Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature

Paperback (Print)
Buy New
Buy New from BN.com
$20.88
Used and New from Other Sellers
Used and New from Other Sellers
from $15.98
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
(Save 40%)
Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (14) from $15.98   
  • New (10) from $15.98   
  • Used (4) from $15.99   

Overview

"Graham Burnett's pathbreaking book teems with lively accounts of a notorious legal conflict between different kinds of people and different kinds of knowledge played out in New York in the early years of the nineteenth century. Disputes like these vividly illuminate the preoccupations of past societies and make us more conscious of our own. An important and thoroughly engaging book."—Janet Browne, author of Charles Darwin: The Power of Place

"'Is a whale a fish?' Melville famously wrestled with the question in Moby-Dick, but as Graham Burnett reveals in Trying Leviathan, the question had already been argued in—of all places—a Manhattan courtroom in 1818. In addition to providing a fascinating and provocative look at the relationship between science and culture in early nineteenth-century New York, Burnett writes eloquently about how the whalemen regarded their mysterious and awe-inspiring prey. This is a fun, surprising, and, in the best sense, challenging book."—Nathaniel Philbrick, author of In the Heart of the Sea

"Trying Leviathan recounts a remarkable collision of science and law in a New York City courtroom in 1818. Burnett brilliantly parses the case both inside and outside the court, exploring the conflicts it aroused between learned taxonomists and sea-leathered whalers, practical businessmen and everyday citizens. A compelling, provocative work."—Daniel Kevles, Yale University

"In this irresistible narrative, full of fascinating characters, Graham Burnett has given us a brilliant, imaginative, often amusing, wonderfully realized study that brings together questions of epistemology, the relation of observation to theory, the era's worship of nature and simultaneous commercial exploitation of it, claims of class to intellectual authority, and the relation of expertise to democracy."—Thomas Bender, New York University

"I can't remember reading a more intelligent and well-written book than Graham Burnett's Trying Leviathan. He is a brilliant writer, and he has transformed a nineteenth-century legal battle over the taxonomic classification of whales into a wonderful and engaging book."—Richard Ellis, author of Men and Whales

"Burnett shows the conflicted heart of nineteenth-century American science by looking at the complicated, amusing, and well-publicized trial of Maurice v. Judd, in which the question at stake was whether a whale is a fish. This makes a fascinating story, Burnett writes uncommonly well, and the final chapter is one of the most interesting pieces on popular science that I have ever read. Trying Leviathan is a powerful and brilliant addition to the history of American science and culture."—James Gilbert, University of Maryland

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

The Boston Globe
In 1818, in a New York City courtroom, the case of Maurice v. Judd posed an apparently straightforward question: Was whale oil fish oil, and therefore subject to state inspection and taxation? As expert witnesses testified, however, the trial quickly became a passionate public debate on the order of nature and the supremacy of man. In the fascinating Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature, D. Graham Burnett describes the trial, its undercurrents, and its repercussions with sublime wit and consummate skill.
— Anna Mundow
The Village Voice
As D. Graham Burnett notes in his curious new history, Trying Leviathan, ...[t]he vast majority of American not only assumed that a whale was a fish, but were surprised to learn that the question could be debated. ...Burnett describes the trial with the keen eye of an informed courtroom observer...
— Alexander Nazaryan
The Pacific Circle
The book is well organized and fully documented. Burnett's many notes suggest significant research. It will be attractive to historians of many different topics, or sub-fields, which the author explores with much creativity. . . . An extensive bibliography and a generously organized index complete this book. It is a very important contribution to the relationship between science and society in the early years of American nation-building and nationalism.
— Ubiriatan D'Ambrosio
Austin American Statesman

