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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Asa Gray   31 December 1861

Dec. 31. 1861

Dear Darwin

In view of dimorphism I recommend Valeriana to your notice. I find that I have noticed, long ago, that the so-called dioicism of V. dioica, &c,—ran through the genus, and was of the same character as in Rubiaceæ, &c.1

I see that Weddell, in Chloris Andina, 2, p. 17, 18, describes well the dimorphism —tho’ he looks upon it as if polygamous merely.2

Koch Fl. Germ. ed. 2. p. 369, 370, has one section ‘Flores omnes conformis, stricte hermaphrodite’   the other he describes dimorphism in adding,—quo sexus polygamodioicus indicatur, ut in Menthis Pulmonariis, Primulis aliisque; in specim, enim parvifloris antheræ sæpe polline carent et sexum femineum referunt.”3 Look therefore at the European Valerians where if V. dioica goes so far as to be structurally diœcious or polygamous, others are less so, and perhaps some are not dimorphous at all.

I did not intend writing to you by this mail, in acknowledgement of your very kind letter of the 11th.—4 But while I am musing the fire burns—as the Psalmist has it.5

We should indeed find it hard to hate each other pro amore patriæ. Of all my English correspondents you are the only one touching upon our relations with the South & with England whose views and sentiments are perfectly satisfactory to me. And my wife—as is natural to her sex—takes a stronger line, and bids me send her love to Mr. Darwin, & say that his is the only Englishman whose letters do not give her a shock to read.6

That you should think it beyond our power to subdue the rebels is very natural. It may be true, but you would admit, if you were here that we ought to try. We do not doubt that we can, and you will also see that we do not mean that anything else shall stand in the way of it. I imagine it is now universally felt here that if we do not do it, we shall have to eat much dirt.—that the establishment of a rival power in our long southern line of the free States to be played off against us is not to be submitted to if it can be prevented at any sacrafice. God help us, indeed, if our honorable existence is to have no better safeguard than the generosity or sense of justice of more powerful nations!

As to slavery the course of things is getting to meet your views, as it is clear must be, if the South continue obstinate.7 If they give up now they may save their institution in their own States to have the chance of abolishing it themselves in the only safe and easy way, with time and the gradual competition of white labor. But obstinate resistance will surely bring on wide sweeping manumission.

You see that we are not a going to have war at present. And it appears that the decision of our Government will be as unitedly & thoroughly sustained by the whole people, as if it had been the other way,—contrary to Mr. Russell’s prediction, and to our dear friend Dr. Boott’s, who writes about our “mob” in a way he would not if he were here to see.8 Look at an English mob urging up their government so that they felt obliged to back up their demands with a menacing force on our borders,—and making such a peremptory demand as you justly say “entirely on Wilkes’ acting as Judge,—a matter which our Govt. would as promptly concede as yours could ask.9

Seemann wrote me that the general belief at the Clubs & in the city was that our Government wanted to get into war with England for an excuse to give up the South.10 A pretty idea they must have of our wisdom and discretion! Dear Boott is firmly convinced that we have all along been trying to quarrel with England. The belief here is nearly universal the other way, and those who like England best, and perhaps the coolest and best informed men have been more and more dissatisfied as time went on.

What has caused this lamentable state of things, this complete misunderstanding? Plainly this: The secessionists in England have adroitly managed the matter and led public opinion in various lines but all in one direction, inimical to us,—and they did not think it too great a stretch to make John Bull believe that we were insane enough to want an E⁠⟨⁠nglish⁠⟩⁠ quarrel. In this they h⁠⟨⁠ave⁠⟩⁠ been ably seconded by a f⁠⟨⁠ew⁠⟩⁠ presses here—mainly by ⁠⟨⁠those⁠⟩⁠ whose loyalty is deeply s⁠⟨⁠uspected⁠⟩⁠ and whose influence is as nothing,—which is nearly as scurrilous as the Saturday Review—with no redeeming ability.—11 And you have the result.

Will the evidence that this mail carries satisfy the English that we want to live in peace with them? But as to good feeling, I am afraid it is too late to expect that.

