subservient’” (38). Worster argues that this notion of the chain of being is more than a taxonomic category; it is also a “system of economic interdependence and mutual assistance” (46). Each creature has a specific place within the system and it contributes and receives exactly what nutrients it needs. Linnaeus’ model assumes a harmonious and perfectly ordered creation, each piece a cog in the brilliant machinery of the universe.

Art historian Michael Gaudio sheds light on another facet of natural history in the eighteenth century in his essay, “Surface and Depth: The Art of Early American Natural History,” by evaluating the visual works of these early natural historians. Gaudio argues that natural history is a visual science. Sir Francis Bacon believed that objective observation was the best method for gathering data, because the scientist could focus completely on what he was seeing. While scholars at the time believed their observations to be completely unbiased, Gaudio notes that natural historians always observe through the lens of their experience (55-56). He argues that nature itself is a “historically conditioned category” onto which Bartram and other natural historians projected their own desires and expectations (56).

Gaudio argues that the illustrations and other visual art of natural historians in the eighteenth and nineteenth century can be characterized as a dialogue between surface and depth (57). On the one hand, natural historians sought with their botanical illustrations to present particular organisms exactly as they appear. Gaudio notes that “Bartram’s interests were less in showing how nature conforms to an underlying system than in presenting its surfaces as they appeared to the eye,” whether or not those observations fit completely into the Linnaean biological categories (61). At the same time, Gaudio also observes how Bartram depicts nature as a peaceable kingdom in his illustrations. He argues that Bartram “represents nature as a world of environmental interaction in which diverse plants and creatures exist together harmoniously” (67).

Gaudio argues further that Bartram’s Travels is helpful for interpreting his visual works because in it “nature is fundamentally a social world in which the flora and fauna of the southeastern United States play out a politics of visibility” (67-68). By this Gaudio means that Bartram finds in nature a particular politics, enacted by fish and other creatures, that reflects the politics of visibility that played out in the early republic of America (68). Gaudio argues that for both politicians and natural historians “the people, plants, and animals of the world could be Fully and Fairly represented when and only when one could read their essential natures transparently upon the surfaces they presented to the world” (69). In other words, organisms in nature are self-evident, just as certain truths are self-evident. This interplay of surface and depth informs Bartram’s visual work, but it also helps us understand how Bartram saw a moral imperative in nature, a topic that will be discussed in greater depth below.

Quakers and Ecology in Eighteenth Century America

In the period shortly after their founding, Quakers echoed similar sentiments about the dominion of humans over the created world that were common during that period. In the early eighteenth century, Quakers began to excel in business both in Britain and in the Pennsylvania colony, and became leaders in the Industrial Revolution as well as in science and medicine. In the latter part of the eighteenth century, some Quakers became disillusioned with the success and wealth that industry had brought them and began to withdraw from secular life to become quietist farmers.

In the time immediately after their founding and their early years in America, Quakers shared similar sentiments about the Great Chain of Being and the dominion of humans over the created world. George Fox (1624-1691) and Robert Barclay (1648-1690) both echoed common seventeenth-century sentiments about the relationship of humans to the natural world as one of lordship and dominion, just as God was the sovereign Lord over humanity. George Fox even stated, “‘all things were made subject to man, and man subject to God; all creatures were to fear and dread man and woman but men and women were to fear and dread God’” (Kelley, 1985: 243).

Arthur Raistrick, in Quakers in Science and Industry, articulates an understanding of the work of Quakers in eighteenth-century England and America that is characterized by enormous contributions by business-minded Quakers to the world of science and industry. Raistrick argues, “In spite of all disabilities and persecutions they are to be found in the early part of the eighteenth century permeating the whole of basic industry, trade and finance, supplying outstanding members of the medical profession, and even appearing in the lists of the Fellows and Council of the Royal Society” (1968: 10). Raistrick also notes that though they became successful in these fields, many Quakers retained their disdain for luxury and their care for the poor and oppressed in society. Because of this, Raistrick argues that there is a distinctive Quaker influence on science and industry. They contributed in major ways to these fields, but they did it in a particular manner that respected individuals and was guarded against excess and luxury (335).