Burnett has a lot of fun with the trial and notes that it's not only scientists who speak a foreign language.
— Roger Gathman
New York Times - Sam Roberts
Trying Leviathan isn't just another fish story....[H]is story is riveting, one of those wonderful obscure microcosmic matters.
The Boston Globe - Anna Mundow
In 1818, in a New York City courtroom, the case of Maurice v. Judd posed an apparently straightforward question: Was whale oil fish oil, and therefore subject to state inspection and taxation? As expert witnesses testified, however, the trial quickly became a passionate public debate on the order of nature and the supremacy of man. In the fascinating Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature, D. Graham Burnett describes the trial, its undercurrents, and its repercussions with sublime wit and consummate skill.
New York Observer - Glenn C. Altschuler
At once bewitching and bookish, with a Dickensian cast of characters (including a sea captain named Preserved Fish), Trying Leviathan bristles with insights about the relationships between popular belief, democracy, science and the law that resonate with contemporary controversies over Darwinism and intelligent design.
Nature - Henry Nicholls
When the Catholic Church put Galileo on trial for his heretic views, man's position in the Universe was at stake. When schoolteacher John Scopes entered a Tennessee courtroom in 1925 for violating the state's anti-evolution statute, the issue was man's relationship to the animal kingdom. It's hard to imagine that a case brought by a Manhattan fish-oil inspector against a purveyor of whale oil could end up in similar territory. As D. Graham Burnett's enthralling book demonstrates, it did just that...Burnett curates the abundant quotations with skill and strengthens his thesis with some marvellous contemporary illustrations. His clear writing and delightful detours help build a sense of suspense at the outcome of the trial. All of which makes this serious book an unexpected page-turner.
The Village Voice - Alexander Nazaryan
As D. Graham Burnett notes in his curious new history, Trying Leviathan, ...[t]he vast majority of American not only assumed that a whale was a fish, but were surprised to learn that the question could be debated. ...Burnett describes the trial with the keen eye of an informed courtroom observer...
Seattle Times - David B. Williams
In taking Maurice v. Judd and fleshing out the details of the economics, natural history and politics of the day, Burnett offers a fascinating look into the early culture of science. We in the enlightened 21st century may laugh at the scientific ignorance of our forebears. But consider the debate about science in our times when many doubt the overwhelming scientific evidence for evolution, climate change and the age of the Earth.
Financial Times - Jerome de Groot
Is the whale a fish? This seemingly arcane question was at stake in the 1819 New York court case Maurice v. Judd. If the whale was not a fish, its oil would not be subject to the same taxation. But as D. Graham Burnett entertainingly and ably demonstrates, this case was about far more than tax. It turned on questions of taxonomy and classification, giving the scholar insight into the ways the new science of comparative anatomy worked in the public and legal imagination...Burnett's micro-history of the trial offers a careful archaeological study, probing both vested business interests and the relationship between the law and the academy.
Austin American-Statesman - Roger Gathman
Burnett has a lot of fun with the trial and notes that it's not only scientists who speak a foreign language.
H-Net Reviews - Diarmid Finnegan
In Trying Leviathan, D. Graham Burnett provides an account that enlivens further this already energetic historiography. The empirical meat of the book involves a detailed and well-organized reconstruction of the trial of James Maurice (inspector of 'fish oils') versus Samuel Judd (chandler), which was brought before the New York Court of Common Pleas in October 1818.
International Journal of Maritime History - Daniel Stewart
Burnett's book is a spectacular success . . . and he should be proud of it as such. For those with an antiquarian's taste there are many delicacies to be found in Trying Leviathan.
Justice of the Peace - Roderick Munday
Trying Leviathan is a truly splendid book. The book is well-written and entirely intelligible to a lay audience.
The Pacific Circle - Ubiriatan D'Ambrosio
The book is well organized and fully documented. Burnett's many notes suggest significant research. It will be attractive to historians of many different topics, or sub-fields, which the author explores with much creativity. . . . An extensive bibliography and a generously organized index complete this book. It is a very important contribution to the relationship between science and society in the early years of American nation-building and nationalism.
Technology and Culture - George O'Har
Throughout this brief book, Burnett does a wonderful job re-creating the trial and the trial atmosphere. . . . Trying Leviathan is explicated so clearly that no reader will come away empty-handed. . . . This is a book with broad appeal.
Left History - Katharine Anderson
Burnett has given us a splendid example of how to wring the historical juice from a legal case. . . . Burnett enjoys himself in writing this book, and his editors have generously indulged his style (and his footnotes). Readers should settle back and roll with the flourishes, rather than yearn for the sparse, utilitarian narrative of a whaler's log.
