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Jefferson, Buffon and the Moose

Keith Thomson

The Moose

Around the time Notes was published, Jefferson was living in Paris as the new nation's ambassador to France. When he arrived, Jefferson sent Buffon a copy of Notes and the skin of a large panther, and was subsequently invited to dine with Buffon at the Jardin du Roi, Paris's magnificent botanical garden. Of that meeting Jefferson later wrote, "in my conversations with the Count de Buffon . . . I find him absolutely unacquainted with our Elk and our deer. He has hitherto believed that our deer never had horns more than a foot long." So Jefferson decided to show him a full-grown American moose. He wrote to General John Sullivan, president (governor) of New Hampshire, for help in getting a large specimen, instructing him that the bones of the head and legs should be left in the skin so that it could be mounted in a life-like manner. Eventually a "seven-foot tall" moose was collected in Vermont and shipped to Paris.

Many years later, Daniel Webster told the story that Jefferson had had the moose set up in the hall of his apartment and invited Buffon to see it. Confronted with that stark refutation of his earlier thesis, Buffon was said to have exclaimed, "I should have consulted you, Monsieur, before I published my book on natural history, and then I should have been sure of my facts." It would be nice if this story were true. In fact, Buffon, by this time old and sick, was away from Paris when the moose arrived in October 1787. Jefferson sent it to Buffon's long time associate, zoologist Louis-Jean-Marie D'Aubenton, for the great man to see when he returned. Although most of the hair had fallen off the hide, the antlers sent by Sullivan were from a smaller animal and the whole carcass was probably rancid, Jefferson was "in hopes that Monsieur de Buffon will be able to have it stuffed, and placed on his legs in the King's Cabinet."

Jefferson later told Webster that Buffon had "promised in his next volume, to set these things right . . . but he died directly afterwards." Nonetheless, Jefferson had made his case and Notes on the State of Virginia went on to become an American classic. Buffon's Histoire naturelle, which encompassed so much more than just the denigration of American wildlife, continued to be one of the most influential books of 18th- and early 19th-century natural science. 

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