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FROM M. DE SAUSSURE TO B. FRANKLIN.
Travels in the Alps. — Account of the first Ascent to
the Summit of Mont Blanc by M. Paccard, and M. de Saussure's unsuccessful Attempt.
Geneva, 17 December, 1786.
I have taken the liberty of requesting Messrs. Van Neck & Co. of London, to forward to you in America the second volume of my Voyages dans les Alpes. I am very desirous, that this work should be found worthy of your approbation, or at least, that you should not think it was hardly worth sending so far. Although there are few branches of human knowledge, with which you are unacquainted, and in which you have not given proofs of your genius, you have appeared to take an especial interest in Natural Philosophy, and particularly Electricity and Meteorology. In this volume you will find chapters of considerable length on these two subjects.
The structure of mountains was particularly the object of my research in these travels; but at the same time I thought I ought to take the opportunity of studying the constitution of the atmosphere at heights which are seldom reached; and for this purpose I invented a very convenient and sensitive electrometer, which you will find described in the volume, and with which I made some curious experiments upon the electricity of the air in clear weather. I found this electricity stronger in proportion as the place of observation was higher and more insulated. I am very desirous to try the same experiment on the summit of Mont Blanc, which is, as you know, the highest mountain of the old continent. I almost despaired of
being able to reach it, when I finished the volume which I now have the honor to send. You will there see an account of my fruitless attempts. Since then, however, I have obtained information, which gives me an almost certain prospect of doing it; at least, if I am alive and in good health next June.
Six peasants from Chamouni made the attempt at the beginning of last summer, and went to a great height, though they did not reach the summit. One of them, who got lost while looking after crystals, was obliged to pass the night in the snows at a very elevated point. A terrible hailstorm came on, and his companions gave him up for lost. He suffered but little, however. The next morning the weather was extremely fine, and, as it was very early, he had time to examine carefully the different approaches to the summit, and to fix upon the proper path to reach it.
On his return to Chamouni, he said nothing to his companions, but he communicated his views to a young physician named Paccard, who had also several times attempted without success to scale the mountain. They went and slept on the top of the rocks at the entrance of the snows, and, starting again at break of day on the following morning, being the 8th of August, they reached the summit between six and seven in the evening. They were seen there with spyglasses from Chamouni. The Baron de Garsdorf even followed them with a good telescope and marked out their path. They returned the same day, or rather night, with excessive fatigue and danger, their faces burnt, swollen, and even bleeding; and they were almost blind from the reflection from the snow. In fact, they had taken no precautions whatever.*
• M. Paccard was accompanied by M. Balmat. They published an account of this enterprise, entitled, Premier Voyage à la Cine de la plus haute Montagne du Continent.
As soon as I learned the success of their enterprise, I sent a number of peasants to build me a place of shelter among the snows near some insulated rocks, which are half way up the snowy part of the mountain. My intention was to go and sleep' there, and thus to divide the terrible day's work, which my predecessors had been obliged to encounter. I went to Chamouni, and slept as they had done at the entrance of the snows, but there came on in the night a furious storm and much snow, which rendered the mountain inaccessible for the rest of the season. But my hut is still standing, and I hope to accomplish my project next summer. I shall need your ingenuity, when in that situation, to make my observations as useful as they should be.* I am, with the most perfect esteem, Sir, &c.
* His subsequent attempt was successful. He reached the summit of Mont Blanc on the 3d of August, 1787. An account of his ascent is contained in the Gentleman's Magazine, for October of that year. The following beautiful tribute to the genius and character of M. de Saussure is from the pen of Sir Humphrey Davy.
“ Educated amidst the magnificent scenery of the Alps, this illustrious person felt in his early days the warmest admiration of the study of geology, and his whole life was more or less devoted to it. Possessing from nature a penetrating genius, he assisted her efforts by all the refinements and resources of science. In his researches he spared no labor, and yielded nothing to the common sentiment of self-love. A constant inhabitant of the mountains, he has exceeded all other writers in his descriptions of them. His delineations are equally vivid and correct; and, as far as mere language is capable, they awaken pictures in the mind. De Saussure has presented the rare instance of a powerful imagination associated with the coolest judgment; of the brilliancy of ideas and feelings of the poet, connected with the minute researches and deep sagacity of the philosopher.”
TO THOMAS PAINE.*
Dissuading him from publishing a Work of an irreligious Tendency.
(Date uncertain.) DEAR SIR, I have read your manuscript with some attention. By the argument it contains against a particular Providence, though you allow a general Providence, you strike at the foundations of all religion. For without the belief of a Providence, that takes cognizance of, guards, and guides, and may favor particular persons, there is no motive to worship a Deity, to fear his displeasure, or to pray for his protection. I will not enter into any discussion of your principles, though you seem to desire it. At present I shall only give you my opinion, that, though your reasonings are subtile, and may prevail with some readers, you will not succeed so as to change the general sentiments of mankind on that subject, and the consequence of printing this piece will
• This letter was first published by William Temple Franklin, but without the name of the person to whom it was directed. He probably transcribed it from a rough draft, in which the name was not mentioned. It is supposed to have been written to Thomas Paine, and the circumstances are such as to render this supposition in the highest degree probable. In the early part of the Revolution, Paine was in the habit of consulting Dr. Franklin about his political writings, and the latter is understood to have aided Paine, at least by his suggestions and advice, in preparing some of his celebrated political essays. Paine was in America when Dr. Franklin returned from France, and often consulted him respecting his private affairs; and, when he went to Europe with his model of a newly invented bridge, in which he thought he had made essential improvements upon former inventions in the art of building bridges, Dr. Franklin gave him letters of introduction to the Duke de la Rochefoucauld, M. le Veillard, and some of his other friends in Paris. It may be added, moreover, that the remarks in the above letter are strictly applicable to the deistical writings, which Paine afterwards published. VOL. X.
be, a great deal of odium drawn upon yourself, mischief to you, and no benefit to others. He that spits against the wind, spits in his own face.
But, were you to succeed, do you imagine any good would be done by it? You yourself may find it easy to live a virtuous life, without the assistance afforded by religion; you having a clear perception of the advantages of virtue, and the disadvantages of vice, and possessing a strength of resolution sufficient to enable you to resist common temptations. But think how great a portion of mankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women, and of inexperienced, inconsiderate youth of both sexes, who have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice, to support their virtue, and retain them in the practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great point for its security. And perhaps you are indebted to her originally, that is, to your religious education, for the habits of virtue upon which you now justly value yourself. You might easily display your excellent talents of reasoning upon a less hazardous subject, and thereby obtain a rank with our most distinguished authors. For among us it is not necessary, as among the Hottentots, that a youth, to be raised into the company of men, should prove his manhood by beating his mother.
I would advise you, therefore, not to attempt unchaining the tiger, but to burn this piece before it is seen by any other person; whereby you will save yourself a great deal of mortification by the enemies it may raise against you, and perhaps a good deal of regret and repentance. If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it. I intend this letter itself as a proof of my friendship, and therefore add no professions to it; but subscribe simply yours,