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A Temperate EmpireMaking Climate Change in Early America$

Anya Zilberstein

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780190206598

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190206598.001.0001

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Improving the Climate

(p.1) Introduction
A Temperate Empire

Anya Zilberstein

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter summarizes the main themes and arguments of the book. In particular, this introduction contextualizes the variety of ways in which early Americans discussed climate and climate change, explaining the historical importance of analyzing why many believed that colonization moderated the regional climate despite the fact that modern science proves the entire period was subject to colder winters during the Little Ice Age. The first two chapters of the book explore the geography of early scientific debates about climate. The three chapters in the second part of the book examine the the politics of climate in New England and Nova Scotia, particularly tensions between local and distant elites about how to mobilize climate knowledge in the service of colonial settlement and economic expansion.

Keywords:   British Empire, climate, environment, New England, Nova Scotia, colonial North America, history of science, climate knowledge, Little Ice Age

The whole earth is less subject to extreme cold than it was formerly: And that every climate is become more temperate, and uniform, and equal: and that this will continue to be the case so long as diligence, industry, and agriculture shall mark the conduct of mankind.

SAMUEL WILLIAMS, “Change of Climate in North America and Europe” (1789)

We shall probably be told, that so far as regards the physical maladies of climate, we are to hope that in process of time, when the atmosphere of these regions shall be more impregnated with phlogistic particles from myriads of reeking dunghills, from the fumes of furnaces, from the fires and smoke of ten thousand crowded cities hereafter to be built, and by a general subjection of the soil to agriculture, carried on to the Arctic Circle, they may be considerably alleviated.

EDWARD LONG, “A Free and Candid View of a Tract, Entitled ‘Observations on the Commerce of the American States’ ” (1784)

Since greenhouse gases are chiefly the result of human industry and agriculture, it is not an exaggeration to say that civilization itself is the ultimate cause of global warming.

ANDREW REVKIN, Discover (1988)

WHEN EUROPEAN COLONISTS settled in North America, they improved the climate and made it temperate. From Nova Scotia to Florida, colonial farmers changed the weather, reducing the length and intensity of the North’s bitterly cold winters and of the South’s sweltering summers. By the late eighteenth century, “every climate” in the settler regions of British North (p.2) America and the United States had become “more temperate, equal, and mild” compared with the climates in the experiences of previous generations.

Or so thought the eighteenth-century naturalist Samuel Williams, who studied the early American climate by combining historical sources with his and other Americans’ records of local weather and temperature measurements. As Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, he recorded daily air temperatures in the vicinity of Harvard College from 1780 to 1788. As a corresponding member of the Palatine Meteorological Society, an international network of weather observers based in southern Germany, Williams traveled from Cambridge to Springfield, Massachusetts, and from New Haven, Connecticut, to Burlington, Vermont, plunging a thermometer into well waters wherever he stayed overnight. Deep well-water temperature did not vary much with the seasons, so from these observations he believed he could derive average annual air temperatures across the region. In another experiment, he compared daily ground temperatures in a pasture and a shady forest in Rutland, Vermont, over the course of a growing season. He also tracked bird migrations and the budding, flowering, fruiting, and harvest dates of common native and imported trees, shrubs, and crops like apples, gooseberries, and maize. Compiling all of this quantitative data, he correlated it to a collection of historical anecdotes about New England’s weather going back to the early seventeenth century.

In 1789, he drafted “Change of Climate in North America and Europe,” in which he came to this conclusion: Over 150 years of permanent European settlement and land development had tempered New England’s formerly severe climate. This local shift was only the latest instance of a widespread transformation that aligned the history of the Northeast and other settlements in North America with European countries in the temperate zone. Seen from a very long-term perspective, both Providence and geological processes had made “the whole earth … less subject to extreme cold than it was formerly,” but the last hundred or so years of change visible across the Atlantic world was the result of concerted human effort, rather than divine or natural causes. Going further, he predicted “that every climate is become more temperate, and uniform, and equal: and that this will continue to be the case so long as diligence, industry, and agriculture shall mark the conduct of mankind.” Productivity promised to remake the global climate for the better.

He shared these findings in a private letter to Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge and the most powerful patron of science in the Anglophone world. But Williams (p.3) remained cautious about going “public on the subject” of human intervention in the climate. Instead of publishing his work right away, he decided to continue gathering data. In 1794, he included an account of anthropogenic climate change in his book The Natural and Civil History of Vermont, in which he explained that local changes in the land created reciprocal changes in the air. Since settlers began cultivating their properties in this new state, “the cold of the winters decrease; the rivers are not frozen so soon, so thick, or so long, as they formerly were; and the effects of extreme cold, in every respect appear to be diminished.” He was fairly certain that this warming trend signaled “a permanent alteration.”1