British Journal for the History of Science - Kristin Johnson
Burnett offers readers a fascinating episode in the history of early American science, along the way raising questions about both the authority of professional naturalists and the historiography of modern (and especially American) science.
Reports of the National Center for Science Education - Arthur M. Shapiro
[Trying Leviathan] has valuable lessons for us. It is also a terrific read.
From the Publisher
"[Trying Leviathan] has valuable lessons for us. It is also a terrific read."—Arthur M. Shapiro, Reports of the National Center for Science Education
New York Times
Trying Leviathan isn't just another fish story....[H]is story is riveting, one of those wonderful obscure microcosmic matters.
— Sam Roberts
New York Observer
At once bewitching and bookish, with a Dickensian cast of characters (including a sea captain named Preserved Fish), Trying Leviathan bristles with insights about the relationships between popular belief, democracy, science and the law that resonate with contemporary controversies over Darwinism and intelligent design.
— Glenn C. Altschuler
Nature
When the Catholic Church put Galileo on trial for his heretic views, man's position in the Universe was at stake. When schoolteacher John Scopes entered a Tennessee courtroom in 1925 for violating the state's anti-evolution statute, the issue was man's relationship to the animal kingdom. It's hard to imagine that a case brought by a Manhattan fish-oil inspector against a purveyor of whale oil could end up in similar territory. As D. Graham Burnett's enthralling book demonstrates, it did just that...Burnett curates the abundant quotations with skill and strengthens his thesis with some marvellous contemporary illustrations. His clear writing and delightful detours help build a sense of suspense at the outcome of the trial. All of which makes this serious book an unexpected page-turner.
— Henry Nicholls
Natural History
...[Burnett's] perspective on the intellectual and social climate of early-nineteenth-century America makes fascinating reading. The issues raised in Maurice v. Judd have surfaced again and again, right up to present-day battles over the teaching of intelligent design in public schools.
American Scientist
In Trying Leviathan, D. Graham Burnett links the case of Maurice v. Judd to a number of important cultural and social issues, but he consciously avoids depicting the story as a battle between learned men of science and the ignorant masses. Instead, he uses the trial as an epistemological exercise: how could Americans know at the time that whales were not fish? Who had the authority to make such a classification? How does scientific knowledge become conventional wisdom? Burnett's examination of these questions makes for one of the most intellectually rigorous fish stories ever told.
Seattle Times
In taking Maurice v. Judd and fleshing out the details of the economics, natural history and politics of the day, Burnett offers a fascinating look into the early culture of science. We in the enlightened 21st century may laugh at the scientific ignorance of our forebears. But consider the debate about science in our times when many doubt the overwhelming scientific evidence for evolution, climate change and the age of the Earth.
— David B. Williams
Financial Times
Is the whale a fish? This seemingly arcane question was at stake in the 1819 New York court case Maurice v. Judd. If the whale was not a fish, its oil would not be subject to the same taxation. But as D. Graham Burnett entertainingly and ably demonstrates, this case was about far more than tax. It turned on questions of taxonomy and classification, giving the scholar insight into the ways the new science of comparative anatomy worked in the public and legal imagination...Burnett's micro-history of the trial offers a careful archaeological study, probing both vested business interests and the relationship between the law and the academy.
— Jerome de Groot
Science News
What makes this case so important, the author argues, is that it serves as a vehicle for investigating whales as 'problems of knowledge,' offers a window on the often contentious world of taxonomy, and reveals how the 19th-century public viewed natural history.
Austin American-Statesman
Burnett has a lot of fun with the trial and notes that it's not only scientists who speak a foreign language.
— Roger Gathman
H-Net Reviews
In Trying Leviathan, D. Graham Burnett provides an account that enlivens further this already energetic historiography. The empirical meat of the book involves a detailed and well-organized reconstruction of the trial of James Maurice (inspector of 'fish oils') versus Samuel Judd (chandler), which was brought before the New York Court of Common Pleas in October 1818.
— Diarmid Finnegan
International Journal of Maritime History
Burnett's book is a spectacular success . . . and he should be proud of it as such. For those with an antiquarian's taste there are many delicacies to be found in Trying Leviathan.
— Daniel Stewart
Justice of the Peace
Trying Leviathan is a truly splendid book. The book is well-written and entirely intelligible to a lay audience.
— Roderick Munday
Technology and Culture
Throughout this brief book, Burnett does a wonderful job re-creating the trial and the trial atmosphere. . . . Trying Leviathan is explicated so clearly that no reader will come away empty-handed. . . . This is a book with broad appeal.
