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Jefferson, Buffon and the Moose

Keith Thomson


In his En resa til Norra America (1753–1761; English translation Travels into North America, 1770), the Swedish-Finnish naturalist Peter Kalm had noted that cattle in Philadelphia were stunted. But Robert Byrd (The Natural History of Virginia, or the Newly Discovered Eden, 1737) had seen a reason: The natural pasture was so lush that farmers left their livestock outdoors through the winter, where they became thin, "which does not happen if they are given hay, and kept in stables."

Byrd also extolled the American Indians as a strong and cultured people. This opinion wasn't new; Robert Beverley had recorded similar observations decades earlier. If Buffon had read contemporary descriptions of North America, he would have known that the lack of hair in American Indians was cosmetic. As early as 1702, Beverley (History and Present State of Virginia) wrote, "The Men wear their Hair cut after several fanciful Fashions, sometimes greas'd, and sometimes painted. The Great Men, or better sort, preserve a long Lock behind for distinction. They pull their Beards up by the roots with a Muscleshell; and both Men and Women do the same by the other parts of their Body for Cleanliness sake."

Given these contrary reports, why was the leading natural scientist of Europe so zealous in arguing for American degeneracy? One answer was that Buffon believed the anecdotal evidence more than the written records. He was also blinkered by preconceived notions, thinking that America was cold because of winds blowing off the Atlantic Ocean. Other possible explanations of the cold and damp were that the biblical Great Flood had retreated later from the New World than the Old, or that the New World had more recently emerged from the ocean. Buffon also developed the more sophisticated idea that the low population density of humans in the Americas meant that they had had less opportunity to improve the ecology and thereby ameliorate the climate.

Yet another answer was philosophical. Buffon opposed Jean-Jacques Rousseau's notion of the "noble savage" and argued that the indigenous American people did not represent humans in a state of primeval grace. Instead, like the animals and plants, they had migrated from the Old World and deteriorated.

There was also a political reason to denigrate the Americas. Although much of the New World had been founded on colonialism and slavery, North America threatened to throw off these fetters. With huge natural resources, strong population growth and increasing affluence, the former colonies were rapidly evolving to become a beacon of new democracy. This egalitarianism was anathema to European aristocrats—a group that included most natural scientists of the time. The new United States was a populist place that neither needed nor tolerated aristocracy. The zeal with which Buffon's opinions were repeated may be a sign of how serious a threat the European oligarchy perceived the Americans to be. Among the authors who spread Buffon's tripe was the British historian William Robertson, whose History of America (1777) was reprinted, edition after popular edition, for another 40 years—an interval in which thousands of his countrymen cheerfully departed for America.

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