Two centuries later, modern climate scientists reached a different conclusion: The climate of the colonial Northeast had been subject to global cooling rather than warming. Using proxy data derived from ice core samples, coral, tree rings, volcanic deposits, and the like, scientists reconstructed historical weather patterns across the early modern North Atlantic world. Their computer models showed that, from roughly the fourteenth through the nineteenth centuries, the Northern Hemisphere was subject to protracted winters and abbreviated, cool, and wet summers characteristic of “the Little Ice Age” (a term coined in 1939 by American glaciologist François Matthes to describe significantly colder time spans between proper ice ages in Earth history). Over the long period of the Little Ice Age, expanding glaciers and sea ice caused anomalous or unusually severe weather around the world; across the Northern Hemisphere, there were subtle but significant drops in annual temperatures, especially in coastal regions on both sides of the North Atlantic Ocean. During peaks in this comparatively colder period, changing climatic conditions sometimes exacerbated or otherwise played a role in shaping colonial encounters. In the seventeenth through early eighteenth centuries, Native American groups in the Northeast took advantage of the prevailing hard winters by developing strategies for repelling colonists’ territorial advances. The Pennacook, Androscoggin, Kennebec, Penobscot, Maliseet, and Mi’kmaq, for instance, commanded the formidable northern uplands around the Gulf of Maine, maintaining a buffer against northeastward-bound settler encroachment. Colonial farmers were especially vulnerable to late spring or early autumn killing frosts, or both, such as occurred in 1816. In this so-called year without a summer—caused by the coincidence of waning Little Ice Age conditions and the reverberating effects of the eruption of distant Mount Tambora—intense, prolonged winter weather brought harvest shortfalls, higher food prices, and hunger across the region.2

(p.4) But early Americans’ perceptions of climate history did not always match the trends twenty-first-century climatologists have identified in the past. This divergence is dramatically clear in Williams’s argument for climate warming in North America, which runs in opposition to sound modern research. Even as people in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries experienced and responded to cycles of harsher weather, the same kind of precise technical information about long-range, large-scale climatic patterns like the Little Ice Age was unavailable and unknown to them. And yet, if material evidence and computer models convincingly show that average annual temperatures in the Northeast were significantly colder even in the last decades of the Little Ice Age—from the second half of the eighteenth through early nineteenth centuries—how could Williams believe that colonists had made the weather milder?3

Williams was not a lone crank in his conjectures about anthropogenic climate change. Nor, despite his cautiousness, was he hazarding a new or radical theory. Instead, he joined many other learned elites who contended that European farming or settler colonialism induced a process of climate change toward a temperate ideal. Williams’s conclusions corroborated those of naturalists who studied the climate history of the Lower South, the Chesapeake, the Middle Colonies, Canada, West Africa, Scotland, and the Swiss Alps; they too noted a similar form of moderation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The belief in amelioration was particularly widespread in early America and across the British Empire, where speculations about the mutual influences between political history and climate history became a standard part of transatlantic scientific debates. In 1763, Benjamin Franklin endorsed “the Truth of the common Opinion, that the Winters in America are grown milder.” A few years later, the physician Hugh Williamson told an audience gathered in Philadelphia at the American Philosophical Society that elderly residents of Pennsylvania and neighboring colonies noticed “a very observable Change of Climate,” namely “that our winters are not so intensely cold, nor our summers so disagreeably warm as they have been” four to five decades ago. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson reported his impression that the local climate had “become much more moderate within the memory even of the middle aged.” In places like Florida and Nova Scotia, where the settler population was just beginning to grow, local elites expected these changes to transpire in the near future.4

Besides providing empirical and anecdotal evidence of climatic improvement, early Americans also drew on classical ideas proposed by ancient historians, who had interlinked climate history with imperial history. In (p.5) antiquity, writers argued that ascendant societies inhabited or created temperate environments with the “best mixture of conditions”: fertile soils, a diversity of wild and domesticated species and, above all, moderate seasonal temperatures, sunlight, and precipitation. These conditions not only corresponded with healthy, large, and prosperous populations but also supposedly resulted in higher stages of cultural development, which in turn provided a stable foundation for territorial expansion. If the Mediterranean climate explained the flourishing state of imperial centers, Greek or Roman invasion of outlands would progressively soften their harsh climates and the allegedly barbarous, politically fragmented societies peopling them. Where conquerors cleared dense forests and planted deserts, they beneficially reduced excessively hot, cold, arid, or humid conditions. The decline and contraction of empire accordingly triggered regression.5

American colonists reinvigorated this idea and charged it with new meaning by making the domination, creation, and conservation of temperate climates into an abiding political problem. For agents of the English (after 1707, British) Empire intent on settling colder regions like northeastern North America, the climate was acutely problematic. Ptolemaic tradition dictated that the burning heats at the equator and constant frosts at the poles formed the temperate zone’s fixed boundaries around the world, so the seasons in the area between the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and Long Island Sound should have been more or less the same as those on the coast of the northern Mediterranean Sea. Instead, the Northeast’s winters and summers defied early explorers’ expectations.6 Surrounded by teeming cod and whale fisheries, hardwood and coniferous forests, and the interior fur trade, the region that eventually became known as New England and Nova Scotia also formed the northeastern limit of arable land on the continent and the southernmost extent of the ice sheets before their retreat about 10,000 years ago. Despite hilly topography, soils heavily intermixed with glacial debris, and nearly subarctic winters, the English nevertheless committed themselves to conquering the indigenous territories of the Northeast and resettling them with Europeans.7