We were hurt at first, by your putting our rebels on the same footing as a government with which yours was in most amicable relations, and by the general assumption at once that we were gone past redemption.—by the failure to ⁠⟨⁠s⁠⟩⁠ee that the power had gone ⁠⟨⁠from⁠⟩⁠ the hands of those who ⁠⟨⁠were⁠⟩⁠ always making trouble ⁠⟨⁠for⁠⟩⁠ your government in some petty way or other.—&c &c &c till I think it is general⁠⟨⁠ly⁠⟩⁠ believed that the governing influence in England desires to have us a weak and divided people, and would do a good deal to secure it.12 I am sorry to say that this is the general feeling; and this is now very much intensified.

The feelings of many are very hostile, and they would like to be strong that they might show it. Those of others—and these are mine—(who have been exceedingly fond of England, always defending her when possible), are that we must be strong to be secure and respected,—Natural selection quickly crushes out weak nations—that we have tried long enough to have intimate relations between the governments, or the people in general— Naturalists &c being enlightened people can be as intimate as they like.—but nationally let each say ”God bless you, and let us see as little of each other as possible e⁠⟨⁠a⁠⟩⁠ch going our own wa⁠⟨⁠y.⁠⟩⁠

Well—enough of th⁠⟨⁠is.⁠⟩⁠

⁠⟨⁠Some⁠⟩⁠ of the representations of us ⁠⟨⁠in⁠⟩⁠ ⁠⟨⁠En⁠⟩⁠glish papers would be amusing ⁠⟨⁠if t⁠⟩⁠hey did not now do so great ⁠⟨⁠h⁠⟩⁠arm. One would think it was generally thought that there was no law and order here, nor gentlemany conduct, nor propriety of deportment among the poorer and laboring people. I wish you could come & see. As to such things, & as to intelligence, education, &c.—I have sometimes thought of the picture one could draw from individu⁠⟨⁠al⁠⟩⁠ cases. Take one—very confidentially—for I would not hurt a really good fellow by exposing his ignorance of what he might be expected to know. Here we lately had a Cambridge Graduate,—F.L.S. & godson of an English Baronet,—who in one conversation let us know most frankly, that he had no idea where Quito was, or that there were two houses of Congress in U.S.—and was puzzled to know whether Boston U.S. time was faster or slower than Greenwich!

I ⁠⟨⁠was⁠⟩⁠ much amused ⁠⟨⁠    ⁠⟩⁠ ⁠⟨⁠o⁠⟩⁠ld Gorilla learning13 ⁠⟨⁠    ⁠⟩⁠ ⁠⟨⁠t⁠⟩⁠ell me sometime if you ⁠⟨⁠    ⁠⟩⁠ at the production of an object through natural agencies excludes ⁠⟨⁠    ⁠⟩⁠ ⁠⟨⁠  ⁠⟩⁠mption against it, I suppose you will say Yes.

Ever Yours | A. Gray

A happy New Year to you, and may every blessing attend you. Keep up your lively sympathies with those who have very severe trials to undergo and sacrifices to make for what they deem the cause of right, honor, & future safety. For you are not one of those who can see nothing but as it effects English interests. At least I know you will have patience with my outpourings.

I cannot write to dear Boott at present. You may send him this letter if you like. If you do let this go with it to tell him that Winthrop (who will not be thought prejudiced in his favor) said weeks ago that he had the very best reasons to know that the charges in England against Seward as of hostile disposition against England, were groundless.14

I am going to ask you to send me by mail the sheets of your little Orchid book—one by one—as soon as they come out.—I may want to write an early notice of it, and need time to ponder its teachings.15

Dana—his wife tells me is really getting better, and is resuming work—very gradually.16 I send you one of the two—not the best—photographs of him—just received from his wife. If you want to ask questions, send them thro. me, & I will learn if—as I think—his family would like to have him use his powers a little.