By the end of the eighteenth century Raistrick argues that there was a divergence among Quakers between those that retreated from the affairs of the world, the quietists, and those that continued to grow in industry, while retaining their commitment to the wellbeing of all people. These two groups remained united in worship, but lived in very different contexts (Raistrick, 1968: 345). Raistrick observes that the quietists “retreated from the major affairs of the world, and became a self-contained, good-living, somewhat closed religious community, in the world but not of it” (345). At the same time other Friends continued their leadership in industry, refraining from becoming involved in any work connected to war, but growing in wealth and influence, and “always connecting their business with a human problem” (345). This connection to the human problem was the concern of both of these groups within the Society, but they approached it in different ways. The industrialists were primarily concerned with “the reform of conditions within the structure of the new industrial order of society,” rather than its radical transformation (346).

Frederick Tolles shares a similar view of Quaker culture in the context of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania colony. He uses the image of the inner and outer plantation to describe the lives of the early Quaker colonists in America. When they first crossed the Atlantic, George Fox admonished the colonists to cultivate the inner plantations of their hearts even as they created outer plantations in the New World (Tolles, 1948: 3). Tolles explores the tension that arose as the cultivation of the inner and outer plantations came into conflict with one another. He argues, “If one phase of the Quaker ethic promoted economic individualism and the accumulation of wealth, there were strong countervailing tendencies in the direction of corporate responsibility and criticism of the acquisitive spirit” (63). This led to a conflict that was implicit in the Quaker ethic because Friends were called upon to be industrious, but warned against the dangers of accumulating wealth (82).

In 1756 as tensions came to a head regarding the military defense of the frontier, many Quakers stepped down from their positions of political power in Pennsylvania and retreated from political life (Tolles, 1948: 234). Tolles argues that this development led to a “new spirit” among Philadelphia Quakers that led them to emphasize their separation from the world, a move toward the “normal eighteenth-century Quaker patterns of quietism and inwardness” (230-231). He argues that this not only marked the end of an era in Pennsylvania’s political history; it also signaled the beginning of “a thoroughgoing  reformation’ in the Society of Friends” (235). This reformation was characterized by a return to piety and a renewed emphasis on the Quakers as a community separated from the “world” (236).

Donald Brooks Kelley argues that it is possible to find in eighteenth-century Quakerism the roots of an ecological ethos. He argues that in the eighteenth century the attitudes of Quakers about the natural world noticeably shifted as Friends began to emphasize humility and resignation as fundamental virtues of a pious life, part of the quietist period of Quaker history. Donald Brooks Kelley writes, “Seventeenth-century Quaker attitudes regarding man’s dominion over nature, to all appearances quite similar to those of Puritanism and to those of traditional Christianity, nonetheless emerged in the eighteenth century with a markedly different ecological emphasis and urgency” (1985:


Kelley links the quietist emphasis humility with an ecological ethos. The emphasis on mystical experience as the basis of the Quaker faith manifested itself in the eighteenth century in a way that focused on the virtue of humility (245). Quakers no longer had to worry about constant persecution and the attitude of Triumphalism morphed into a focus on human depravity and the fallen nature of humanity (245). This new focus led to both an empathy with those in society who were marginalized and suffering and to an admonition to care gently for the land rather than rule over it (246). Kelley argues that the emphasis on the fallen nature of humanity that was intensified during this period ultimately led Quakers to “the doctrine of custodianship in the gentle  husbanding’ and conservation of the material world” (246).

Kelley notes two distinct influences on this new focus on husbanding and conserving the land: early encounters with Native Americans and the animal welfare movement. Kelley argues that by the middle of the eighteenth century, drawing upon the wisdom of Native Americans, “ecology-minded Friends had evolved an explicit ethic of environmental responsibility in the conservation of pasture and garden” (1986: 263). They took from the Native Americans the practice of subsistence farming, cultivating only the land one needed to sustain one’s family, as well as the idea that God is the ultimate owner of the land and humans are only stewards (264). The role of humans was to improve creation by tending the land with care, not to mine and consume its resources until they were completely depleted.

