Thomas Jefferson Debunked One of History’s Most Offensive Scientific Theories

The state of the universe.
Sept. 12 2012 3:50 AM

Thomas Jefferson Defends America With a Moose

Europeans said America was “degenerate.” Jefferson was obsessed with proving them wrong.

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Madison went into great detail, noting that “the membrane of the Bladder very thin,” “the spleen was of the same color on both sides,” and “its smell was a sort of rankish musk, but not so strong as to be very offensive.” Madison also enclosed a table with measurements on everything from the “width of the ears horizontally” to a more delicate measure of the “distance between the anus and the vulva.” Madison’s enumeration of all things American weasel was contrasted with similar measurements Buffon had made of related European species. Madison concluded that the data “certainly contradicts [Buffon’s] assertion that of the animals common to the two continents, those of the new are in every instance smaller than those of the old.”

Notes on the State of Virginia, along with the research Jefferson inspired in Madison and others, was the intellectual component of Jefferson’s two-pronged assault on Buffon’s theory. But he also understood the power of the physical—that sometimes you have to hand someone evidence that is so overwhelming that even the staunchest advocate changes his position. For Jefferson, that would be a giant moose, preferrabley one 7 to 10 feet tall.

With classic Jeffersonian obsessiveness, he undertook a quest to find such a creature. He began circulating a 16-question survey on the habits, size, and natural history of the moose to his friends. Gen. John Sullivan—a representative at the second Continental Congress, a prisoner during the battle for independence, and attorney general of New Hampshire—quickly emerged as his point man in this effort. Sullivan exchanged many moose-centric letters with Jefferson. At times the general hinted that a moose sufficient for the cause would soon be procured by his friends or a hunter his friends paid, but as Jefferson sailed to Paris in the summer of 1784, no giant moose had been bagged.

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In late 1785, Jefferson dined with Buffon in the count’s summer mansion outside Paris. Jefferson found that Buffon was “absolutely unacquainted” with the American moose and thought it was simply a miscategorized reindeer. Jefferson told the count “that the rein deer could walk under the belly of our moose.” Jefferson noted that Buffon had “entirely scouted the idea.” Finally, though, Buffon relented and hinted that if Jefferson could present him with the antlers of a giant moose, he would pull back—either by omission or by an admission of error, it isn’t clear from the historical record which—his theory of degeneracy in the next volume of Histoire Naturelle.

Jefferson wrote to Sullivan begging for a moose: “The readiness with which you undertook to endeavor to get for me the skin, the skeleton and the horns of the moose … emboldens me to renew my application to you for those objects, which would be an acquisition here, more precious than you can imagine. … Address them to me, to the care of the American Consul of the port in France to which they come.”

Soon thereafter Sullivan wrote Jefferson that, at long last, he had obtained the long-sought moose, and that the carcass was en route “on the Connecticut River,” and was expected “as soon as the roads are broken through the snow which is now very deep.” It took 14 days before the moose arrived at Sullivan’s home on April 3, 1787.

The weeks of transport took a heavy toll on the moose’s carcass; Sullivan and his team had particular trouble preserving the skull bones and antlers. They reconstructed the moose as best they could, but they couldn’t salvage the antlers. Sullivan sent another pair instead, telling his friend, “they are not the horns of this moose but may be fixed on at pleasure.”

After many twists and turns, including almost being lost at a ship dock, the remains of a 7-foot-tall moose arrived at Le Havre De Grace sometime around Oct. 1, 1787. An ecstatic Jefferson wrote to Buffon that he was “happy to be able to present you at this moment the bones and skins of a moose, [and] the horns of [another] individual.” For good measure, Jefferson suggested that the moose be “stuffed and placed on his legs in the king’s cabinet.”

Buffon received the moose, and Jefferson wrote in his journal that the skin and skeleton “convinced Mr. Buffon. He promised in his next volume to set these things right.” But Jefferson’s timing was poor. Within six months of receiving Jefferson’s moose, Count Buffon was dead, and there would be no retraction of the theory of New World Degeneracy in Histoire Naturelle.

Jefferson feared the degeneracy argument would have a life of its own, long outlasting its creator. He was right—degeneracy fit into a Eurocentric view of the world too well to be set aside by people who thought themselves naturally superior to all others. For the next 70 years, European thinkers would line up to defend the theory of degeneracy.