After struggling to survive in the region’s environment, several groups abandoned their early colonial projects altogether. According to Samuel Champlain, Portuguese fishermen relinquished plans to colonize Cape Breton Island after passing one winter there. The same was true of the Virginia Company of Plymouth’s 1607 Sagadahoc settlement on the Maine coast and the Scots’ short-lived attempt in the late 1620s to establish a colony in the area that heartier French colonists soon renamed Acadia. These (p.6) failures contributed to an emerging perception of the Northeast as an irredeemably cold desert, prompting ongoing transatlantic debates about whether or not it was suitable for permanent European settlement and agricultural development. In surveys of the climate across the Americas, writers often described the weather in New England and Nova Scotia as comparatively harsh, excessive, extreme, intense, rigorous, bitter, and severe. These and similar adjectives recurred in numerous publications and private communications that circulated in the Atlantic world from the early modern period through the turn of the eighteenth century. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, although some believed that the Northeast’s environment was improving, others continued to have an “oblique and unworthy opinion” of it. As Yale College President Timothy Dwight complained, the northern “climate is supposed” by outsiders “to be inhospitable, and the soil barren.” Migrants unwilling to tolerate numbing cold or to tackle the challenge of farming in the region usually avoided it or, if they could, quickly departed for warmer places. However, for anyone interested in encouraging immigration to and developing property in the region, pessimistic accounts of the local climate became a persistent source of anxiety. Worried about the political and economic consequences of the climate’s bad reputation, local elites became intensely interested in determining the true character of the local climate.8

To better understand northeastern North America’s climate, learned elites studied its natural history. Methodologies for researching climate, however, were relatively limited, indirect, and subjective compared with other aspects of the natural world. Although naturalists contained, preserved, and transported specimens of minerals, plants, and creatures in order to observe and compare them, they could not so easily isolate, objectify, and circulate meteorological or atmospheric phenomena, let alone climatic patterns as a whole, which unfolded on a variety of not entirely commensurable temporal and geographical scales. Instead, they developed qualitative and quantitative proxies for studying the natural history of climate. These records included descriptive reports, weather diaries, and instrumental measurements of temperature, pressure, humidity, and wind speed using thermometers, barometers, and other devices of varying reliability. By the eighteenth century, a number of privileged men in the region possessed these instruments, but qualitative proxies remained the most plentiful because the climate had always been an element of the colonial environment itemized and described in official correspondence or popular print culture, such as settlement schemes, local and natural histories, and gazetteers. After the mid-seventeenth-century (p.7) establishment of the Royal Society and the Lords of Trade and Plantations (later the Board of Trade), these observations often appeared at the beginning of such texts, following a template made explicit in founding member of the Royal Society Robert Boyle’s instructions that descriptions of the air, climate, and temperature should be accorded first and second place in writing “the natural history of a country great or small.”9

Naturalists also tried to understand climate in terms of what would later be called the science of acclimatization. In its most elementary form acclimatization was the practice of moving a living thing far from home and observing how it fared in a new place. To predict survival rates, acclimatizers extrapolated the similarities between native and foreign habitats from accounts of long-distance migrations of people, animals, and plants and their success or failure in adapting to unfamiliar environments in both the near and the very remote past. In the seventeenth century, emerging theories about the deep history of the Earth suggested that climatic changes might have stimulated primeval migrations. Fossils and preserved skeletons of extinct creatures found in northern latitudes that resembled living tropical species offered the most compelling material evidence. By far the most sophisticated, influential theorist to incorporate such evidence was George-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, who asserted that natural historians, like other scholars, had to research “the archives of the world.” In Des époques de la nature (1778), the volume on geology in his widely read Histoire Naturelle, Buffon proposed that all life on Earth first emerged in the Arctic many thousands of years ago when it had enjoyed a much warmer climate and the rest of the world was too hot for habitation. As the global climate cooled, plants, animals, and people gradually drifted southward and dispersed among the continents.10 Since the fifteenth century, European empires further enabled this ongoing process of biogeographical shuffling by encouraging or forcing transoceanic migration and ecological exchange on an unprecedented scale. Of course transatlantic colonization and the slave trade were not conceived as experiments, but for natural historians the so-called seasoning of people and acclimatization of other species when they moved to unfamiliar environments offered clues about the climate in faraway places. Deriving knowledge about local climates from such clues proved to be a highly inexact, controversial science. It was especially equivocal in its contribution to speculations about the connection between climate and cultural diversity, including increasingly strong beliefs about the immutable relationship between climatic geography and racial difference. As a result, even as descriptions, measurements, and theory about the global climate and its history proliferated in the seventeenth and eighteenth (p.8) centuries, reliable knowledge about the particular environmental history and characteristics of local climates remained tentative.11

A Temperate Empire examines the range of these often-conflicting ways in which metropolitan and local elites—officials, large landowners, land speculators, merchants, ministers, naturalists, and agricultural improvers—attempted to come to terms with the climate of northeastern North America, including their engagement in scientific debates about the real and perceived limits a cold northern climate posed to settler colonialism. Colonizing and inhabiting the Northeast required understanding—and perhaps even changing—its climate. Because no one knew for certain if dramatic or lasting physical climate change had materialized, early Americans were most effective at destabilizing ideas about the local climate. They made ideas about the climate change by writing about it. In the process of describing places like northeastern North America that were not as temperate as first assumed, local elites stretched the imagined geography of the temperate zone, shifted their definitions of bodily comfort, and projected a more temperate future for the region, once they had succeeded in attracting more permanent, industrious settlers such as themselves.

Europeans did not simply discover the timeless climates of the Western Hemisphere. Realizing that the ancient equation of climate with latitude was inaccurate for the Americas, they studied and tried to remake local climates according to the imperatives that informed their plans for colonial settlement, population growth, and economic development. By focusing on these political, intellectual, and rhetorical dimensions of early discussions about the region’s weather and climate, this book argues for the necessarily dynamic, historical nature of both climate knowledge and of our contemporary debates about it.