Concern for the suffering of animals was also important for Quakers during this time and they spoke out against the abuse of domestic animals. Kelley notes that Quakers “displayed notable compassion to those beasts with whom they shared the earth” during a time when animals were widely abused for both sport and labor (1986: 265). Reform-minded eighteenth-century Quaker John Woolman (1720-1772) was a vocal advocate for animal welfare. In his Journals he tells a story about killing a robin who was protecting her young chicks when he was a child and afterwards realizing the cruelty of his action. He writes, “after a few minutes [I] was seized with horror, as having in a sportive way, killed an innocent creature while she was careful for her Young” (Moulton, 1971: 24).

This early insight into animal suffering set the tone for his later advocacy of a variety of social injustices in eighteenthcentury society. He writes elsewhere in his Journals “to say we love God as unseen and at the same time exercise cruelty toward the least creature moving by his life, or by life derived from him, was a contradiction in itself” (Moulton, 1971: 28). When Woolman learned that horses who were used to pull stagecoaches and deliver the mail were driven so far and hard that they were often killed or blinded, he refused to ride in them or have his mail delivered (183). He writes about these atrocities, “So great is the hurry in the spirit of this world, that in aiming to do business quick and to gain wealth the creation at the day doth loudly groan!” (183) This was an example of how human greed directly led to the abuse of God’s creatures.

Woolman’s advocacy for animals was shared by Quaker abolitionist Anthony Benezet (1713-1784). Maurice Jackson, in his biography of Benezet, describes how Benezet’s vegetarianism reflected his care for both humans and animals. Jackson notes that Benezet and his wife, Joyce Marriott Benezet became vegetarian because they did not want to eat anything associated with slave labor. They also “did not believe that any life, including that of an animal, should be taken in order to feed another living being” (Jackson, 2009: 19). This is important because for Benezet the wellbeing of humans and animals were intertwined. His care for human welfare extended out to the natural world to a care for animal creation.

Kelley contends that Quakers during this period formed a distinct “moral ecology” that encouraged benevolence towards human and animal creation rather than dominion, and which opposed war as destructive not only for human society, but for the natural world as well (1986: 267). Raistrick and Tolles temper Kelley’s position by bringing to light the achievements of

Quakers in science and industry. Not all Quakers were the quietist farmers that Kelley depicts, but their focus on human welfare influenced eighteenth-century industry. Tolles also notes that in Philadelphia there was a positive connection between the religious ethos of the Quakers and the rise of modern science (Tolles, 1948: 205).  He writes, “The most significant area of agreement between the Quaker-Puritan position and that of modern science as it emerged at the end of the seventeenth century lay in their combination of empiricism and rationalism” (206). Penn and others believed that reason was a natural capacity given by God and that humans were called to use it to God’s glory and their own benefit (211). This led many Quakers into the emerging fields of science and medicine, including William Bartram. Bartram was influenced both by the Quaker leadership in the field of science as well as the emphasis of Friends like John Woolman on animal welfare. These influences together with Bartram’s own experiences with Native Americans and with the flora of the American southeast were synthesized into his unique vision of the created order or the world and the place of humans in it.

William Bartram’s Moral Philosophy

Bartram’s influences mirror those of his eighteenth-century Quaker counterparts’ encounters with Native Americans and insight into the intelligence and emotions of animals. In Florida Bartram made contact with Native Americans that were still largely unaffected by the European invasion of the New World.

Bartram saw the Seminoles, Cherokees, and Creeks as living an upright life that was characterized by generosity and humility, and he thought there was much to emulate in their society. He also recognized an innate intelligence in animals, both wild and domestic, that his contemporaries failed to see. He believed that they live more honorably than most humans, and this led him to argue for a moral imperative in nature.

In addition to his well-known work, Travels, a large quantity of letters and essays written over his lifetime provide valuable insight into Bartram’s moral philosophy and religious convictions.  William Bartram wrote an unsigned draft of an essay or letter probably in the mid-1790s referred to as “The Dignity of Human Nature,” that is a sustained treatment of his thoughts on the concept of the Great Chain of Being. Laurel Ode-Schneider, in her introduction to Bartram’s essay, writes that in this work he “wrestles with the traditional beliefs of his Quaker culture and the additional constructs of Greek philosophy and Linnaean taxonomy in order to answer questions about humanity’s moral nature and find synthesis among these systems of thought” (2010: 340). Bartram attempts in the essay to reconcile his belief in the presence of God in all of creation with the depravity of human violence and moral ineptitude (342). Given the fallen nature of humanity, he questions the placement of humans above other creatures in the Chain of Being.

