To protect America from erroneous scientific speculation, Thomas Jefferson turned to the moose

Part of a continuum weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the end of this story.

To win an argument against a Frenchman, produce a deer. This may seem like the worst attempt at creating an aphorism, but it’s how Thomas Jefferson once defended American honor and handled an academic dispute. This article may not feature Alaska, but it focuses on a topic Alaskans know all too well: Moose. And Alaskans probably know far more about mold today than any European researcher in the eighteenth century.

George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), in English Count Buffon, was a French naturalist and author, one of the most respected scholars of his generation. Although less appreciated now, in his day he was considered a worthy peer of intellectual heavyweights such as Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Buffon’s masterpiece was the 36-volume Histoire Naturelle: Générale et Particulière, a mineral and zoological encyclopedia published between 1749 and 1788.

Written in an engaging and often poetic style, each volume was a cultural sensation, repeatedly reprinted and translated into several other languages. Anyone with the slightest literary or intellectual pretensions owned copies. Histoire Naturelle volumes were some of the best-selling books of the 18th century. Short chapters on specific animal species make up the bulk of the series: larks followed by sparrows, etc. But he also included some more general treatises on the natural world, most notably his theory of the degeneration of animals and man in the continents of North and South America.

Buffon believed that the indigenous animals and people of the American continents were degenerate compared to those elsewhere. His use of degeneracy does not refer to the immoral sense of the term, but that animals and humans were inferior: smaller, weaker, and less fertile. The animal data was his main evidence. For example, he noted how the big cats in America were smaller and “more cowardly” than lions. He also argued that the lack of elephants, camels, rhinos and giraffes in the Americas means: “Wildlife is thus much less active there, much less diverse and one might even say, less robust.” Furthermore, he argued that species from elsewhere transplanted to the Americas would necessarily degenerate. The negative implications in it were not lost on the inhabitants of several British colonies along the east coast of North America, which became a new and independent nation in the later years of Buffon’s life.

Buffon’s self-aggrandizing theory – given his continental origins – was by no means new and far from the last of its kind. Variants have existed since the time of the ancient Greek philosophers, who believed that lands beyond the author’s possessed inferior fauna, flora, and inhabitants. When Queen Isabella of Spain, of Ferdinand and Isabella who sent Christopher Columbus westward, heard the first reports of the new in her world, she said: “This land, where the trees are not firmly rooted, must produce men of little real and true and less enduring.” The English poet John Donne (1571/1572-1631) described America as “that unripe side of the earth.” And the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was at least partially influenced by Buffon in his 1837 text “Lectures on the Philosophy of History” when he wrote: “America has always shown itself physically and spiritually weak, and does so to this day.” .

As for the animals of the Americas, Buffon was ignorant of, or lacked a proper understanding of, the caribou, the larger bears, the musk-ox, the moose, and the bison. Specifically, Buffon wrote disparagingly that they were “significantly smaller in America than in Europe, and that without exception”. It is worth noting that the French nobleman never visited America. Instead, he relied on the accounts of others, sometimes no better than hearsay. At a certain point, the insult to the United States became very clear. That’s how Thomas Jefferson came in.

By the early 1780s, the future president was familiar with Buffon’s claims and dismayed by apparent critical failures, including the quality of data collection. In “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson’s only complete book, he sharply criticized the theory of American degeneration. Regarding Buffon specifically, he wrote: “There has been more eloquence than sound reasoning in support of this theory; that it is one of those cases where judgment has been seduced by a lighted pen.”

Jefferson spent most of the years 1784-1789 in France as a trade negotiator and, eventually, the official American minister to France. The post gave him more direct opportunities to oppose Buffon and his followers; “Notes on the State of Virginia” was first published anonymously in 1785 in Paris. In 1786, Jefferson even dined at Buffon’s house, where the count admitted a minor taxonomic error but otherwise refused to change his beliefs on American degeneration.

Jefferson had thus far argued as a scientist, with measurements, animal skins, and fossil records, but was repeatedly rejected in small and minor ways when not ignored altogether. It required a little more shock and awe to move the European mindset, an individually spectacular response that could not be ignored. He needed a specimen so large and majestic that it would uniquely counter arguments about small American wildlife. As any Alaskan would understand, he settled on a moose. However, he needed a real stag, not notes or antlers, sent to France.

Moose were a particularly suitable target since Buffon did not believe they existed as their own species, thinking instead that they were miscategorized reindeer. And for a Virginian, Jefferson was an expert on lice. He had been researching on his own for several years at that point. Before leaving for France, he sent surveys to his colleagues – the prolific statesman and letter writer had many colleagues – about Moos with questions about their behavior and size. Among his respondents was John Sullivan, a general during the American Revolution and future governor of New Hampshire.

Sullivan, who had been present at Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River among other battles, wrote to Jefferson in January 1787 with the good news. He had a deer in mind if not in hand. In his excitement, he wrote to Jefferson somewhat prematurely. Had he known the difficulties to come, he could have waited.

Since that letter, the moose in question was dead in faraway Vermont. From there, it took 14 days and clearing a 20-mile long road in the middle of a particularly nasty winter before the apple reached Sullivan’s home. Further, in his willingness to help Jefferson, Sullivan had not taken into account his complete lack of training as a taxi driver. Once prepared, the moja still required a long sea voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to England, and then to the French port of Le Havre, and from there to Paris.

The project’s considerable costs were closer to ruin than not for Sullivan. He had to borrow money from his brother for the transport. In a detailed expense report, he wrote: “I only pay for expenses that I have paid in cash, without any problem for my situation, which has been very considerable.”

Jefferson finally got the object of his desires around the end of that September. Mois, once a magnificent example of his kind, was a vast assortment of skin and bones after months of dodgy taxidermy and shipping delays. It was more complete than specimen. Sullivan had managed to preserve most of the skeleton except for the head and horns. As for the head, he wrote, “the skin being full and well dressed may be drawn with pleasure,” an uninspiring option. Included was a set of replacement horns that “can be bolted on at pleasure”. Worse, as Sullivan wrote, “the skin of the apple was dry with hairs, but a large part of it has come off and the rest is about to fall off.”

From this assortment of altarpieces, the author of the Declaration of Independence was able to reconstruct a full moul. On the face of it, it was certainly less than it could be. As connected as Jefferson was, he was unlikely to convince another person to kill, prepare, and ship a deer to France on his behalf, so he did. An Alaskan today might wonder how many diseases the goose had before it died, but it must have been a startling sight to Europeans of the time.

[Mystery meat of 1951: Did an exclusive club eat a frozen woolly mammoth from the Aleutians?]

Moose duly submitted to the count. In a letter to Daniel Webster, Jefferson wrote that Buffon “promised in his next volume, to put these things right.” But the Frenchman made no reply, no low insult, no formal objection, and no tender apology. Furthermore, he died within six months of the moth’s arrival. There is certainly no causal connection between the two events, although it is amusing to imagine that the sight of an American deer sent the Frenchman into a death spiral of shame and remorse. American pride had demanded an answer; maybe that was it.

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Main sources:

Dugatkin, Lee Alan. Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Gerbi, Antonello. The New World Controversy: The Story of a Controversy, 1750-1900. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973.

Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1955.

Webster, Fletcher, editor. The Private Correspondence of Daniel Webster, Volume 1. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1857.

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