In a sense, climate has long played a part in the origins of American history. Considerations about the climate—mainly stories of frostbitten Pilgrims and Puritans—form the backdrop to classic scenes of colonial New England. The earliest chroniclers of Plymouth Plantation and Massachusetts Bay Colony presented the violent conquest and settlement of indigenous territory as a history of precarious survival in a cold, “hideous and desolate” wilderness. Because these men led groups of separatists seeking religious refuge from the “Intemperance” of the Old World, their winter tales carried both worldly and scriptural meanings. They were parables within a parable. In the larger, ongoing narrative of western expansion, the English colonization of northeastern North America was a new chapter that began with a trial by frost. In the microcosm of New England, God challenged the faith of Protestant (p.9) congregations with the hazards of a bewildering environment: the harsh elements, the potential threat of hostile Indians, and the risk of spiritual disorientation. Their miraculous triumph was the result of Providence—and perseverance. For any migrant, adjusting to a new environment could be harrowing. For pious Calvinists, difficulties and narrowly averted dangers were accepted dimensions of everyday life. Their willingness to overcome hardship was another measure of their steadfast faith. Before embarking from Leiden on the Mayflower, two men wrote to reassure their Virginia Company sponsors that “it is not with us as with other men, whom small things can discourage, or small discontentments cause to wish themselves at home again.” The settlers patiently endured “all the misery that Desart could put upon them” and used “their wits to make their best use of that then Snow-covered land for their necessities.”12

The earliest English migrants to the region portrayed themselves as vulnerable, devoted settlers rather than as brazen conquerors. They were merely humble pioneers who accepted that “all beginnings are ever difficult.” Until the late twentieth century, most historians reinforced this view, using the colonization of New England as a restrained but victorious origin story from the United States’ prenational era. Textbook accounts emphasizing the religious beliefs and farming communities of New England typically downplayed the misfortunes of the Virginia Company and the miseries of laborers in the Chesapeake. Christian piety and small proprietorship—not corporate capitalism and plantation slavery—were the basis of American society. For other writers, New England served as the archetype of modern society and the tendencies associated with it. For Max Weber, Perry Miller, and Immanuel Wallerstein, religious doctrine strongly influenced commercial behavior in the northern colonies. The region’s ministers and devout merchants were paragons of productive behavior. That they “employed their wits” to make the cold desert into a home was a mark of their rationality and disciplined asceticism. The jeremiads of the late seventeenth century expressed a pervasive but ultimately productive anxiety of failure that propelled northerners to industriousness in their daily lives. Their aggressive work ethic and resourceful efficiency explained how and why this colonial periphery was successfully converted into a worldly metropolitan center of industrialization.13 Combining these perspectives, social historians showed that, for all the moral economy engendered within New England and Nova Scotia’s small, insular, churchy communities, householders were both producers and avid consumers, engaged in and reliant on exchanges across the Atlantic world.14 Building on this consumerist argument, environmental historians (p.10) cast northern colonists as rapacious and wasteful. Their utilitarian approach to American nature as an abundant economic resource was the basis for the region’s industrialization but also its concomitant environmental decline. That the secular transformation of agrarian to industrial capitalism emerged from a community originally composed of religious refugees was not as paradoxical, or as unequivocally admirable, as it might have originally appeared.15

In most of these historical accounts, the climate figures, if at all, as an atmospheric narrative element: Cold winters provide a vivid challenge to the early stages of colonization that ultimately prove to be an incidental hurdle to settlement. Or, less dramatically, colonial farmers eventually incorporate considerations about the seasons and other local environmental conditions into their agricultural practices and economic calculations. This neglect is partly the result of assuming—implicitly or explicitly—that the Northeast was essentially the same as Britain and northern Europe, taking for granted the stable natural order of climate zones. Accordingly, most historians of colonial climates have examined the creation of neo-European landscapes in temperate settler colonies—a process Alfred Crosby influentially named “ecological imperialism”—and the limits to European settlement in hot environments, particularly the difficulties colonizers faced in assimilating to tropical disease ecologies in the Caribbean, Africa, and South Asia. Until recently, however, climatic instability—and early Americans’ alertness to it—has rarely served as a focus of sustained historical analysis.16

Although concentrating on a particular region of British North America, the chapters that follow examine how people conceived of climatic instability and variability in the past. Theories about acclimatization, environmental determinism, and anthropogenic influences constituted the most prevalent understandings of and discussions about climate and climate change in the early modern period through the early nineteenth century. Learned elites in New England and Nova Scotia gave local expression to these early ideas about climate by applying them to colonial policies to encourage immigration, settler population growth, and economic development. They argued that the regional climate was not inescapably harsh. It was sufficiently temperate, it was becoming temperate, or—in the least- or last-populated sections—it would eventually become perfectly temperate through active land improvement.