CD annotations

4.1 I did not … anything 6.3] crossed ink


CD had asked Gray to assist him in his study of plants that commonly exhibit two or more different forms (see letters to Asa Gray, 21 July [1861], 16 September [1861], 17 September [1861], and 11 December [1861]). For Gray’s earlier remarks about dimorphic species, see the letters from Asa Gray, [27 and 29 August] and 2 September [1861], 11 October 1861, and 9 November 1861.
Psalms 39:3.
In the wake of the Trent affair, Britain and the United States stood on the brink of war with one another. For CD’s opinion of the situation, see the letter to Asa Gray, 11 December [1861]. Jane Loring Gray, like her husband, was a fervent supporter of the northern cause (see Dupree 1959, pp. 307–13).
Gray refers to William Howard Russell, special correspondent covering the American Civil War for The Times. Russell had predicted that the release of the Confederate envoys would precipitate the fall of the administration in Washington (The Times, 10 December 1861, pp. 9–10). Gray also refers to his friend Francis Boott, an American expatriate living in England. CD mentioned Boott’s opinion of events in the letter to Asa Gray, 11 December [1861]. See also Dupree 1959, pp. 311–12.
As a result of the Trent affair, the British government, which had been planning to strengthen its defences on the Canadian border, quickly moved to implement their reinforcement (see Bourne 1961). Gray refers to Charles Wilkes, captain of the vessel that intercepted the Trent (see letter to Asa Gray, 11 December [1861]).
The botanist Berthold Carl Seemann had recently returned to Britain from an expedition to the Fiji Islands (Seemann 1862, p. 416). This view of Union intentions was held by many in Britain (see Ferris 1977).
For Gray’s criticism of the articles on the American Civil War carried by the Saturday Review, see the letter from Asa Gray, 9 November 1861.
Gray refers to Britain’s declaration of neutrality with respect to the conflict in May 1861, thereby recognising the Confederacy as a belligerent power. Under international law belligerent status allowed for loans to be contracted and war materials to be purchased, and it gave the Confederacy the right to commission cruisers on the high seas with the power of search and seizure. The Union, on the other hand, regarded the activities of the Confederacy as insurrection. See McPherson 1988.
CD, in the letter to Asa Gray, 11 December [1861], had compared his attempts to think about the question of design in nature with those of an ‘old Gorilla … set to learn the first book of Euclid.’
Gray may be referring to the American statesman Robert Charles Winthrop. William Henry Seward, American secretary of state, was reputed to be hostile towards Britain (see Ferris 1977).
CD sent Gray sheets of the first half of Orchids in April 1862 (see Correspondence vol. 10, letter from Asa Gray, 18 May 1862). The book was published shortly afterwards, and CD sent Gray a presentation copy (see Correspondence vol. 10, Appendix III). Gray reviewed Orchids in the American Journal of Science and Arts 2d ser. 34 (1862): 138–44.
In 1859, James Dwight Dana suffered a breakdown in his health from which he never fully recovered. His wife, Henrietta Frances Dana, was the daughter of Benjamin Silliman (DAB).


Bourne, K. H. 1961. British preparations for war with the North. English Historical Review 76: 600–32.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 29 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

DAB: Dictionary of American biography. Under the auspices of the American Council of Learned Societies. 20 vols., index, and 10 supplements. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons; Simon & Schuster Macmillan. London: Oxford University Press; Humphrey Milford. 1928–95.

Dupree, Anderson Hunter. 1959. Asa Gray, 1810–1888. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Ferris, Norman B. 1977. The Trent affair: a diplomatic crisis. Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press. [Vols. 9,10,11]

Koch, Wilhelm Daniel Joseph. 1843–4. Synopsis florae Germanicae et Helveticae, exhibens stirpes phanerogamas rite cognitas, praemissa generum dispositione secundum classes et ordines systematis Linnaeani conscripta. 2d edition. 2 vols. Frankfurt: Fridericus Wilmans. Leipzig: Gebhardt & Reisland.

McPherson, James M. 1988. Battle cry of freedom: the Civil War era. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Orchids: On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1862.

Seemann, Berthold Carl. 1862. Viti: an account of a government mission to the Vitian or Fijian Islands in the year 1860–1. Cambridge and London. [Vols. 9,10]

Weddell, Hugh Algernon. 1855–7. Chloris Andina. Essai d’une flore de la région alpine des Cordillères de l’Amérique du Sud. 2 vols. Pt 6 of Expédition dans les parties centrales de l’Amérique du Sud … exécutée par ordre du gouvernment français pendant les années 1843 a 1847, sous la direction de Comte Francis de Castelnau. 7 pts in 13 vols. Paris: P. Betrand. 1850–7.


Discusses dimorphism and suggests CD investigate Valeriana.

Praises CD’s views with respect to the U. S. Civil War and relations with England. Worsening relations between Britain and U. S.

Letter details

Letter no.
Asa Gray
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 110 (ser. 2): 65, DAR 165: 104–105
Physical description
ALS 10pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3354,” accessed on 23 May 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 9