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Jefferson, Buffon and the Moose

Keith Thomson

Shifting Ground

Before Jefferson began writing Notes, the Abbé Raynal in France (Histoire philosophique et politique, 1770) and the Dutch geographer Corneille de Pauw (Récherches philosophiques sur les Americains, 1768)—neither of whom ever visited the New World—had published books rehearsing and extending Buffon's ideas. De Pauw wrote that in the former Dutch Guiana (now Suriname) in South America, "caterpillars, butterflies, centipedes, scarabs, spiders, frogs and toads were found in gigantic size for their species, and multiplied beyond imagining. . . . Even today, the oldest European colonies in America are not yet cleansed of filthy or poisonous animals whose propagation is encouraged by the atmosphere."

A particularly delicate issue in the discussion of "degeneracy" concerned Europeans emigrating to North America. Buffon stopped short of saying that they also became inferior on American soil, but Abbé Raynal had no reservation claiming exactly that. Buffon did, however, denigrate the intellectual achievements of Americans. This dismissal incensed Jefferson, who quite reasonably noted that in two hundred years, "in war we have produced a Washington . . . in physics we have produced a Franklin, than whom no one of the present age has made more important discoveries . . . [and] we have supposed Mr. Rittenhouse second to no astronomer living." (David Rittenhouse was a Philadelphia astronomer, instrument craftsman and patriot.)

Benjamin Franklin's own response to the issue of American degeneracy was typically pragmatic. At a dinner party in Paris where a number of Americans were present (and who, he noted, were quite tall) he asked them to rise, followed by the French, over whom they towered. Adding spice to the occasion, Abbé Raynal was one of those vertically challenged French guests; Franklin graciously noted that he himself was not so very tall.

In the 1770s, Buffon used new volumes of Histoire naturelle to expand on the effects of climate on agriculture (Supplementary Volume Five, 1778) and to recant his views on American Indians (Supplementary Volume Four, 1777). In Paris, Franklin had held many scientific discussions with Buffon and was the partial cause of the latter's change of mind. The conversation that had so profound an effect had been about population growth. In this area, Franklin's insights preceded those of Thomas Robert Malthus by 30 years. Buffon wrote, "because we know from the celebrated Franklin, that in twenty-eight years the population of Philadelphia (without immigration) doubled . . . in a country where the Europeans multiply so promptly, where the life of the natives is longer than previously, it is not possible that humans degenerate." Raynal also changed his mind and was one of the French admirers of Chief Logan's speech, writing "Que celà est beau" (how fine it is) and "comme celà est simple, energétique et touchant."

Interestingly, Jefferson knew about Buffon's change of mind when he composed the final version of his Notes, having read the new volumes of Histoire naturelle. But he went ahead with his refutations anyway. Jefferson's style in these arguments was complex, a mixture of simple fact and biting rhetoric. Where possible he turned Buffon's own writings against him. Buffon had written that he loved best someone who corrected him in an error, because an error corrected became a fact. In this case, Jefferson wrote, "one sentence of his book must do him immortal honour."

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