The first part of the book explores the geography of these arguments. Chapter 1 asks how the colonization of northeastern North America revised the ways in which Europeans imagined the global geography of temperate, tropical, and polar climates. Two aspects of New England’s and Nova Scotia’s history complicated attempts to understand whether or not its climate was (p.11) in the temperate zone: 1) the region’s surprisingly severe and changeable weather and, 2) its unstable colonial boundaries in the seventeenth through the early nineteenth centuries. Colonization revealed the inadequacy of ancient models of the world’s climate zones based on latitude. As a result, in the New World generally and in the Northeast in particular, knowledge about the ecological boundaries of the temperate zone was highly imprecise. However, because no new cartographical representations of the climate were produced in this period, the region’s biogeography was subject to ongoing dispute and competing textual descriptions, debates that eventually contributed to a more expansive, labile definition of what counted as a temperate climate and where one could be found.

Chapter 2 turns to the geography of early climate science in New England, Nova Scotia, and the broader Atlantic world by asking who had the authority to produce knowledge about local climates. In the eighteenth century, learned men and women in the region began to emphasize empiricism over theory, arguing that the collection of firsthand observations and measurements was the only way to refine knowledge about the northern climate. By reconstructing the social networks that served as the primary channels to communicate and assess the accuracy of this empirical information, the chapter shows that climate knowledge was produced as a result of engagement in transatlantic scientific debates. Before the rise of professional science and its institutions later in the nineteenth century, correspondence networks and other forms of cosmopolitan sociability constituted scientific culture. Early American naturalists, like their counterparts elsewhere, were governing elites and learned gentlemen and women who, in addition to their primary occupations or other pursuits, also studied, described, and managed local environments. By participating in debates about the local climate and other aspects of the natural world, learned elites in the Northeast established their credibility as naturalists. The crucial contacts between British and North American naturalists before the American Revolution, moreover, were not entirely disrupted by it. Naturalists in various locales remained connected through these circuits, which persisted through the early nineteenth century as part of the increasingly transnational scientific community of the wider Atlantic world. On all sides of new political loyalties and boundaries, naturalists continued to share studies of—and debate answers to unresolved questions about—the northern climate.

The three chapters in the second part of the book examine the politics of climate in New England and Nova Scotia, particularly tensions between local and distant elites about how to mobilize climate knowledge in the (p.12) service of colonial settlement and economic expansion. Chapter 3 focuses on debates about the possibilities and limits of northern acclimatization as the basis for increasing the settler population and developing agriculture in the region. It recounts how British officials—particularly in areas that bordered Catholic New France—manipulated perceptions of the regional climate in attempts to increase the Protestant settler population and diversify the economy by introducing frost-tolerant silkworms and wine grapes, among other schemes. Beginning with the first British governor of Nova Scotia, Samuel Vetch, who survived Scotland’s disastrous colonial experiment at Darien in Central America in the 1690s, over the course of the eighteenth century a series of local elites conjured a transatlantic northern temperate zone so as to persuade supposedly cold-hardened migrants from the British Isles and northern Europe to permanently resettle in the Northeast. Acclimatizers acknowledged the coldness of the northern climate but argued that it was suitable for those humans, animals, and plants that were already—or that would quickly become—desensitized to it. As British official and Vetch’s collaborator Francis Nicholson put it to Queen Anne in 1710, the climate of the northern colonies was “much more callculate” to our “Northerne constitution than Darien.” Successive projectors similarly combined climatic determinism with political arithmetic, favorably comparing the region with northern England, Scotland, Scandinavia, and parts of Russia and China, all more-or-less civilized areas “in the Northern temperate zone.” In most cases, northern acclimatization proved to be irresistible as policy rhetoric despite the fact that it was a repeatedly ineffective strategy for recruiting loyal Protestant migrants.17

Other northern elites firmly believed they inhabited a temperate climate rather than a far northern fringe of tenuous settlement. These extreme-climate deniers brushed away complaints about New England’s and Nova Scotia’s unbearably cold winters, muggy summers, heavy fogs, strong winds, or the climate’s changeability. William Wood remarked in the early seventeenth century that the region’s sometimes erratic weather simply made manifest the “axiome in Nature” that everything changes, “nullum vsole temst perpetuum, no extreames last long.” Chapter 4 relates the most vivid example of this rhetorical approach to minimizing the inconveniences or hazards of the climate: the controversy over Nova Scotia Lieutenant Governor (and former governor of New Hampshire) John Wentworth’s frustrated quest between 1796 and 1800 to settle almost 600 Jamaican Maroon deportees in the province, in spite of their and their abolitionist advocates’ objections that the winters were too severe for them. If Vetch had argued that Europeans were (p.13) supposed to arrive preconditioned to withstand the region’s cooler climate, Wentworth insisted that Africans transported from hot climates might be tempered by it. In particular, he exploited medical advice about the degenerative effects of excessively hot climates and the remedial effects of the local climate in formulating a settlement policy for the Maroons that doubled as a social reform. This was another case involving traffic between the Caribbean and the Northeast, which shows how the emergence of racial ideology and the abolitionist movement intersected with political and scientific debates about the relative merits of inhabiting a northern climate.