— George O'Har
Left History
Burnett has given us a splendid example of how to wring the historical juice from a legal case. . . . Burnett enjoys himself in writing this book, and his editors have generously indulged his style (and his footnotes). Readers should settle back and roll with the flourishes, rather than yearn for the sparse, utilitarian narrative of a whaler's log.
— Katharine Anderson
British Journal for the History of Science
Burnett offers readers a fascinating episode in the history of early American science, along the way raising questions about both the authority of professional naturalists and the historiography of modern (and especially American) science.
— Kristin Johnson
Reports of the National Center for Science Education
[Trying Leviathan] has valuable lessons for us. It is also a terrific read.
— Arthur M. Shapiro
New York Times
Trying Leviathan isn't just another fish story....[H]is story is riveting, one of those wonderful obscure microcosmic matters.
— Sam Roberts
The Village Voice
As D. Graham Burnett notes in his curious new history, Trying Leviathan, ...[t]he vast majority of American not only assumed that a whale was a fish, but were surprised to learn that the question could be debated. ...Burnett describes the trial with the keen eye of an informed courtroom observer...
— Alexander Nazaryan
Financial Times
Is the whale a fish? This seemingly arcane question was at stake in the 1819 New York court case Maurice v. Judd. If the whale was not a fish, its oil would not be subject to the same taxation. But as D. Graham Burnett entertainingly and ably demonstrates, this case was about far more than tax. It turned on questions of taxonomy and classification, giving the scholar insight into the ways the new science of comparative anatomy worked in the public and legal imagination...Burnett's micro-history of the trial offers a careful archaeological study, probing both vested business interests and the relationship between the law and the academy.
— Jerome de Groot
The Boston Globe
In 1818, in a New York City courtroom, the case of Maurice v. Judd posed an apparently straightforward question: Was whale oil fish oil, and therefore subject to state inspection and taxation? As expert witnesses testified, however, the trial quickly became a passionate public debate on the order of nature and the supremacy of man. In the fascinating Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature, D. Graham Burnett describes the trial, its undercurrents, and its repercussions with sublime wit and consummate skill.
— Anna Mundow
Natural History
...[Burnett's] perspective on the intellectual and social climate of early-nineteenth-century America makes fascinating reading. The issues raised in Maurice v. Judd have surfaced again and again, right up to present-day battles over the teaching of intelligent design in public schools.
American Scientist
In Trying Leviathan, D. Graham Burnett links the case of Maurice v. Judd to a number of important cultural and social issues, but he consciously avoids depicting the story as a battle between learned men of science and the ignorant masses. Instead, he uses the trial as an epistemological exercise: how could Americans know at the time that whales were not fish? Who had the authority to make such a classification? How does scientific knowledge become conventional wisdom? Burnett's examination of these questions makes for one of the most intellectually rigorous fish stories ever told.
Technology and Culture
Throughout this brief book, Burnett does a wonderful job re-creating the trial and the trial atmosphere. . . . Trying Leviathan is explicated so clearly that no reader will come away empty-handed. . . . This is a book with broad appeal.
— George O'Har
Seattle Times
In taking Maurice v. Judd and fleshing out the details of the economics, natural history and politics of the day, Burnett offers a fascinating look into the early culture of science. We in the enlightened 21st century may laugh at the scientific ignorance of our forebears. But consider the debate about science in our times when many doubt the overwhelming scientific evidence for evolution, climate change and the age of the Earth.
— David B. Williams
New York Observer
At once bewitching and bookish, with a Dickensian cast of characters (including a sea captain named Preserved Fish), Trying Leviathan bristles with insights about the relationships between popular belief, democracy, science and the law that resonate with contemporary controversies over Darwinism and intelligent design.
— Glenn C. Altschuler
H-Net Reviews
In Trying Leviathan, D. Graham Burnett provides an account that enlivens further this already energetic historiography. The empirical meat of the book involves a detailed and well-organized reconstruction of the trial of James Maurice (inspector of 'fish oils') versus Samuel Judd (chandler), which was brought before the New York Court of Common Pleas in October 1818.
— Diarmid Finnegan
International Journal of Maritime History
Burnett's book is a spectacular success . . . and he should be proud of it as such. For those with an antiquarian's taste there are many delicacies to be found in Trying Leviathan.
— Daniel Stewart
Reports of the National Center for Science Education
[Trying Leviathan] has valuable lessons for us. It is also a terrific read.
— Arthur M. Shapiro
Justice of the Peace
Trying Leviathan is a truly splendid book. The book is well-written and entirely intelligible to a lay audience.
— Roderick Munday
Publishers Weekly

