America’s First Great Global Warming Debate

Thomas Jefferson and Noah Webster argue over conventional wisdom that lasted thousands of years

The opposing voices in America's first great debate about global warming was between Thomas Jefferson and Noah Webster in 1799. (Bettmann / Corbis; The Granger Collection, New York)

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Webster’s words essentially ended the controversy. While Jefferson continued to compile and crunch temperature data after his retirement from the presidency, he never again made the case for global warming. Neither did Williams, who died a few years after the publication of Webster’s article. Webster’s position was considered unimpeachable. In 1850, the acclaimed German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt declared that “statements frequently advanced, although unsupported by measurements, that…the destruction of many forests on both sides of the Alleghenys has rendered the climate more equable…are now generally discredited.”

And there the matter rested until the second half of the 20th century, when scientists began to understand the impact of greenhouse gases on the environment. The second great global warming debate poses a different set of scientific questions from those raised in the late 18th century, and this time the science clearly supports the idea that human activity (including clearing and burning forests) can increase temperatures. But it is Webster’s papers, with their careful analysis of the data, that have stood the test of time. Kenneth Thompson, a modern environmental scientist from the University of California at Davis, praises “the force and erudition” of Webster’s arguments and labels his contribution to climatology “a tour de force.”

Joshua Kendall is the author of The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture (Putnam, 2011).


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