Finally, Chapter 5 explains why increasing the permanent settler population was thought to be so crucial to northern development. It examines the widespread belief that landowning farmers might eventually temper the climate as long as they could be persuaded to continuously improve their properties—that is, to responsibly exploit and develop local natural resources—as learned elites saw fit. The chapter argues that transatlantic debate about the likelihood of anthropogenic climate change in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was inextricably linked to and can only be adequately understood in terms of the broader preoccupation with agricultural improvement. In New England and Nova Scotia, local elites harshly criticized their neighbors’ farming practices as outdated and offered unsolicited advice about how to adapt the latest scientific agriculture to the region. Nearly all American and British elites thought that the introduction of new crop rotations, greenhouses, and livestock breeding techniques would increase the productivity and profit of individual farms in the short run. But Samuel Williams and many others also believed these were prescriptions for ameliorating the harshness of the climate in the long run. From this optimistic point of view, the region’s seemingly more temperate climate at the end of the eighteenth century was an artifact of agricultural improvement. Whether they were correct—either in the eyes of contemporaries who were skeptical of anthropogenic climate change, like Jamaican planter Edward Long, or in hindsight—these learned elites articulated an early scientific argument that linked increases in population and industrious activity with radical transformations in weather and climate.18

Although many aspects of eighteenth-century theories about acclimatization, climatic determinism, and climatic improvement are largely outdated, elements lingered on well into the next centuries. In the arid American West, foresters assured land-hungry migrants that much-needed rain and a more equable climate “would follow the plow.” Latitude continued to inform popular notions about climatic geography, including the suspicion that black (p.14) people did not really belong in the North. Northern countries, “must ever be … inhabited by the descendants of Northern races,” urged a founder of the nationalist Canada First movement in the 1860s. Some dreamed that a racial population policy would hasten, as one popular early twentieth-century title had it, “the Northward Course of Empire.” And white Australian settlers, anxious about their far remove from the centers of modern capital, became intent on proving that their continent mirrored the temperate geography of the Northern Hemisphere.19 In northeasteastern North America, the technological and commercial successes of the Industrial Revolution overshadowed older anxieties about the ways in which the region’s climate hindered population growth and economic expansion. The rapid and visible industrialization of manufacturing in the region encouraged an about-face. The North, long perceived as a place of limited potential, became newly associated with dynamism and progress, obscuring the agonized attempts over two centuries to prove that it was always so. The images of a cool, temperate North and a balmy, dissolute South came to inform ideas about the modern geography of progress and backwardness. These dichotomies and their attendant clichés accumulated meaning in the national contexts of the nineteenth-century United States and Canada as well as across the British Empire, contributing to some of the strongest, most deplorable articulations of racial theories of human difference. In the second half of the twentieth century, the stereotypes about temperate versus severe climates took on a much broader resonance in assumptions about the contemporary geography of economic development, underdevelopment, and the horizons of possibility, captured in the monolithic terms Global North and Global South.

More recently, actual climate change is intensifying some and undoing other aspects of this imagined global order, once more shifting the geography and definition of what counts as a temperate climate as opposed to one too extreme for human livelihood. The Inuit and other northern nations are scrambling to lay claim to an ice-free Arctic at the same time as warming polar conditions are forcing a range of species migrations. Rising oceans are submerging tropical islands, prompting discussions about the extent to which people are equipped to adapt to climate change and generating a new category of exile, the “climate refugee.” The scientific consensus is that these and many other developments are due largely to accumulated human economic activities, a concept that has generated public alarm as well as bitter disputes about whether and how to respond. The idea of anthropogenic climate change has faced inordinate resistance in recent decades, taking an especially long time to gain political traction in the United States, despite the urgency and unequal international distribution of its real threats.20

(p.15) In part because of the overwhelming magnitude of this global emergency, it may be tempting to think that such political debates about climate, climate change, and climate science are wholly unprecedented. In the midst of the accelerating planetary crisis of global warming, however, it is instructive to consider the implications of earlier, ubiquitous debates about the historical relationship between people and the climate. From the seventeenth through the early nineteenth centuries, prominent figures in North America and Europe, many of them at the highest levels of government, routinely insisted that considerations about the climate and climate change were inseparable from the management of natural and human resources. They openly acknowledged that scientific understanding of the complex causes and consequences of environmental change—including the historical, present, and future state of the climate—was necessarily provisional. And yet, in this preindustrial period, the verdict was that people and their economic activities were undoubtedly capable of being agents of such changes, including their power to transform the climate.21

Moreover, for early Americans, climate change was an intended consequence of economic development. They felt encouraged by the beneficial moderation of extreme climates, which they understood as a deliberate, righteous, and anxiously awaited outcome of population growth and industrious activity rather than their unintended, lamentable, uncontrollable, and only belatedly recognized side effect. Contemporary engagement with global warming is thus in some ways a dramatic reversal of the early modern prophesies discussed in this book. In another sense, the current predicament is their fulfillment, especially now that the current geological era, marked by the inextricability of human and natural history, is already being called the Anthropocene, evoking humanity’s collective agency in changing the Earth.

As should be plain from the continuities in colonial debates about climate that this book explores, conceiving of climate change, even on a planetary scale over the course of millennia, is not so novel. Various ways of thinking about climate, including anthropogenic climate change as part of a progressive ideology about the improvement of nature, are very old habits of thought. What is new is the dire necessity of reversing our understanding of their environmental and social repercussions. By pointing to these kinds of ironies, A Temperate Empire demonstrates the ineluctable ways in which political disputes, economic interests, and cultural values mediated ideas, interpretations, and responses to weather and climate in the past. The climate has long been an ambiguous, fraught, and contested sign of historical change. (p.16)


(1.) Samuel Williams to Joseph Banks, September 16,1789, Box 2, Folder 28, Samuel Williams Papers, Special Collections, University of Vermont Library (cf. BL Add. Mss. 8097.358); Samuel Williams, The Natural and Civil History of Vermont (Rutland, VT, 1794), 43–46 (New Haven to Burlington, migration and vegetation), 57 (cold decreases), 60–61 (ground temperatures); “Change of Climate in North America and Europe” (unpublished manuscript [ca. 1790]), Box 1, Folder 10, Samuel Williams Papers, 1752–1794, HUM 8, Harvard University Archives; (p.177) Samuel Williams Family Papers, Ms AM 2624, Houghton Library (Cambridge to Springfield); David C. Cassidy, “Meteorology in Mannheim: The Palatine Meteorological Society, 1780–1795,” Sudhoffs Archiv 69(1) (1985), 24.

