J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, July 20, 2019

“Travelling within the nutshell of the earth”?

Yesterday I described how John Cleves Symmes, Jr., a retired army captain and failed trader, was struck with the theory that the Earth was hollow, with holes at the poles.

Symmes started promulgating that idea in April 1818. The growing American press gave it a lot more attention than its lack of evidence deserved. So much so that Secretary of State John Quincy Adams referred to Symmes in his diary on 28 Apr 1819, in a meditation on the idea of sending African-American citizens to Africa:
Mr. [George] Hay’s opinions upon the Colonization Society and its projects were unexpected to me. There are so many considerations of difficulty and of delicacy mingling with this subject that I would gladly keep aloof from it altogether. But I apprehend the Society, which, like all fanatical associations, is intolerant, will push and intrigue and worry till I shall be obliged to take a stand and appear publicly among their opponents. Their project of expurgating the United States from the free people of color at the public expense, by colonizing them in Africa, is, so far as it is sincere and honest, upon a par with John Cleves Symmes’s project of going to the North Pole, and travelling within the nutshell of the earth.
From the start, obviously, Adams thought Symmes’s idea of exploring the hollow Earth was ridiculous.

How then have we been flooded with articles saying that Adams loved Symmes’s theory and as President supported a federal expedition to find “mole people” inside the planet?

The link is a man named Jeremiah N. Reynolds (1799-1858), a young newspaper editor. He met Symmes in 1823 and joined him on the lecture circuit, promoting the idea of a hollow Earth. But what really intrigued Reynolds was polar exploration. After a couple of years he stopped talking about Symmes’s theory of holes at the poles and people possibly living inside the planet, but he continued to advocate for an expedition to the South Pole.

In 1824 John Quincy Adams became President. He mentioned Reynolds in his diary entry for 4 Nov 1826:
Mr. Reynolds is a man who has been lecturing about the country in support of Captain John Cleves Symmes’s theory, that the earth is a hollow sphere, open at the Poles. His lectures are said to have been well attended, and much approved as exhibitions of genius and of science. But the theory itself has been so much ridiculed, and is in truth so visionary, that Reynolds has now varied his purpose to the proposition of fitting out a voyage of circumnavigation to the Southern Ocean. He has obtained numerous signatures in Baltimore to a memorial to Congress for this object, which, he says, will otherwise be very powerfully supported. It will, however, have no support in Congress. That day will come, but not yet, nor in my time. May it be my fortune and my praise to accelerate its approach!
Adams thus was ready to champion Reynolds’s proposal for polar exploring, but only after the man had dropped all that talk about Symmes’s “hollow sphere.”

President Adams and Jeremiah Reynolds finally met on 22 Feb 1828. Adams recorded: “I met at the ball, besides other strangers, Mr. Reynolds, the projector of an expedition to the South Pole, and Mr. [Francis] Lieber, the teacher of the swimming-school at Boston.” [Ah, the glamorous life of the nation’s chief executive.]

The Adams administration supported funding the expedition Reynolds advocated for. The American electorate didn’t support the Adams administration, however. In December 1828, after the election, the lame-duck House of Representatives voted to outfit the U.S.S. Peacock to explore Antarctica. But the Senate didn’t approve, and then Andrew Jackson became President in March 1829. The launch of the U.S. Exploring Expedition would have to wait for the Van Buren administration.

Jeremiah Reynolds’s writing about exploring Antarctica inspired Edgar Allan Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. A later book was a basis for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. He certainly left a mark on American fiction, therefore. To that list we can add the recent fictional narrative that President J. Q. Adams wanted fund a federal expedition to enter the Earth and find “mole people.”

TOMORROW: But didn’t Adams call Symmes’s hollow-Earth idea “visionary”?

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