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.”