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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 October 2014

Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris E-mail:


According to Gerbi's classical study, the “dispute of the New World” entered a new phase in the 1780s, one marked by voices coming from the Americas. New questions were then raised about the writing of history, its method, scope and proofs. This essay pursues a dual-track enquiry, confronting the History of America (1777) by the Presbyterian minister William Robertson, a leading figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, with the Storia antica del Messico (1780–81) by the Mexican exiled Jesuit Francisco Javier Clavijero. The two works, one written from the centre of the world's commercial expansion, the other from the Pontifical States, were engaged in a sophisticated dialogue, which yields two alternative, competing conceptions of history and of humankind. To Robertson's philosophical history, which developed from a long-distance perspective, characteristic of Enlightenment, Clavijero responded by reassessing the Jesuit and antiquarian tradition, based on closeness, local expertise and direct observation.

Forum: Closeness and Distance in the Age of Enlightenment
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1 Gerbi, Antonello, The Dispute of the New World: The History of a Polemic, 1750–1900, trans. Moyle, Jeremy (Pittsburgh, 1973; first published 1955)Google Scholar.

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14 The names of the Jesuits writing about America include Giovanni Ignacio Molina on Chile; Juan de Velasco, José Jolís and José Manuel Peramás on Quito, Paraguay and Rio de la Plata; Filippo Salvatore Gilij on Orinoco.

15 Among a very abundant literature see Cárcel, Ricardo García, La leyenda negra: Historia y opinión (Madrid, 1998)Google Scholar; Greer, Margaret R., Mignolo, Walter D. and Quilligan, Maureen, eds., Rereading the Black Legend: The Discourses of Religious and Racial Difference in the Renaissance Empires (Chicago, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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20 Voltaire, Traité de métaphysique (1734), in Voltaire, Oeuvres complètes, ed. Louis Moland, 52 vols. (Paris, 1877–85), 22: 192. Written in the 1730s but not published until the nineteenth century, the Traité aimed at pursuing the impact of Newtonianism on the science of man. The expedient of the extraterrestrial at the outset of the work was instrumental for showing, as evidence, the polygenetic origins of humankind. Voltaire employed again the image of extraterrestrials descending on the Earth in his 1752 short story Micromégas.

21 Turgot, Anne Robert Jacques, Plan d’un ouvrage sur la géographie politique, in Oeuvres de Turgot et documents le concernant, ed. Schelle, Gustave, 6 vols. (Paris, 1913–23), 1: 258–9Google Scholar.

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25 “When wishing to study men one has to look close up; but to study man one must learn to cast one's gaze afar: one must first observe the differences in order to discover the properties.” Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Essai sur l’origine des langues, ed. Kremer-Marietti, Angèle (Paris, 1974), 192–4Google Scholar.

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29 Robertson's plan of writing about British America was in fact interrupted by the explosion of the Revolution.

30 Hartog, Evidence de l’histoire, 137.

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35 Phillips, “Distance and Historical Representation”, 131; Phillips, “Relocating Inwardness: Historical Distance and the Transition from Enlightenment to Romantic Historiography”, Proceedings of the Modern Languages Association, 118 (2003), 436–9.

36 Robertson, William, The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V: With a View of the Progress of Civil Society in Europe from the Subversion of the Roman Empire to the Beginning of the Sixteenth Century, 3 vols. (London, 1769), 1: 21–2Google Scholar, emphasis added.

37 Ibid., 123.

38 The “alphabetic writing” and the “invention of print” respectively marked the third and eighth epochs of Condorcet's Tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain, for which see the critical edition by J.-P. Schandeler and P. Crépel (Paris, 2004).

39 Robertson, William, History of Scotland, 2 vols. (London, 1759), 1: 12Google Scholar; Robertson, , An Historical Disquisition concerning the Knowledge which the Ancients had of India (London, 1791), 12Google Scholar.

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42 Robertson, History of America, Book VII, 3: 177–83, 180, 183, emphasis in the original. Robertson refers to William Warburton's The Divine Legation of Moses (1738–41) as a guide for a natural history of the forms of writing.

