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

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

ISBN13: 9780691129501
ISBN10: 0691129509
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Synopses & Reviews

Publisher Comments:


In Moby-Dick, Ishmael declares, Be it known that, waiving all argument, I take the good old fashioned ground that a whale is a fish, and call upon holy Jonah to back me. Few readers today know just how much argument Ishmael is waiving aside. In fact, Melville's antihero here takes sides in one of the great controversies of the early nineteenth century, one that ultimately had to be resolved in the courts of New York City.

In Trying Leviathan, D. Graham Burnett recovers the strange story of Maurice v. Judd, an 1818 trial that pitted the new sciences of taxonomy against the then-popular (and biblically sanctioned) view that the whale was a fish. The immediate dispute was mundane: whether whale oil was fish oil and therefore subject to state inspection. But the trial fueled a sensational public debate in which nothing less than the order of nature, and how we know it, was at stake. Burnett vividly re-creates the trial, during which a parade of experts: pea-coated whalemen, pompous philosophers, Jacobin lawyers, took the witness stand, brandishing books, drawings, and anatomical reports, and telling tall tales from whaling voyages. Falling in the middle of the century between Linnaeus and Darwin, the trial dramatized a revolutionary period that saw radical transformations in the understanding of the natural world. Out went comfortable biblical categories, and in came new sorting methods based on the minutiae of interior anatomy, and louche details about the sexual behaviors of God's creatures.

When leviathan breached in New York in 1818, this strange beast churned both the natural and social orders, and not everyone would survive.

Review:

"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. Judd arose 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." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)

Review:

"Burnett describes the trial with the keen eye of an informed courtroom observer." Alexander Nazaryan, The Village Voice

Review:

"... offers a window on the often contentious world of taxonomy." Science News

Review:

"Burnett’s micro-history of the trial offers a careful archaeological study." Jerome de Groot, Financial Times

Synopsis:

"Graham Burnetts 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 eras 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

About 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".

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 Crows 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

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Michael Barton, August 5, 2012 (view all comments by Michael Barton)
In Trying Leviathan, Burnett, a historian of science at Princeton University and author of Masters of All They Surveyed: Exploration, Geography, and a British El Dorado (UCP, 2000), explores a little known New York trial from 1818, Maurice v. Judd, in which a fish oil inspector (James Maurice) brought a candle maker and oil merchant (Samuel Judd) to court over his refusal to pay fees on whale oil (a law stated that fish oil had to be inspected for quality and purity). Maurice was represented by lawyers William Sampson and John Anthon, who desired to keep the trial about commercial regulation and away from, in Burnett’s words, the “muddy matters of taxonomy” (p. 17). Judd, whose defense included the testimony of the well-respected New York naturalist Samuel Mitchell, was represented by Robert Bogardus and William M. Price, who thought differently ��" they saw this as a taxonomic issue, and were willing to get dirty in the muddy matters (this case is also mentioned in the endnotes of Eric Jay Dolin’s Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America (W.W. Norton, 2007), pp. 384-385). What results is a splendid examination of questions about taxonomic systems, epistemology of natural historical knowledge, semantics, literary references, authority of various classes of New York citizens, and the relationship between science and society. Although the trial centers on the question of whether whale oil is fish oil, and hence if whales are fish, Burnett strives to look deeper into the reasons why the trial came to court at all, and what it meant beyond the straight science of taxonomy; he writes in his introduction: “It is perhaps cliché to assert that all taxonomy is politics, or to insist that epistemological problems are always problems of social order; Maurice v. Judd provides a striking occasion to test the viability (as well as the limits) of such sweeping claims” (p. 10).

Burnett organizes his book around three reasons why this case is important to study: the status of “philosophy” and natural history in learned institutions and intellectual culture of New York in the first quarter of the nineteenth century; the importance of whales and other cetaceans that were considered “problems of knowledge” to this period of history in the United States; and the shaky status of zoological classification, surely not one of a “golden age of the classifying imagination” (I do think I should fully read Harriet Ritvo’s The Platypus and the Mermaid: And Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination (Harvard UP, 1997) ��" I read the first chapter for an animal histories course in 2005). These considerations, and the trial’s main question in general (is a whale a fish?), are investigated by chapters devoted to what different categories of people in New York did or did not know about whales: naturalists, sailors and whalemen, artisans, merchants, and dealers in whale products, and regular folk of New York. While Mitchell thought it important to understand the authority of the first three, Sampson added the last category, considering the opinion of everyday citizens as worthy of attention.

