In the years after the Revolutionary War, the fledgling republic of America was viewed by many Europeans as a degenerate backwater, populated by subspecies weak and feeble. Chief among these naysayers was the French Count and world-renowned naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, who wrote that the flora and fauna of America (humans included) were inferior to European specimens.
Thomas Jefferson—author of the Declaration of Independence, U.S. president, and ardent naturalist—spent years countering the French conception of American degeneracy. His Notes on Virginia systematically and scientifically dismantled Buffon’s case through a series of tables and equally compelling writing on the nature of his home state. But the book did little to counter the arrogance of the French and hardly satisfied Jefferson’s quest to demonstrate that his young nation was every bit the equal of a well-established Europe. Enter the giant moose.
The American moose, which Jefferson claimed was so enormous a European reindeer could walk under it, became the cornerstone of his defense. Convinced that the sight of such a magnificent beast would cause Buffon to revise his claims, Jefferson had the remains of a seven-foot ungulate shipped first class from New Hampshire to Paris. Unfortunately, Buffon died before he could make any revisions to his Histoire Naturelle, but the legend of the moose makes for a fascinating tale about Jefferson’s passion to prove that American nature deserved prestige.
In Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose, Lee Alan Dugatkin vividly recreates the origin and evolution of the debates about natural history in America and, in so doing, returns the prize moose to its rightful place in American history.
This lively tromp through 17th- and early-18th-century Euro-American relations hinges on unraveling the mysteries surrounding one strange and telling event: that one of Thomas Jefferson's important diplomatic moves as president of the nascent United States was to send the Comte de Buffon, the leading European naturalist of the day, the remains of a seven-foot moose skeleton. Why? Because de Buffon had written an enormous natural history tract arguing that America's bad air, foul swamps, and measly flora and fauna would never amount to anything. Buffon was dissing the North American continent and by extension the fledgling U.S. by calling the land, its people, and its animals degenerate. Not so, Jefferson argued, wanting to paint Buffon as a buffoon: You may have all of Europe, but you know, we have the moose. Yeah! Take that!!!! Our moose is bigger, Europe, than your reindeer. Eat your words, Count.
In fact, eventually this act did help undo the so-called "degeneracy" theory. And the act of sending the moose butressed the claims that Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia staked in arguing for European audiences how rich the resources of the as yet unexplored New World really were. Dugatkin is clearly enamored of praising Jefferson, and casts the moose sending as an early act of patriotism. Unfortunately, this cheery retelling surrounds a glaring blind spot which Dugatkin barely touches. It's hard reading this book not to think of the people Jefferson himself wrote about as less human than the rest: Africans. However entertaining moose-sending is, this book would be an immensely more fascinating re-examination of natural history if Dugatkin Jefferson's own thoughts about racial degeneracy fit more fully their own ambivalent context. --Tess Taylor