Bartram begins by asserting the value of the Chain of Being by stating, “As we are Creatures of The supreme Being, We were made for a certain & indispenseble purpose in this Vast System of Creation, as instruments, Members or Organical beings design’d & created to form a part in the Whole & Act & perform a certain part” (Hallock and Hoffman, 2010: 348). This statement summarizes and reaffirms the value of such a “System of Creation.” Every organism has a particular purpose and place within the larger whole, and this synthesis reflects the hand of the Divine in nature, a sentiment similar to that put forth by Linnaeus in the “Oeconomy of Nature.” It is God who has created this system and the Divine Virtues of truth, justice, mercy, love, benevolence, and the like are part of this natural system (Hallock and Hoffman, 2010: 349). Humans use and act upon these virtues, but they are not human creations, and Bartram later argues that such virtues are also found in animal morality.

One of the main concepts on which Bartram elaborates is dissimulation, or pretense, a value that is completely contrary to the Quaker emphasis on humility and honesty (Ode-Schneider, 2010: 343). Dissimulation in animals is known as instinct, when they protect their young, defend themselves, and procure food (Hallock and Hoffman, 2010: 349). Bartram argues that in humans dissimulation too easily becomes a vice, “One of the most formidably & dangerous passions in our Nature if not kept under strict Rule & Regulation” (350).

One of the main virtues that is present in creation is reason. Bartram writes, “Thus, it appears that Reason or That Divine Monitor Which has been supposed by the Antient Philosophers, an emanation from the Divine Intelligence” guides our actions and points to what is “right & true Virtue” (Hallock and Hoffman, 2010: 351). The problem arises when humans indulge too much in their passions and “seducing Language & feelings,” because such behavior dulls the voice of reason in an individual (351).

Reason, like the other virtues, does not only belong to humans. As an emanation of the Divine Intelligence, Bartram argues next that reason is part of the nature of animals also. Bartram uses the three categories of Linnaeaus, mineral, vegetable, and animal to describe how humans are a part of the animal category rather than their own separate category (Hallock and Hoffman, 2010: 352). He begins by reaffirming the logic of the Great Chain of Being, recounting how God has put humans at the pinnacle of animal creation, solely possessed of knowledge of the Divine and a spirit that communicates with an “emanation or particle of the Divine Intelligence,” the root of human knowledge (352).

He then turns to examine the “Ethical and Moral Nature” of animals (Hallock and Hoffman, 2010: 352). He writes, “If we <examine> & compare those Actions, & movements of Animals, which they have in common with us, we find little or no difference, why than have we not every reason to believe that those action & movements are executed & proceed from the same motives or cause” (352). Bartram seems to be arguing here that because some animals of higher intelligence act in similar ways to humans, these moral and ethical behaviors must come from the same cause. He previously stated that the cause of this behavior in humans is the emanation of Divine Intelligence, and so this same Divine Intelligence must also be extended to animals. Having established that animals have an ethical and moral nature, Bartram argues that in its most pure form, this intelligence manifests as instinct. He describes instinct as intuitive knowledge, which is the same in humans and other animals (352). Indeed this knowledge is “the most Usefull worthy, & divine part of our Nature,” because it is both innocent and divine (352). Instinct is not base desire or aggression; it is a divine capacity, and Bartram argues that it is the most useful because it is completely innocent.

Now that Bartram has illustrated how humans are similar to other animals in moral behavior, he begins to question the place of humans as the pinnacle of the created order. He does not deny that humans are the most intellectually powerful animal, but argues that this does not mean humans are the most divine animal (Hallock and Hoffman, 2010: 353). Supposedly it is humanity’s knowledge of the Divine that sets it apart from lower animals, but Bartram does not think that is the case. He argues rather, “I cannot be so impious as to desire or imagen, that Man who is guilty of more mischief & Wickedness than all the other Animal together in this World, should be exclusively endued with the knowledge of the Creator” (353).