The everyday citizens are tackled first, with Burnett concluding that a majority of people ��" whose limited contact with whales (textually or physically) included the authority of the Bible and its tripartite taxonomy (fish/water, beasts/earth, and birds/sky), popular natural history texts, the occasional strandings or moorings of whales, and the whale jaw bone of Scudder’s American Museum ��" thought of whales as fish, and it was hard to stomach that whales could be in the same category (mammals) as humans. Whales seemed to sit outside of natural history, more as curiosities than as creatures which could be easily classified. Peculiar examples of animals pointed to exceptions to the rule of classification, which damaged the authority of the new philosophy of taxonomy, brought forth mainly by the comparative anatomy of Cuvier (as being different from the Linnean-style categorization of plants or animals based on external characteristics).

Yet the naturalists, “those who philosophize,” would make the case that whales are indeed mammals, the subject of Burnett’s third chapter. Anthon, who represented the oil inspector, stated to the jurors: “Many of us may not have seen a whale,” but this should not cause us to be “led astray by the learning of philosophers” (p. 41). At issue was the authority of the naturalist and ichthyologist Samuel Mitchell, author of “The Fishes of New-York” and star witness of the defense, and in the long run, the authority of the enterprise of science itself. If common sense tells regular citizens of New York that whales are fish (for the Bible says so, and they swim in water like fish), then on what grounds should a naturalist’s erudition and, maybe, mere opinion, tell them otherwise? Since taxonomy was brought to the forefront in the case, the prosecutors sought to show that the current state of taxonomy is in question, and that there is disagreement between the learned.
Not only did Mitchell represent the “new philosophy” of classification based on comparative anatomy, but he had big ideas about a program for a patriotic, American natural history, to make New York a scientific center by popularizing the city’s natural history collections and promoting natural history to its citizens through lectures. And it was to this up and coming natural history and scientific culture that Maurice v. Judd may have owed its time in court: “through the trial flowed the strong currents of opposition to the institutions, innovations, and schemes of state-sponsored ‘philosophy.’ Science in the service of the state looked to many New Yorkers suspiciously like the state in the service of the men of science” (p. 207), while there existed an “emerging cultural and intellectual ambitions of a rising community of artisans and merchants, who were seeking support for their own institutions for the advancement of learning” (p. 203). Maurice v. Judd was more about social order in New York than it was about figuring out what a particular type of creature was (such that Burnett could have titled his book Trying Natural History, or Trying Mitchell, but Trying Leviathan sounds better).

In Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869), the naturalist Pierre Aronnax, with his apprentice Counsel, and the harpoonist Ned Land at times disagreed over not only their fate aboard Nemo’s Nautilus, but also matters of life in the sea; and while Aronnax showed erudition as to the species of plants and birds (expert knowledge), Ned Land knew how to capture and prepare them for eating (practical knowledge). Naturalists and whalemen had different ways of looking at whales, and in the fourth chapter of Trying Leviathan, Burnett investigates what whalemen knew about their prey. Two whalemen were witnesses in the trial ��" one believed whales were not fish, noting similarities with humans, and the other did, until the trial caused him to possibly think otherwise. Whalers combined physical experience with whales with texts that discussed natural history of marine mammals, which may or may not have contrasted with the views of “cabinet naturalists.” Burnett uses the logs and journals of whalemen to understand how they understood cetaceans. One way whalers thought of whales was in terms of oil; they were not solely animals, but instead storehouses of a money-making product. But they also thought of whales in terms of zoology. Important to Burnett’s look into the whaleman’s natural history is their cutting-in patterns, diagrams which depicted the methods by which a whale would be cut up, a “high-seas butchery,” in which different whales necessitated different cutting-in operations due to different anatomies ��" anatomies different from those of naturalists, an “autonomous domain of natural knowledge” (p. 118). I like Burnett’s observation that a harpoon or shaft is just as much a pointer to anatomical detail as it is a whaler’s fatal tool. But he is quick to note that such anatomical detail represented for whalemen only a “superficial anatomy,” because whalemen learned the anatomy useful to their purpose (whale oil was found in areas near the outer layer, or “blanket,” of the animal), while naturalists learned as much as they could to have as complete a picture of nature as possible. With whales referred to as fish in logbooks, whalers not considering some whales to be “whales” (semantics), and whales as whales in the water yet fish if out of water, I take it that whalers generally considered their catch as fish.