It's science itself that was put on trial in 1818 in a dispute over a $75 inspection fee, as related in this fascinating account. Burnett (Masters of All They Surveyed), director of Princeton's history of science program, illuminates the convergence of commerce, science and shifting views of the natural world and human exploitation of it. The case of Maurice v. Juddarose from merchant Samuel Judd's refusal to pay the inspector's fee on three casks of spermaceti oil, claiming inspection was required only for fish oil, not whale oil. The jury heard the case in a "gloriously feisty public forum" as the Linnaean classification system was debated, with Samuel Latham Mitchill, a local "patriarch of natural history," testifying that the whale was indeed not a fish. The plaintiff's lawyers argued against a system that said whales, monkeys and humans were related, and raised the threat to civil order if scientists were allowed to interpret legal statutes. Burnett's look at the trial and its fallout adds a historical dimension to debates caused by science's role in the legal sphere, especially when it introduces new concepts. 16 pages of color illus., 19 b&w illus. (Dec.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691146157
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 1/24/2010
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 2.20 (d)

Meet the Author


D. Graham Burnett is associate professor of history at Princeton University and an editor at "Cabinet" magazine. His books include "Masters of All They Surveyed" and "A Trial by Jury".
Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt

Trying Leviathan The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature
By D. Graham Burnett Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2007
Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-12950-1


Chapter One Introduction

The Peace Offering That Stank

On the 9th of November, 1819 the distinguished New York physician-naturalist, Samuel Latham Mitchill, received at his Barclay Street chambers a malodorous packet containing an over-ripe orange file fish (Aluterus schoepfii, Walbaum, 1792) that had run afoul of a Long Island boating party several days earlier and had succumbed to "the stroke of an oar" on the beach near Bowery Cove. This rank offering arrived in the company of an explanatory letter from the Irish Jacobin lawyer William Sampson, the doctor's fellow member of the Literary and Philosophical Society of New-York, and his sometime adversary in the courts of the city.

"The fish begins to have an ancient and more than fish like smell," wrote Sampson by way of greeting, and he continued, "I send it to you, that you may either pass judgement upon it or record its characters before it undergoes more alteration." Could the specimen be a hitherto unknown species, something strange and new? To assist Mitchill on this question, Sampson had gone so far as to enclose a "colored drawing" prepared by his daughter to capture the creature's appearance in its fresher state.

