Thomas Jefferson's Quest to Prove America's Natural Superiority

French theorists said that American native species were inferior to European plants and animals—the former President went to great lengths to show that they were wrong.

Albert Bierstadt

In January 1786, Thomas Jefferson—the American minister plenipotentiary in Paris—wrote several letters back home, asking his correspondents to send him “the skin, the skeleton and the horns of a moose.” Jefferson is famed as one of America’s founding fathers, the writer of the Declaration of Independence, and the third President of the United States. But he was much more than just a politician: he was a (slave-owning) farmer and gardener, an architect and bibliophile, and an inventor. He was also a scientist, interested in everything from meteorological records and lunar observations to native trees and fossil bones.

In Paris, in between negotiations of commercial treaties, arranging loans and composing diplomatic dispatches, Jefferson purchased the latest scientific books, visited famous gardens and met the greatest thinkers and scientists of the age. He also quickly found himself in the midst of a scientific battle that to his mind was of the greatest political and national interest. His weapons were native North American trees, weights of mammals, a panther pelt, and the bones and skin of a moose.

For years, Jefferson had been furious about a theory that the French called the “degeneracy of America.” Since the mid-eighteenth century several French thinkers had insisted that flora and fauna degenerated when “transplanted” from the Old to the New World. They noted how European fruits, vegetables and grains often failed to mature in America and how imported animals refused to thrive. They also insisted that American native species were inferior to European plants and animals. One of the offending scientists was Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, the most famous naturalist in the world and the author of the 36–volume magisterial Histoire Naturelle. In the 1760s and 1770s Buffon had written that in America all things “shrink and diminish under a niggardly sky and unprolific land.”

As Buffon’s theories spread, the natural world of America became a symbol for its political and cultural significance—or insignificance, depending on the point of view. Hoping to restore America’s honor, and elevate his country above those in Europe, Jefferson set out to prove that everything was in fact larger and superior in the New World.

At the end of the War of Independence, Jefferson began to write Notes on the State of Virginia (the only book he ever published) in which the flora and fauna of the United States became the foot-soldiers in his battle against Buffon. Operating on a theory that bigger means better, Jefferson listed the tallest American trees and provided the weights of bears, buffalos and panthers. Even the weasel, Jefferson wrote, was “larger in America than in Europe.”

To drive his point home, Jefferson included a long table ‘A Comparative View of the Quadrupeds of Europe and of America’ in the Notes. His next scientific weapons were the bones of the “mammoth”—the mastodon—which had been found in North America. Buffon claimed that the mastodon was just a larger elephant and that it was extinct but Jefferson insisted that these giant animals still roamed somewhere in the unexplored West. According to him they were stronger and more ferocious than any other animal in Europe. Its size made the mastodon the perfect symbol for the young nation. Years later, Jefferson would instruct Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to find them during their great expedition West.

Jefferson was not the first American to take up the dispute. In the early 1780s, while living in Paris, Benjamin Franklin had attended a dinner party together with Abbé Raynal, one of the scientists who believed in the theory of degeneracy. Franklin noted that all the American guests were sitting on one side of the table with the French opposite. Seizing the opportunity, he said: “Let both parties rise, and we will see on which side nature had degenerated.” As it happened all the Americans were of the “finest stature,” Franklin later told Jefferson, while the French were all diminutive—in particular Raynal who was “a mere shrimp.”

Jefferson was so obsessed “to convince Mons. Buffon of his mistake” that he brought a large panther skin from America to France in preparation for his fight. During a dinner shortly after his arrival, Jefferson boasted to Buffon that the Scandinavian reindeer was so small that it “could walk under the belly of our moose.” Determined to prove his point, he then asked friends and acquaintances to send him details of ‘the heaviest weights of our animals . . . from the mouse to the mammoth.’

It took him a long time for Jefferson to convince someone back home to procure a moose for him. He received information on sizes, the promise of some antlers but no skeleton materialized. In the end it was General John Sullivan, the governor of New Hampshire, who sent a troop of twenty soldiers west into Vermont with the order to find a particularly majestic one. They shot a moose that was standing a proud seven feet high at the shoulder, but they had trouble carrying it back through the deep snow and out of the wilderness, and the carcass of the moose fell apart mid–way.

The next difficulty was the preparation of the animal, which was done according to Jefferson’s detailed but amateur instructions. The flesh putrified and the men failed to keep the bones in the skin as Jefferson had requested. The whole process, Sullivan wrote to Paris, was “a very troublesome affair.” The cost for the entire enterprise was enormous but Jefferson spared no expense. The moose finally arrived—after many delays—in Paris in October 1787 but it was in a sorry state. When Jefferson opened the crate it exuded a terrible smell: The bones were decaying and the fur had come off the skin. The next disappointment was that the moose had been killed after its annually shedding of the antlers. Never mind, Jefferson’s suppliers had thought and craftily added antlers from another (but much smaller) moose—which “may be fixed on at pleasure,” they explained.

Though the specimen was not ideal, after inspecting the crates, Jefferson forwarded it on to the royal collections where Buffon was the superintendent. Jefferson later recounted that the French naturalist examined the moose and promised to “set these things right” in the next volume of his Histoire Naturelle, but this correction never came to pass because Buffon died six months later.

Despite this setback Jefferson remained obsessed with the subject. After returning to the United States, he wrote a paper for the journal of the American Philosophical Society in which he announced the discovery of the bones of the Megalonyx—an animal that he likened to a gigantic lion but which was (disappointingly for him) eventually classed as a ground sloth. A few years later, during his presidency, Jefferson turned the East Room of the White House into a storage facility for mastodon fossils, many of which he then duly dispatched to the Académie des Sciences in Paris.

Over the next decades and buoyed by the continent’s scale, Americans invested nature with patriotic sentiment. The Rockies were more impressive than the Alps, they insisted, just as John Adams declared the river Thames ‘but a rivulet’ compared to the majestic Hudson. Primeval forests, vast plains, and huge waterfalls were linked to the national character and to the uniqueness of America. Among the most spectacular discoveries were the Big Trees in the Sierra Nevada. The English suggested to call them Wellingtonia gigantean but luckily for the Americans they were believed to be related to the towering California coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) and therefore were named Sequoia gigantea. In 1868, one delighted botanist declared: “we are not now obliged to call the largest and most interesting tree in America after an English military hero.”

The giant sequoia, just like Jefferson’s moose, became an expression of the nation’s strength and manifest destiny. The very wildness of America’s rugged mountains and glorious forests was the embodiment of a nation that had freed itself from the shackles of tyranny. America, Jefferson claimed, was “made on an improved plan,” while Europe was only “a first idea, a crude production, before the maker knew his trade.”