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Jefferson, Buffon and the Moose

Keith Thomson

In 1781, in the midst of the American Revolutionary War, the British army rousted Thomas Jefferson from his home in Monticello. Politically unpopular, he retired from the governorship of Virginia and threw himself into writing. The result was his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), in which, among other topics, he famously defended his country against those Europeans who said that the Americas (North, South and Central) were unhealthy places populated by lesser animals and plants, compared with those of the Old World, and inhabited by peoples who were similarly weak and degenerate.

Stubbs’s drawing of a bull-moose calfClick to Enlarge Image

The immediate source of these libels was Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, written in 44 quarto volumes between 1749 and 1809 by Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, and his associates. A product of the age of French encyclopedists, Histoire naturelle pulled together a vast array of facts about natural history around the world. It was also the vehicle for Buffon's many ideas about the history of the Earth and the organisms that inhabit it. Buffon had never been to the New World, but that did not prevent him from damning it. His critique carried an importance far greater than its questionable scientific value. Anything that lessened the public opinion of America—awash in foreign debt, at war with a global superpower, supplicant to the thrones of France and Spain—had political significance. Buffon had to be answered.

The Secretary to the French delegation in Philadelphia was Francois, Marquis de Barbé-Marbois. (Later, as minister of the treasury for Napoleon I, he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase.) The French government had instructed Barbé-Marbois to assemble data on the 13 colonies, and he responded by preparing a 22-point questionnaire. A copy of this survey was given to Joseph Jones, a delegate from Virginia to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, in late 1780. Jones realized that Jefferson would be the best person to respond. Whereas other states sent in replies of a few pages, Jefferson's response became a book in which he distilled all his knowledge of Virginia's political and constitutional history, geography and ethnography, and of the whole country's natural history. He also rebutted specific points from Histoire naturelle (although the pagination in Jefferson's octavo edition differed from the original). Using all his rhetorical skills, Jefferson destroyed Buffon's case for American inferiority.

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