Dr. Mitchill knew better, and he made aterse note overleaf, identifying the genus and species. Not only was it not new, Mitchill himself had already published on it, and in his annotation on the letter he cited his 1815 monograph on "The Fishes of New-York," writing across the covering flap, "... already described in the Lit. & Ph. Transactions of NY."

It was, in a way, a familiar ritual. Mitchill's ichthyological knowledge was, by 1819, legendary in New York and beyond, so much so that he could be satirized in doggerel in the New York papers as the "Phlo'bombos of our Icthyology [sic]," a title cobbled out of Mitchill's inelegant (if erudite) neologism for Robert Fulton's wondrous new invention, the steamboat, which the doctor proposed might properly be known as the "phlogobombos." Moreover, Mitchill's boosterism for natural-historical investigation in the young Republic had garnered him an expansive circle of correspondents who frequently sent him unusual animals, plants, and rocks as accessions to his collections, or for classificatory consultations. Mitchill-who would go on to be memorialized as the "Nestor of American Science"-had lectured on zoology at Columbia College and at the College of Physicians and Surgeons from their inceptions, and he was famous for offering his students a Cuvier-esque declaration of his taxonomic mastery of sea creatures, announcing boldly to them, "Show me a fin, and I will point out the fish." Nor was this simply the encyclopedism of a cabinet natural historian, one who hid among his dusty books and old specimens: Mitchill was well known for taking his ichthyology to the street. A familiar of the New York fish market, he brought his students to the docks to practice their skills of identification on the catch of the day, and he boasted that more than half of the new fish species he had discovered could be found in that piscatorial emporium.

But this particular specimen of New York waters represented more than just another missive from some friendly fisherman. This fish, rightly understood, was nothing less than a subtle peace offering from the legal establishment of the city. For that boating party on Bowery Cove had included not only the highly visible attorney, belletrist, and serial pamphleteer Sampson, but also Richard Riker, the City Recorder, who sat as the presiding official in most of the trials held in the Mayor's Court of New York City. Together these two men had elected to deliver their odd catch up to Mitchill "as a tribute to science and a token of continuing friendship." Swelling to oratorical excess (as he was wont to do), Sampson, Mitchill's "humble servant," sang the praises of New York's philosopher-king:

What an empire is that of a man of learning. The King of England by his prerogative gets royal fish and very few indeed of them. You get from all quarters the willing tribute of sea and land, and I sincerely hope this that we send may be an acquisition to you and an addition of the stock of knowledge you have treasured up for mankind, and with which you have so much enriched science and the arts.

It was an elegant rhetorical flourish, this invocation of the "royal fish" of the English Crown, and a delicately oblique gesture at the subtext of Sampson's letter. The "royal fish" was, as any Edinburgh-trained ichthyologist (or Lincoln Inn lawyer) knew, the whale, which had been the special possession of the throne since the fourteenth century. For the English, a king, and for that king, tribute in the form of each beached whale; for the citizens of the land Mitchill had dubbed "Fredonia," no royal prerogatives, only the preeminence of Jefferson-style political sages (like Mitchill, himself a former senator and a state representative, with almost a decade of service in Washington), men whose leadership would forever be founded on an intimacy with the natural productions of American shores. For Mitchill, then, philosophical tribute in the form of a wizened file fish from the Fredonian strand.

Under ordinary circumstances the courtesy might have seemed strained (if not odd), the conceit labored. But Mitchill would have had no difficulty understanding the allusion: Sampson was offering, in the stinking packet, in the elaborate invocation of the Praerogativa Regis, a small token of deference to the man who had recently become the butt of considerable public ridicule where whales and fish were concerned, ridicule occasioned by a very public zoological showdown with Sampson himself.