Reason is key in acting morally, and Bartram links this capacity for reason to instinct. He argues that if the human alone is endowed with reason, “he acts as if he seldom consulted, or obeyed the dictates & advice of that Divine Monitor” reason (Hallock and Hoffman, 2010: 353). Passion, desire, and pretense all cloud the human ability to act out of reason, and because of this Bartram argues that animals are in fact more moral than humans because they operate completely on instinct. He postulates that “we act most Rationally & virtuously when our Actions seem to operate from simple instinct, or approach nearest to the manners of the Animal Creation” (353). In this sense nature contains a moral imperative, a point that will be further discussed below.

Based on his extensive travels in Indian territory in the southern colonies, Bartram argues that Native Americans are less deluded than European Americans by passion and desire, and because of this are closer to animal instinct and so more rational (Hallock and Hoffman, 2010: 353). Native Americans defend themselves from the elements and from threatening forces, but they are not overly aggressive or obsessed with their appearance (353). The take from the earth only what they need to survive and to care for the young and old of their group (354). They clothe themselves in the most practical way to protect against the cold or the sun (354). They give thanks to the Creator for all things, and because of these behaviors Bartram concludes that their simple life makes them much closer to the ideal found in animal creation of instinctual rationality (354).

Bartram next takes up the contention that humans alone possess the creative capacity for art and language and that these unique traits make them superior to the rest of creation. He argues that animals and plants possess arts and ingenuity that surpass any human art, such as “the combs Honey & Wax of Bees, the Webs & Nests of spiders, The Houses or Cells of the Inumerable Tribes & species of Mastripores, Corals, Sea Spunge, et cetera” (Hallock and Hoffman, 2010: 354). Bartram argues that it is not a matter of which organism has the highest or most complex art, only that each organism produces art according to its own manner (355). Humans are also not alone in the ability to communicate through language. Each animal has its own type of language, whether in sound or action, that is understood by all members of its species, or “Tribe” (355). Additionally “All the Tribes & Families of Quadrupeds, & Without doubt Reptiles, Amphebiae Insects & Fish have a common or universal Language” by which they interact with one another (355).

Given that all animals and even plants have these capacities, humans are tyrants for thinking that they alone possess Divine Intelligence. Bartram writes, “Man is cruel, Hypocritical, a Disembler, his dissemmulation, exceeds that of any being we are acquainted with  He call to his Aid the sacred Name of the Supreme being & attributes & all the Virtues, the more completely to cover his purpose” (Hallock and Hoffman, 355). Bartram seems to be saying here that what makes humans the worst of the animals is that they justify their actions as Divine right. They do not display any sense of humility before the created world and abuse their intellectual power to lord over all other beings. In fact, Bartram thought, animals show people how to be better humans. This upends the Great Chain of Being because in this supposition humans are revoking their place of dominance. Bartram felt that humans had fallen away from God’s will when they killed one another in war and enslaved one another to profit from their labor. By engaging in these behaviors humans had showed that they were no better than animals, that in fact the creatures of God’s creation were more noble than they.

Closely related to this sin of pride and pretense is greed. Bartram argues that “Love of Power, Riches, Magnificence & Fame Are the offspring of this passion, & seem to be the Source or parents of all Our moral Misery” (Hallock and Hoffman, 2010: 356). Not only do humans invoke the name of God to justify their abuse of creation; their greed for wealth and power is the source of all their other moral failings.  He also attacks industry as the establishment that fosters this greed. He notes that it not only oppresses workers; it also leads to war and other forms of violence. He writes that industry “is the Bane of True Morality, as it incourages every Vice & immorality” as it leads to excess, encouraging “Avarice, contention, & in the end perhaps War, & even a species of suicide” (357). The antidote to such rampant greed and pride is a return to instinct and reason. When humans indulge in greed, their capacity for reason diminished and they become a slave to their passions (358). Bartram writes, “The Divine Monitor (Reason), the Mind, (or Soul,) and the Corporeal part or System of sensation have a mutual” dependence (358). Passion is not altogether evil, but it must always be tempered by reason, that Divine Monitor. A second source of information about the moral philosophy of William Bartram comes from the wealth of letters he wrote to friends and colleagues while living at the family farm in Kingsessing.

Bartram’s sketch of Arethusa divaricata, The Spread-ing Cleistes, a kind of swamp orchid.