In the fifth chapter, Burnett discusses the last group worth studying, those involved in the whale product industries (mainly oil), the “men of affairs.” Although the shortest of the chapters to look at what a group of people knew about whales, it is here that Burnett teases out more motives of Maurice v. Judd. He asks what was really at stake, since the fine put on Judd was only $75. Like the Scopes Trial in 1925, Maurice v. Judd best represented a formal test case for the New York law passed in March of 1818 that authorized “the appointment of guagers [sic] and inspectors of fish oils” (p. 147), to test the scope and interpretations of “fish oil.” Dealers in oil generally understood fish oil and whale oil to be distinct, while Gideon Lee, a leather industry man who drafted the statute, desired to have all oils under the term “fish oils” inspected for purity to clean up a messy oil industry, full of “deceptions and fraud” (p. 162). Plus, fish oils were important for leather manufacture, and for Lee, “money made its own taxonomic distinctions” (p. 161). In the end, Maurice v. Judd really concerned venders of oils (those who were inspected) and purchasers of oils (the leather tanning industry) protecting their commercial interests. Animals were classified differently in this context, in what Burnett calls “taxonomies of craft and trade” (p. 164).
In the pages of the penultimate chapter of Trying Leviathan, Burnett reveals the outcome of the trial, and for that reason, I am not going to discuss it. This book was an exciting read, and Burnett brought to life for the reader many characters and their arguments in early nineteenth century New York. I think the reader deserves to find out the outcome for themselves. He pulled from a multitude of sources ��" logbooks, natural history texts, lecture notes, trial transcripts, newspaper articles, letters, and illustrations ��" representing a variety of people concerned with the trial. It’s science history, social history, intellectual history, religious history, economic history, and law history (are there any others?) all brought together to illuminate one small and largely forgotten event in American history. There is much more in this book than I could possibly share, and I am still trying to decide if Maurice v. Judd owes its occurrence to a science vs. artisans issue or a venders vs. purchasers problem in New York.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780691129501
Publisher:
Princeton University Press
Location:
Princeton
Author:
Burnett, D. Graham
Author:
Burnett, Graham
Subject:
History
Subject:
Life Sciences - Zoology - General
Subject:
United States - State & Local - Middle Atlantic
Subject:
Zoology
Subject:
History of Science and Medicine, Philosophy of Science
Subject:
American history
Subject:
American Language and Literature
Subject:
Whaling -- United States -- History.
Subject:
Maurice, James
Subject:
American literature
Subject:
World History-General
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
October 2007
Binding:
HARDCOVER
Grade Level:
College/higher education:
Language:
English
Illustrations:
16 color plates. 19 halftones.
Pages:
304
Dimensions:
9 x 6 in

Related Subjects

History and Social Science » World History » General
Science and Mathematics » Biology » Zoology » General
Science and Mathematics » History of Science » General
Science and Mathematics » Oceanography » Marine Mammals

Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature
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Product details 304 pages Princeton University Press - English 9780691129501 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "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. Judd arose 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." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review" by , "Burnett describes the trial with the keen eye of an informed courtroom observer."
"Review" by , "... offers a window on the often contentious world of taxonomy."
"Review" by , "Burnett’s micro-history of the trial offers a careful archaeological study."
"Synopsis" by , "Graham Burnetts 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 eras 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

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