For on the 30th of December of 1818 Mitchill had appeared in the packed chambers of the Mayor's Court in City Hall as the star witness in the case of James Maurice v. Samuel Judd, a dispute arising under a New York State statute that obliged purveyors of "fish oils" to ensure that their casks had been gauged, inspected, and certified. Maurice v. Judd had taken shape earlier that year, in the sweltering summer, when the well-known candle maker and oil merchant, Samuel Judd, had refused to pay the inspector's fee on three casks of spermaceti oil- protesting that the oil was not "fish oil" but "whale oil" and that whales were not, in fact, fish. The inspector, James Maurice, gave a derisive snort (whales not fish? ha!) and issued Judd a summons. The stage was thus set for a legal action that would ballot twelve sworn jurors to determine whether, in the state of New York, a whale was a fish. Sampson represented the plaintiff, Maurice, who was suing to collect the statutory fines. Mitchill, ichthyologist extraordinaire, appeared as the heart of the defense, carrying the standard of modern taxonomy. The recorder, Richard Riker, presided as judge. This two-day trial, which became a pageant of natural historical erudition and a sensational agon for settling natural and social order, would represent a remarkable instance of science at the bar in the nineteenth century, and it would live in popular memory and in the works of classifying naturalists for decades, not least because of William Sampson's transcript of the trial, Is a Whale a Fish? An Accurate Report of the Case of James Maurice against Samuel Judd. This pamphlet appeared in bookshops in the summer of 1819.

The autumn of 1819 was thus a very suitable moment for the author of Is a Whale a Fish? (which would open Mitchill to new ribbing) to make gracious gestures toward one of the most powerful and politically connected men of learning in the city of New York.

Maurice V. Judd and the History of Science

This book takes up the unusual case of Maurice v. Judd, reconstructing the trial itself from available published and manuscript sources, rehearsing (wherever possible) the biographies of the persons involved, tracing textual allusions and references, situating the legal, political, and scientific arguments made in the proceedings, and detailing the public response to, and enduring legacy of, this event. Broadly, I aim to recover the trial and reveal its larger historical significance.

Why bother? This case merits the reader's attention for three reasons. First (and most narrowly), Maurice v. Judd represents a telling episode in the history of science in the early Republic, and in New York in particular. Where New York itself is concerned, the trial sheds light on the status of "philosophy" (and "philosophers") in general, and natural history specifically, during critical years in the emergence of the city's learned institutions and intellectual culture. Broadening the focus to the Republic as a whole, the case invites us to revise a dominant theme in the literature treating the history of the natural sciences in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century, a theme that relentlessly emphasizes the way that natural history served as a tool (and proxy) for an emerging "American identity" rooted in a kind of nature-nationalism. Qualifications to this thesis are overdue.

