Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose

By LEE ALAN DUGATKIN

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.