(2.) Hubert H. Lamb, The Changing Climate: Selected Papers (London: Methuen, 1966); H. C. Fritts and J. M. Lough, “An Estimate of Average Annual Temperature Variations for North America, 1602 to 1961,” Climatic Change 7(2) (1985), 203–224; Daniel Houle, Jean-David Moore, and Jean Provencher, “Ice Bridges on the St. Lawrence River as an Index of Winter Severity from 1620 to 1910,” Journal of Climate 20 (2007), 757–764; Shaun A. Marcott et al., “A Reconstruction of Regional and Global Temperature for the Past 11,300 Years,” Science 339, 1198 (2013); John F. Richards, The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), Chap. 1; Paul N. Edwards, A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010); Thomas M. Wickman, “Snowshoe Country: Indians, Colonists, and Winter Spaces of Power in the Northeast, 1620–1727” (unpublished PhD dissertation, Harvard University, 2012); Katherine A. Grandjean, “New World Tempests: Environment, Scarcity, and the Coming of the Pequot War,” William and Mary Quarterly 68(1) (2011), 75–100; Geoffrey Parker, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change, and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 445–456; Sam White, “The Real Little Ice Age,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 44 (2013), 327–352; William R. Baron, “1816 in Perspective: The View from the Northeastern United States,” in C. R. Harrington, ed., The Year Without a Summer? World Climate in 1816 (Ottawa: Canadian Museum of Nature, 1992), 124–144.

(3.) Gregory A. Zielinski and Barry D. Keim, New England Weather, New England Climate (Hanover, NH: University of New England Press, 2003), 231–256; William R. Baron, “Historical Climate Records from the Northeastern United States, 1640–1900,” in Raymond S. Bradley and Philip D. Jones, eds., Climate Since A.D. 1500 (New York: Routledge, 1995),74–91.

(4.) Benjamin Franklin to Ezra Stiles, May 29, 1763, in Labaree, ed.,The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. 10, 264–267; Hugh Williamson, “An Attempt to Account for the Change of Climate, Which has Been Observed in the Middle Colonies of North-America,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 1 (Jan. 1, 1769–Jan. 1, 1771), 277–280; “Notes on the State of Virginia” (Manuscript, 1781–1785), Thomas Jefferson Papers, MHS.

(5.) Clarence J. Glacken, Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought From Ancient Times to the Present (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), Aristotle quoted on 94–95; James R. Fleming, Historical Perspectives on Climate Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998); Anthony Pagden, Lords of All the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain. Britain, and France, c. 1500–c. 1800 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995).

(6.) Karen O. Kupperman, “The Puzzle of the American Climate in the Early Colonial Period,” American Historical Review 87(5) (1982), 1262–1289.

(7.) On native horticulture and land use in the region before and after colonization, see William E. Doolittle, Cultivated Landscapes of Native North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Elizabeth S. Chilton, “The Origin and Spread of Maize (Zea mays) in New England,” in John E. Staller et al., eds., Histories of Maize: Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Prehistory, Linguistics, Biogeography, Domestication, and Evolution of Maize (Boston: Elsevier Academic, 2006), 539–547; David Demeritt, “Agriculture, Climate, and Cultural Adaptation in the Prehistoric Northeast,” Archaeology of Eastern North America 19 (Fall 1991), 183–202; William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 2003 [1983]).

(8.) Timothy Dwight, Travels in New England and New York (New Haven, CT, 1821), Vol. 1, 105.

(9.) Robert Boyle, General Heads for the Natural History of a Country Great or Small Drawn Out for the Use of Travellers and Navigators (London, 1691), 2–3; Jan Golinski, British Weather and the Climate of Enlightenment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007); Vladimir Jankovic, Reading the Skies: A Cultural History of English Weather, 1650–1820 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), Chap. 4. In the early nineteenth century, the British writer Luke Howard proposed Linnaean nomenclature for classifying cloud formations. See Luke Howard, On the Modification of Clouds, 3rd ed. (London, 1864 [1803]).

(10.) George-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, Histoire Naturelle: générale et particulière. Des époques de la nature, vol. 5 (Paris, 1778), 1 (“dans l'histoire naturelle, il faut fouiller les archives du monde”); Rhoda Rappaport, When Geologists Were Historians, 1665–1750 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997); Martin J. S. Rudwick, Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005). The Anglophone scholarship on Buffon has focused mainly on his remarks about the degenerative effects of the New World’s climates. See Antonello Gerbi, The Dispute of the New World: The History of a Polemic, 1750–1900, Rev. ed. translated by Jeremy Moyle (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973); Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, How to Write the History of the New World: Histories, Epistomologies, and Identities in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001).

