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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Asa Gray   11 December [1861]1

Down Bromley Kent

Dec. 11th.

My dear Gray.—

Many & cordial thanks for your two last most valuable notes.—2 What a thing it is, that when you receive this we may be at war, & we two be bound, as good patriots, to hate each other, though I shall find this hating you very hard work.—3 How curious it is to see two countries, just like two angry & silly men, taking so opposite a view of the same transaction! So far as I can see we rest entirely on Wilkes’ acting as Judge.—4 I fear there is no shadow of doubt we shall fight, if the two Southern rogues are not given up.5 And what a wretched thing it will be, if we fight on side of slavery. No doubt it will be said we fight to get cotton; but I fully believe that this has not entered into the motive in the least.— Well, thank [Heaven]6 we private individuals, have nothing to do with so awful a responsibility.— Again how curious it is that you seem to think that you can conquer the south; & I never meet a soul, even those who would most wish it, who thinks it possible,—that is to conquer & retain it. I do not suppose the mass of people in your country will believe it; but I feel sure if we do go to war, it will be with the utmost reluctance by all classes, ministers of government & all.— Time will show, & it is no use writing or thinking about it.—

I called the other day on Dr. Boott & was pleased to find him pretty well & cheerful;7 I see, by the way, he takes quite an English opinion of American affairs, though an American in heart. Buckle might write a chapter on opinion being entirely dependent on Longitude!8

Hearty thanks for facts on dimorphism in Borragineæ.9 What a riddle is the Mertensia: I presume that it would be impossible to get seeds.— It is very kind of you to try & send me the living plant of Houstonia. You may rely on it, I will send you a copy of my Primula paper as soon as I can get one; but I believe it will not be printed till April 1st. & therefore after my Orchid Book.10 I care more for your & Hooker’s opinion than for that of all the rest of world, & for Lyell’s on geological points. Bentham & Hooker thought well of my paper when read; but no one can judge of evidence by merely hearing a paper.11 The only thing which has interested me of late is the making out that Catasetum tridentatum is male, Monacanthus viridis female, & Myanthus barbatus the hermaphrodite, of the same species: this is clear, & accounts for all 3 forms appearing sometimes on same plant: they differ as much as or more than a peacock & pean-hen.—12

Bentham has given me list of species of Oxalis dimorphous like Primula & some Menthas are so he says—but I am not sure that he distinguishes such cases as Thymus.—13 I have not yet had time to examine Amsinckia, which you sent me dried.—

If you can remember it, tell me when you write, how Dana is.—14

Lyell is going to publish, what will be an interesting little Book on the Geological History of man, & I believe he will touch on permanence of Species.—15

With respect to Design, I feel more inclined to show a white flag than to fire my usual long-range shot. I like to try & ask you a puzzling question, but when you return the compliment, I have great doubts whether it is a fair way of arguing. If anything is designed, certainly Man must be; one’s “inner consciousness” (though a false guide) tells one so; yet I cannot admit that man’s rudimentary mammæ; bladder drained as if he went on all four legs; & pug-nose were designed. If I was to say that I believed this, I should believe it in same incredible manner as the orthodox believe the Trinity in Unity.— You say that you are in a haze; I am in thick mud;—the orthodox would say in fetid abominable mud. I believe I am in much the same frame of mind as an old Gorilla would be in if set to learn the first book of Euclid. The old Gorilla would say it was of no manner of use; & I am much of the same mind; yet I cannot keep out of the question.

My dear Gray I have written a deal of nonsense. | Yours most cordially | C. Darwin


The year is established by the reference to the Trent affair (see n. 3, below).
Only one of the two letters mentioned has been found (see letter from Asa Gray, 9 November 1861).
In September 1861, the Confederate government appointed two special commissioners as envoys to Europe, James Murray Mason to London and John Slidell to Paris. Having successfully passed through the Union naval blockade of the southern coast, the envoys then transferred to the British mail packet, Trent, in Havana on 8 November 1861. However, the Union ship San Jacinto intercepted the British vessel, and, under threat of force, Mason and Slidell were seized and removed. At the end of November, the British cabinet instructed their minister in Washington to demand an apology from the United States government and the surrender of the Confederate envoys to British protection. Should these demands not be met, he was told to remove himself from United States territory. The London newspapers and periodicals carried extensive reports of the diplomatic negotiations over the conflict. For a full account of what became known as the ‘Trent affair’, see Ferris 1977.
Charles Wilkes was captain of the thirteen-gun sloop San Jacinto that intercepted the Trent. International law allowed diplomatic dispatches to be seized as contraband of war. In Wilkes’s judgment, Mason and Slidell could be considered to be the physical ‘embodiment of despatches’ (see McPherson 1988, p. 390). For Gray’s strong reaction to the Trent affair, see Dupree 1959, p. 311.
News that the United States government had decided to comply with British demands did not reach London until 8 January 1862.
The editors have followed Francis Darwin in supplying ‘Heaven’ as the word needed after ‘thank’ (LL 2: 382).
The American-born physician and botanist Francis Boott was a friend and correspondent of Gray (see Dupree 1959, pp. 311–12).
The historian Henry Thomas Buckle promoted the use of scientific methodology as a basis for historical analysis. His ‘law of climate’, for example, suggested a statistical relationship between the nature of a country’s climate, the productivity of its soil, and the progress of its civilisation (see Buckle 1857, 1: 38 et seq.). CD had read Buckle’s History of civilization in England in 1858 (see Correspondence vol. 4, Appendix IV, 128: 23).
CD had read a paper on dimorphism in Primula before the Linnean Society of London on 21 November 1861. It was published in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society (Botany) 6 (1862): 77–96. Orchids was published by John Murray in May 1862.
George Bentham, president of the Linnean Society, and Joseph Dalton Hooker had attended the meeting at which CD’s paper was read (see letter from George Bentham, 26 November 1861).
See letter to Daniel Oliver, 7 December [1861]. On 3 April 1862, CD read a paper before the Linnean Society entitled ‘On the three remarkable sexual forms of Catasetum tridentatum, an orchid in the possession of the Linnean Society’ (Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society (Botany) 6 (1862): 151–7; see also Collected papers 2: 63–9). He also described the forms in Orchids, p. 236. Catasetum tridentatum and Monachanthus viridis are synonyms of Catasetum macrocarpum, the jumping orchid; Myanthus barbatus is a synonym of Catasetum barbatum, the bearded catasetum.
The American naturalist James Dwight Dana had experienced a severe breakdown of his health late in 1859.
Charles Lyell published The geological evidences of the antiquity of man in 1863.


Collected papers: The collected papers of Charles Darwin. Edited by Paul H. Barrett. 2 vols. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 1977.

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

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]

LL: The life and letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter. Edited by Francis Darwin. 3 vols. London: John Murray. 1887–8.

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.


Discusses the worsening relations between their two countries and the possibility of war.

Expects Orchids and his Primula paper [Collected papers 2: 45–63] to be out soon.

Thanks AG for some facts on dimorphism.

George Bentham has given him a list of Oxalis and Mentha species that are dimorphic like Primula.

Is in a "thick mud" regarding design in nature.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Asa Gray
Sent from
Source of text
Gray Herbarium of Harvard University (62)
Physical description
ALS 5pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3342,” accessed on 9 February 2023,

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