In a letter to close friend Benjamin Smith Barton, written December 29, 1792, Bartram expands his argument about the moral intelligence of animals. He begins the letter by answering Barton’s pervious queries about the medical treatments of the Native Americans in Florida. He then goes into a reflection on the birds he has observed recently on his farm, and engages in a sustained commentary on the moral intelligence of such birds. When he is talking about how the movement of the wild pigeon and red-headed woodpecker indicate a mild winter he writes that “they are ingenious little Philosophers, & my esteemed Associates” (Hallock and Hoffman, 2010: 168).

Their knowledge of the weather might be instinct, but this does not mean they are mindless, unintelligent automatons. This instinct is the purest form of reason, as Bartram elaborates in this essay “On the Dignity of Being,” because it is unclouded by pretense and passion. Bartram follows this comment with a question: “Can any Man of sense & candour, who has the use of his Eyes, Rational faculty, doubt that Animals are rational creatures?” (168) This innate knowledge about the seasons, as well as the migratory instinct of birds in general leads Bartram to the conclusion that animals are possessed of superior reason. He then argues, “[I]f we compare the Moral System of the two Orders,  decide impartially, we must in many instances give preference to many Animals which we hold beneath us” (169).

Bartram uses war as an example of the downfall of the human moral system. He argues, “surely we cannot possibly assume any degree of divinity, or dignity in our present Nature, while we approve of it, or the sheding of human blood under any pretence whatsoever,” because it is the absolute opposite of reason (Hallock and Hoffman, 2010: 169). War is antithetical to the design and intention of Creation, a “most daring transgression of the command and Will of God” (169). Given this profound moral failing, he wonders why philosophers have such a difficult time acknowledging that animals have the capacity for reason. He asks, “What are they afraid of? That the Sperits of Animals will rise up in judgment against them for killing & eating them?” (169). In his conclusion he makes a reference to an account of an intelligent bird in Pennant’s  Indian Zoology where its cunning is described not as reason, but as “heaven-instructed” (169). Bartram concludes the letter by asking, “For how can any one receive instruction from a preceptor, without consciousness, and an association of Ideas, which I suppose is entelligence & Reason?” (170) An animal cannot receive divine instruction without the capacity for reason, because it is this rational ability that makes such reception possible.

A third source of information about Bartram’s moral philosophy comes from his famous account of his four year journey through the southern colonies. While he travelled between 1773-1777, Travels was not published until 1791. In it he includes a wealth of anthropological information about the Native American groups he encountered in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. He portrayed these groups in a very favorable light. He encountered societies that were stable and powerful, and which were characterized by generosity and morality. These Native American groups practiced subsistence farming, and did not abuse the land by cutting more trees than they could use or killing more game than they needed. Bartram writes about how the Muscogee people displayed a virtuous and moral character that was not forced, but seemed to be an instinct, natural and easy (Van Doren, 1928: 182). Bartram writes that the Seminole people “appear as blithe and free as the birds of the air,” and that “joy, contentment, love, and friendship, without guile of affection, seem inherent in them” (182-183). Here, as in his essay “The Dignity of Human Nature,” he portrays the Native American peoples as the epitome of rationality. He argues that this is because they are the closest to animals, and so less swayed by passions and greed than European people. They live simply and in harmony with nature, an ideal to which Bartram hopes more humans would aspire.

Travels is also filled with beautifully descriptive prose about the extravagant flora and fauna of the southern colonies. In his introduction, Bartram writes, “This world, as a glorious apartment of the boundless palace of the sovereign Creator, is furnished with an infinite variety of animated scenes, inexpressibly beautiful and pleasing, equally free to the inspection and enjoyment of all his creatures” (Van Doren, 1928: 15). Elsewhere he writes about a beautiful morning in East Florida, “by the powerful influence of light, the pulse of nature becomes more active, and the universal vibration of life insensibly and irresistibly moves the wondrous machine. How cheerful and gay all nature appears!” (159) It is clear from these exclamations of praise that Bartram is in awe of creation, and that this awe has guided his moral philosophy.

Bartram also articulates a vision of how plants possess a certain mode of intelligence. When writing about the differences between the vegetable and animal worlds, he cites one of the main differences as the fact that animals can move from place to place whereas plants cannot. However, even though plants must remain where they are planted, they do “have the power of moving and exercising their members, and have the means of transplanting and colonising their tribes almost over the surface of the whole earth” (Van Doren, 1928: 20). Plants can move their leaves and branches so that they make use of the best spaces and gain the most sunlight. They also transport their seeds in the wind or the bellies or fur of animals (20). This is evidence of their own type of intelligence.