43 Brown, Stewart J., “An Eighteenth-Century Historian on the Amerindians: Culture, Colonialism and Christianity in William Robertson's History of America”, Studies in World Christianity, 2 (1996), 204–22CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

44 In the Preface to his On Historical Distance Phillips refers to these four categories of distance “in terms of modes of understanding or conceptualization”, while distinguishing them from “distancing” or “distantiation”, which only designates “movements towards positions that are comparatively remote or detached”.

45 Clavijero, Storia antica del Messico, iii–vii.

46 Ibid., xxvii–xxviii.

47 See Gerbi, The Dispute of the New World, 233 ff.

48 Dissertations on the Land, the Animals, and the Inhabitants of Mexico: In which The Ancient History of that Country is confirmed, many Points of Natural History illustrated, and numerous Errors refuted, which have been published concerning America by some celebrated modern Authors.

49 Cañizares, How to Write the History of the New World, 63.

50 See, among others, Diogo Ramada Curto, ed., The Jesuits and Cultural Intermediacy in Early Modern World, Archivum Historicum Societatis Iesu, 74/147 (2005); de Castelnau-L’Éstoile, Charlotteet al., eds., Missions d’évangélisation et circulation des savoirs: XVIe–XVIIIe siècle (Madrid, 2011)Google Scholar.

51 Robertson, History of America, Book VII, 3: 183–4 n.

52 Ibid., 157–8 n. See also Note XXVI, 384–90.

53 Robertson to Lord Elliock, National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, MS, 1036, f. 106; see Black, Jeremy, “The Enlightenment Historian at Work: The Researches of William Robertson”, Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 65 (1988), 251–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

54 Robertson, History of America, 1: xviii–xix, emphasis added. In Robertson's classification of sources the works by the Franciscan missionary Juan de Torquemada's Monarchia Indiana (1615) and the collector of Mexican codices and paintings Lorenzo Boturini Benaduci were considered as the less consistent, precisely because they pretended to give a statute of reliability to pictograms. See Brading, David A., The First America: The Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots and the Liberal State, 1492–1867 (Cambridge, 1991), 432–41, 455Google Scholar.

55 Robertson, History of America, 1: xvii.

56 See especially Momigliano, “Ancient History and the Antiquarian” (1950); “Gibbon's Contribution to Historical Method” (1954); “Historiography on Written Tradition and Historiography on Oral Tradition” (1961), in Studies in Historiography.

57 Cullen, Preface to Clavijero, History of Mexico, 1: v.

58 Monthly Review, 76 (1787), 633–40. The same review also appeared in the Scots Magazine, 49 (1787), 446–9 and 548–51.

59 The European Magazine, and London Review, 12 (1787), 16–8; see also 125–9.

60 The English Review, or, An Abstract of English and Foreign Literature, 9 (1787), 401–10; 10 (1787), 170–82; 11 (1787), 176–87.

61 Monthly Review, 65 (1781), 462–4.

62 See especially Barton, Benjamin Smith, Observations on Some Parts of Natural History: To Which is Prefixed an Account of Several Remarkable Vestiges of an Ancient Date, Which Have Been Discovered in Different Parts of North America: Part I (London, 1787)Google Scholar; Barton, , New Views of the Origin of the Tribes and Nations of America (Philadelphia, 1797)Google Scholar. In his annotations of the American edition of John Pinkerton's Modern Geography (which first appeared in London in 1802), Barton also defended Clavijero and the reliability of Mexican paintings as historical sources against Pinkerton's attacks: Modern Geography: A Description of the Empires, Kingdoms, States, and Colonies . . . The article America, corrected and considerably enlarged, by Dr. Barton, of Philadelphia, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1804), 2: 457. See also Burton's correspondence in Ewan, Joseph and Ewan, Nesta Dunn, Benjamin Smith Barton: Naturalist and Physician in Jeffersonian America (St Louis, 2007), 253–7Google Scholar.

63 For details on the failure to publish Robertson's and Clavijero's Spanish translations see respectively Humphreys, Robert A., “William Robertson and His History of America” (1954), in Humphreys, Tradition and Revolt in Latin America and Other Essays (New York, 1969), 34–6Google Scholar; and Ronan, Charles E., “Clavigero: The Fate of a Manuscript”, The Americas, 27/2 (1970), 113–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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