Second, this case offers a unique point of departure for a more general consideration of cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) as "problems of knowledge" in the early nineteenth century. In these years whaling in the open ocean was rapidly becoming the young Republic's strongest claim to global preeminence and indefatigable enterprise. As early as 1775 Edmund Burke had pontificated in Parliament that the Yankee whalemen were sweeping the globe, and humiliating British seafarers with their daring. By the 1840s some 600 American whaling vessels were plying the Pacific, vanguards of U.S. geopolitical ambitions, and a major source of national wealth. In short, whales mattered to the early United States. And at stake in the trial of Maurice v. Judd was the essential nature of these unusual (and economically vital) animals-their form, habits, and place in the natural order. For this reason the testimony of different witnesses-European-educated men of science like Mitchill, New England whalemen, merchants and agents in the whaling industry, artisans and craftsmen accustomed to work with whale products- provides unique insights into who knew what about these creatures, and how they authorized their claims. In this book, then, the trial will afford the occasion for several brief departures, detours, loops out and away from the courtroom, in which we pause to consider, for instance, what whalers knew about the anatomy, physiology, and natural history of their quarry during this period. Other similar issues will receive attention: Where could New Yorkers (like the members of the jury) have seen whales or whale parts in 1818? What was the status of the whale in parlors, primers, and schools in the period? Such digressions and amplifications will help contextualize the trial itself, even as they offer opportunities for a walk though the world of learning in the early Republic.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Maurice v. Judd will serve as a window onto the contested territory of zoological classification in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here whales are only part of the story, albeit a more important part than has generally been recognized. According to a dominant narrative in the history of science, the second half of the eighteenth century represents the golden age of the classifying imagination, the period during which, under the presiding spirit of Linnaeus, nomenclature and systematic taxonomy reduced the oozy, Protean organism of the Renaissance world to a proper natural order, an order in which things had names and places in schematic hierarchies that were themselves (to a greater or lesser degree) reflections of the nature of things. By the early nineteenth century, as this account goes, the labors of the enlightened classifiers had settled the lineaments of this natural tableau, and in so doing created the conditions of possibility for a series of iconoclastic and revisionist theories of the living and non-living world-theories less wedded to fixity and rigid types, and more interested in accounting for time, change, and the genealogy of a world increasingly seen as deeply, rather than superficially, contingent (cue the Darwinian revolution). In an imaginative series of essays published as The Platypus and the Mermaid, Harriet Ritvo has worked to destabilize this familiar account of the "heroic age of scientific classification." It is her claim that historians of science have largely overlooked "quite a different zoological enterprise-one in which consensus was rare, in which authority was uncertain and fragmented, and in which the very principles behind the construction of taxonomic systems and the assignment of individual species to their niches were vaguely defined and of obscure or questionable provenance." By focusing on problematic cases and anomalous organisms, and by situating the debates of learned classifiers in the broader context of lay expertise among turn-of-the-century English animal breeders, hunters, farmers, and fanciers, Ritvo is able to suggest that, as she puts it, "a great deal remained up for grabs" in the period:

To participants in a project conventionally hailed as demonstrating the intellectual conquest of nature, the internal history of zoological classification might seem as much a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of competing systems and principles, as a steady evolution and collaboration of a dominant paradigm.

Ritvo's discussion of broader public resistance to Linnaean classification certainly enriches our sense of the period, revealing that, to many literate Britons, the classificatory sciences looked less like philosophy rampant than philosophy rudderless. But she has still bigger fish to fry: it is her more ambitious assertion that the "membrane" between specialist and lay communities was, as she puts it, "highly permeable in both directions." To support this argument she gathers evidence that certain significant categories of analysis-for instance "savage" and "domestic"-amounted to "taxonomic differentia smuggled into systematic zoology from a lay world of utilitarian and anthropocentric discrimination." To the degree that she succeeds here, Ritvo's "bottom up" history of systematics does more than provide a nuanced cultural history of the classificatory sciences in pre-Origin Britain; it has the potential to shed valuable light on issues central to the content of the sciences of life in the nineteenth century-saliently, Darwin's ideas about hybridity and artificial selection.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Trying Leviathan by D. Graham Burnett
Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

List of Figures xi

Chapter One: Introduction 1
The Peace Offering That Stank 1
Maurice v. Judd and the History of Science 5
From Dock to Docket 14

Chapter Two: Common Sense 19
Manhattan and Its Whales 19

Chapter Three: The Philosophical Whale 44
Samuel Latham Mitchill and Natural History in New York City 44
“No More a Fish than a Man” 61
Taxonomy at the Bar 72

Chapter Four: Naturalists in the Crow’s Nest 95
What the Whalemen Knew 95

Chapter Five: Men of Affairs 145
The Whale in the Swamp 145

Chapter Six: The Jury Steps Out 166
The Knickerbockers Slay a Yankee Whale 166
Who Decides Who Decides? 167
Picking Up the Pisces 178

Chapter Seven: Conclusion 190
New Science, New York, New Nation 190
Epilogue:Whales and Fish, Philosophers and Historians, Science and Society 210

Acknowledgments 223
Bibliography 225
Index 247

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(0)

4 Star

(0)

3 Star

(0)

2 Star

(0)

1 Star

(0)

Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Noble.com Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at BN.com or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation

Reminder:

  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & Noble.com and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Noble.com Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & Noble.com reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & Noble.com also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on BN.com. It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

 
Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)