Religion in Bartram’s Moral Philosophy

Though Bartram is most well-known for his scientific contributions to the field of botany, his religious views were intertwined in his scientific ideas in a way that is unprecedented today. While the Bartram family remained affiliated with the Religious Society of Friends, William’s father John was disowned by the Darby Meeting for being a deist. Despite this, John Bartram continued to attend the meeting for the rest of his life and was buried in the Meeting House cemetery. William Bartram is also sometimes referred to as a deist, though his religious views differed dramatically from those of his father.

The Encyclopedia of Religion defines deism as a term that signifies “the belief in a single God and in a religious practice founded solely on natural reason rather than on supernatural revelation” (Wood, 2005: 2251). Deism is a somewhat amorphous term, and can refer to a number of different religious positions. It was used both as a derisive insult and a self-proclaimed title. Deism can refer to belief in a divine first cause without any personal attributes, belief in a divine being that does not act in the world, denial of an afterlife, or belief in God without any other tenets of religious practice (Wood, 2005: 2251). In the eighteenth century deism primarily signified religious belief that was based on reason and theologically unorthodox (2251). There are problems with such a designation, the most noticeable being that there is no concrete line that divides believers strictly into the category of deism. Thomas Aquinas was a Christian theologian who based his theology on natural reason, but very few would consider him a deist (2251).

John Bartram was disowned by the Darby Meeting for being a deist because he refused to affirm the divinity of Christ, but this was not his only fault in the eyes of his Quaker brethren (Whitfield, 2008: 487). He scorned the formality of religious establishment, Quaker pacifism, and any attempts at making peace with Native Americans (487). In 1762 he wrote, “‘My head runs all upon the God in nature,’” and that “‘It is through that telescope I see God in the sky” (487). Though he disdained the religious establishment, he was not an atheist. He appreciated the God he found manifested in the wonder of the natural world rather than in any ecclesiastic institution.

Raistrick argues that John Bartram “showed himself to have a clearer perception of truth than his disowners, as he continued to attend the Friends Meeting, to worship in their way, and to adhere to their peaceable way of life” (Raistrick, 1968: 258). In light of this, William was probably also brought up in the Meeting, and so his link with institutional Quakerism would have been strong despite the status of his father within the Meeting.

William Bartram seems to display some characteristic beliefs that are consistent with deism, but he diverges remarkably from the convictions of his father. Though he certainly shared his father’s love of God in nature, he was also a social critic and a prophetic voice similar to John Woolman. His sharp criticism of industry and the pursuit of wealth and power, his ardent pacifism, and his positive view of Native Americans all aligned him strongly with the eighteenth-century Quaker worldview. He also took the unpopular position of being an advocate for animal intelligence, and even went a step further to argue that animals were more moral than humans because they were innocent of greed and passion. He instead advocated for humility in humans and felt that the antidote to greed and vice was a return to reason. All of these convictions went strongly against the grain of the dominant Enlightenment cultural ethos.

Bartram lived at a time when modern science was first rising to prominence. Natural history was still concerned with proving the existence of God and cataloguing the wonders of God’s creation. Bartram certainly did a fair amount of cataloguing, but he was also quite poetic and philosophical about his work.

Science was also not something that was divorced from social issues. Bartram believed that nature presented humans with a moral imperative. Detailing the organization of the created world was not his only goal. He was also trying to use his knowledge to improve society. The nineteenth century would be even more revolutionary for modern science, with the inception of evolutionary theory in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. It would no longer be acceptable to reference a Divine Creator in scientific texts, but it would also divorce science with morality. The ideal for science is to be value free, completely objective. Bartram was certainly not objective, but he was also not complicit in the destruction of the human and natural world by the ever-improving technology that was reshaping the surface and organisms of the earth.

The Moral Imperative in Nature

By arguing for animals as rational and ethical beings, Bartram believed there existed a moral imperative in nature. He felt that animals provided an example of the correct way for humans, as fellow animals, to behave. Part of this idea arose from the common current of deist thought circulating in the post-Revolutionary war period in America that saw natural reason as the template for creation. The Divine Intelligence had created a perfect order in the natural world, a view evident in the Systema Naturae of Linnaeus. Another part of this idea arose from Bartram’s intimate knowledge of animal behavior and the observations of their interactions with their environment and with one another. He observed birds and other animals on his farm, and he encountered many exotic creatures in his travels south.

