Thomas Jefferson Defends America With a Moose
Europeans said America was “degenerate.” Jefferson was obsessed with proving them wrong.
Fortunately, there were Americans to counter them. One of my favorite examples is the Rev. Jedidiah Morse, grandfather to Samuel of code fame, and an influential New England Congregationalist pastor during the Second Great Awakening. Morse wrote a popular 1790 textbook, The History of America in Two Books. When young Americans stepped into their school house and cracked open their history book, they immediately learned of Buffon’s degeneracy theory and were told in no uncertain terms how utterly misguided such slander from Europe really was.
Students read of the “extreme malignity of climate [that] has been inferred and asserted” by people like Buffon and his groupies, and a large part of Chapter 1 of The History of America quotes these ideas at length, so students could see for themselves the sort of material that European philosophers were writing about their country. Morse cataloged many instances in which the degeneracy camp simply had its numbers wrong. Insects and vermin weren’t more common in America¾the Old World had just as many swarms of “disgustful insects” as the New. American students learned that Louisiana was not, in fact, teeming with frogs weighing 37 pounds. Morse explained to the young minds reading his book that degeneracy was the product of the “ignorance or … studied forgetfulness of … the Old continent.” Educators across the new nation were determined to show young schoolchildren how misguided the theory of New World Degeneracy was. Some 50 years later, James Fenimore Cooper would make reference to the preamble of a charter to found a new Colonial school, which read: “Whereas the youth of this colony are found, by manifold experience, to be not inferior in their natural geniuses to the youth of any other country in the world.”
Some lessons were important enough to be taught over and over.
Lee Alan Dugatkin is a professor and distinguished university scholar in the department of biology at the University of Louisville. His main area of research interest is the evolution of social behavior. He is also author of Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose and The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin's Adventures in Science and Politics.