Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Sierra Club
"If you want a shot of environmental patriotism, this book is a good choice."
Financial Times
Fast-paced, snappy and suspenseful.

— Emmanuelle Smith


"A fascinating and very readable account of a controversial natural history issue in early nineteenth century America."
American Scholar
A scrupulously researched and well-told narrative.

— Miranda Weiss

David Hull
“For those of us who think that science is international, Lee Alan Dukatin’s Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose will come as a shock. In this case it was anything but. It was the French against the Americans, Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon versus Thomas Jefferson, in a dispute over the relative degree of degeneracy exhibited by the flora and fauna of the Old and New Worlds. According to Buffon, American plants and animals, including native Americans, are merely degenerate versions of European forms. Jefferson attempted to counter this Eurocentric chauvinism by displaying an American moose that was larger than any of the European ungulates—the giant moose in the title of this fascinating book.”—David Hull
Michael Ruse
“This fascinating book combines a deep knowledge of biology with a love of American history to tell a story that grips like a thriller. Lee Alan Dugatkin introduces you to Thomas Jefferson and the giant moose, an animal so great and imposing that never again could the belittling naturalists of Europe assume that American natural life was inferior. Sparkling on the surface, profound beneath the waters, this is a book that will be happy reading for people of all interests and ages.”—Michael Ruse, author of Darwinism and Its Discontents
Financial Times - Emmanuelle Smith
"Fast-paced, snappy and suspenseful."
American Scholar - Miranda Weiss
"A scrupulously researched and well-told narrative."
"A fascinating and very readable account of a controversial natural history issue in early nineteenth century America."
Sierra Club

"In the early days of the U. S., many scientists considered Amercian flora and fauna inferior to European species. Incensed, Thomas Jefferson set out to prove them wrong, and used the majestic, native giant moose as a way to flaunt the natural wonders of the new country. If you want a shot of environmental patriotism, this book is a good choice."—Sierra Club


"A fascinating and very readable account of a controversial natural history issue in early nineteenth century America."—Choice

Financial Times

"Fast-paced, snappy and suspenseful."—Emmanuelle Smith, Financial Times

— Emmanuelle Smith

American Scholar

"A scrupulously researched and well-told narrative."—Miranda Weiss, American Scholar

— Miranda Weiss

The Barnes & Noble Review
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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226169149
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 10/15/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 184
  • Sales rank: 1,419,818
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Lee Alan Dugatkin is professor of biology at the University of Louisville and author of The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness and Cheating Monkeys and Citizen Bees: The Nature of Cooperation in Animals and Humans, among other books.

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Table of Contents

Preface: “A Moose More Precious Than You Can Imagine”

1.   “Dictatorial Powers of the Botanical Gentlemen of Europe”

2.   The Count’s Degenerate America

3.   “Noxious Vapors and Corrupt Juices”

4.   “Not a Sprig of Grass That Shoots Uninteresting”

5.   “Geniuses Which Adorn the Present Age”

6.   Enter the Moose

7.   Thirty-Seven-Pound Frogs and Patagonian Giants 

8.   “Extracting the Tapeworm of Europe from Our Brain”



Reference List


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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2010

    Very Slow Going Much like the speed of a Moose!!!

    Did not enjoy -found it very tedious to get through the chapters and finally gave up!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 21, 2011

    Great Book

    Excellent book if you are a lover of history and science.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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