Bartram, like Linnaeus and other early natural historians, painted an overly rosy portrait of animal life. Animals engage in aggressive behavior among their own species, they sometimes kill in excess, and they do not always behave as generously as Bartram believed. Further, natural systems are never perfectly harmonious. An ecosystem is dynamic and sometimes chaotic. Nutrients and water do not cycle as neatly as Linnaeus thought, and animal populations are not as perfectly controlled, but are characterized by periods of mass growth and mass extinction. Despite these failings, Bartram’s insight into animal morality is consistent with the growing body of research on animal empathy and the ethical systems of higher mammals such as primates, wolves, and elephants. His indictment of humans as the only animal blessed with morality and intellectual capacity has been substantiated by more modern studies of animal behavior.

It is impossible to argue for a moral imperative in nature from a scientific perspective, but it is not outside the realm of religion. Bartram saw the relative harmony of the natural world as a stark contrast to the violence and injustice that was rampant in human society. There were people with a great excess of wealth, while others starved. Men went to war against one another over the right to power and control over land. These are cultural phenomena that survive throughout the world today. Bartram felt that God had created a world that was in perfect order, in which all creatures were guided by reason. It was a world that humans had tampered with to the point of destruction. Having witnessed the wondrous beauty of unscathed lands, he could not refrain from attempting to restore human society to this beautiful harmony.

Keith Helmuth is a modern scholar who argues that Quakerism has an evolutionary potential that has been unfolding since its founding in the seventeenth century. He traces the evolution of the concept of human betterment from eighteenthcentury Quaker businessman John Bellers to twentieth-century scholar Kenneth Boulding. John Bellers was a Quaker businessman who in his later life became an advocate for human betterment, which manifested itself in his writings about “the significance of universal education, vocational training, public healthcare, social fairness, political economy, finance and investment, governance, and international peacemaking” (Helmuth, 2011: 36). Helmuth contrasts human betterment with the often-used notion of progress, which is the pursuit of wealth, convenience, entertainment, and security (37). He compares John Bellers to Kenneth Boulding’s more recent work on human betterment, and “the evolutionary potential of Quakerism” (38). Helmuth argues that Kenneth Boulding was “one of the first social scientists, and certainly the first leading economist, who understood that all progressive thinking and action with regard to human adaptation and human betterment must now start with the way Earth’s ecosystems actually work” (38).

This is important for the study of Quakers and their influence on science and ecology because Boulding connects the continual emphasis on human wellbeing and social justice with care for the earth, a concept that only became part of mainstream American culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This evolution of Quakerism includes William Bartram, John Woolman, and John Bellers as the eighteenth-century precursors to scholars like Kenneth Boulding. Helmuth notes that John Bellers “continued his study of social and economic conditions, matched them to the ethical demands of his faith, and renewed his call to Quakers, in particular, to act effectively on behalf of the poor” (Helmuth, 2011: 46). Bellers is famously quoted as saying, “‘The labours of the Poor are the Mines of the Rich,’” to which Helmuth adds, “The dismantling of Earth’s ecosystems is the accumulation of human wealth” (47, 64). Helmuth captures the current awareness of Quakers on the environmental damage humans cause the earth within the context of human betterment that has characterized the Quaker ethos for centuries.

Helmuth argues that “the evolutionary potential of Quakerism must now combine social fairness, ecological integrity, and a sustainable economy into a single focus of wellbeing for human communities and Earth’s whole commonwealth life” (64). Eighteenth-century Quakers such as William Bartram had no concept of the kind of ecological damage humans perpetuate on a global scale in the modern world, but his insight into human nature remains relevant. Bartram questioned the place of humans as the pinnacle of the created world, and argued for a chastened view of humans as one among many animals. Many of his insights into animal intelligence and his denial of humans as a special, separate creation have been vindicated by current research in evolutionary biology. Bartram remains an important part of Helmuth’s vision of Quaker history as an ongoing evolutionary process, one that continues to unfold before us.

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