(11.) Michael A. Osborne, “Acclimatizing the World: A History of the Paradigmatic Colonial Science,” in Roy M. MacLeod, ed., “Nature and Empire: Science and the Colonial Enterprise,” Osiris, 2d ser., 15 (2000), 136–139; Joyce E. Chaplin, Subject Matter: Technology, the Body, and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier, 1500–1676 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), Chapter 4.

(12.) William Bradford, History of Plymouth Plantation,1606–1646, William T. Davis, ed. (New York: Scribner, 1908), 55 (small discontentments), 96 (hideous); (p.179) Philip Vincent, A True Relation of the Late Battle Fought between the English and the Pequot Savages … With the Present State of Things There (London, 1638), 2–3; John Winthrop, Reasons to be Considered for Justifying the Undertakers of the Intended Plantation in New England (London,1629); David D. Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (New York: Knopf, 1989), 166–167; Stewart H. Holbrook, The Yankee Exodus: An Account of Migration from New England (New York: Macmillan, 1950), 1–3.

(13.) Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Routledge, 2001), esp. Chap. 5; Perry Miller, Errand Into the Wilderness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984 [1956]); Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System II: Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World Economy, 1600–1750 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011 [1980], 179.

(14.) For the regional variant of what Jan de Vries has called the moral peasant/acquisitive peasant debate, see Richard L. Bushman, “Markets and Composite Farms in Early America,” William and Mary Quarterly 55 (1998), 351–374; Darrett B. Rutman, “Governor Winthrop’s Garden Crop: The Significance of Agriculture in the Early Commerce of Massachusetts Bay,” William and Mary Quarterly 20(3) (1963), 396–415; James Henretta, “Families and Farms: Mentalité in Early America,” William and Mary Quarterly 35 (1978), 3–32; Winifred Rothenberg, From Market-Places to a Market Economy: The Transformation of Rural Massachusetts, 1750–1850 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); Allan Kulikoff, “Households and Markets: Towards a New Synthesis of American Agrarian History,” William and Mary Quarterly 50 (1993), 340–355; Christine Heyrman, Commerce and Culture: The Maritime Communities of Colonial Massachusetts, 1690–1750 (New York: Norton, 1984); Stephen Innes, Creating the Commonwealth: The Economic Culture of Puritan New England (New York: Norton, 1995). For Nova Scotia, see Beatrice Craig, Backwoods Consumers and Homespun Capitalists: The Rise of Market Culture in Eastern Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009); Danny Samson, The Spirit of Industry and Improvement: Liberal Government and Rural-Industrial Society, Nova Scotia, 1790–1862 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008).

(15.) Cronon, Changes in the Land; Ted Steinberg, Nature Incorporated: Industrialization and the Waters of New England (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991); Carolyn Merchant, Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989); Brian Donahue, The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004).

(16.) Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Thomas Dunlap, Nature and the English Diaspora: Environment and History in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Mark Harrison, Climates and Constitutions: Health, Race, Environment (p.180) and British Imperialism in India (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); J. R. McNeill, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620–1914 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010). Besides the recent swell of studies placing early American history in the broader chronology of the Little Ice Age, exceptions to these generalizations include Kupperman, “Puzzle of the American Climate”; “Chaplin, Subject Matter; Wickman, “Snowshoe Country”; and Michael R. Hill, “Temperateness, Temperance, and the Tropics: Climate and Morality in the English Atlantic World, 1555–1705,” (unpublished PhD dissertation, Georgetown University, 2013).

(17.) “Nicholson and the Council of War at Annapolis Royal to the Queen,” [?]‌ Oct. 1710, PRO, CO 5:9; Dwight, Travels in New England and New York, Vol. 1, 65 (northern temperate zone).

(18.) On the history of agricultural improvement, see Harriet Ritvo, Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987); Richard Drayton, Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain and the Improvement of the World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000); Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, Enlightenment’s Frontier: The Scottish Highlands and the Origins of Environmentalism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013).

(19.) Richard White, “It’s your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A History of the American West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), 150–154, 196; Robert Grant Haliburton, The Men of the North and Their Place in History (Montreal, 1869), 2; Vilhjalmur Stefansson, The Northward Course of Empire (New York: Harcourt, 1922); Agnes C. Laut, Canada: The Empire of the North (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1909); Charles Pickering, The Races of Man and Their Geographical Distribution (Philadelphia, 1848); Mart A. Stewart, “‘Let Us Begin with the Weather’: Climate, Race, and Cultural Distinctiveness in the American South,” in Mikulas Teich, Roy Porter, and Bo Gustafsson, eds. Nature and Society in Historical Context (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 240–256; Warwick Anderson, The Cultivation of Whiteness: Science, Health, and Racial Destiny in Australia (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2005); Alison Bashford and Carolyn Strange, Griffith Taylor: Visionary Environmentalist Explorer (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2008).

(20.) Naomi Oreskes, “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” Science 306 (December 2004), 1686; Jane McAdam, Climate Change, Forced Migration, and International Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Candis Callison, How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

(21.) Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35 (Winter 2009), 197–222; idem, “Climate and Capital: On Conjoined Histories,” Critical Inquiry 41(1) (Autumn 2014), 1–23; cf. Fabien Locher and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, “Modernity’s Frail Climate: A Climate History of Environmental Reflexivity,” Critical Inquiry 38(3) (Spring 2012), 579–598.