Friday, February 4, 2011

Jefferson's moose

Thomas Jefferson was pissed. He wanted a moose. He wanted it big. And he wanted it dead.

OK, enough already with the cheapo narrative tricks. All that stuff in the first paragraph is true, but it hypes a story that's not all that exciting. However, it's a good bet that many people have never heard the story of Jefferson's moose.

The tale begins in the late 1700s, when Georges-Louis leclerc (known as Count Buffon, the most influencial natural scientists of his century) published his 36-volume "Natural History." In it, Buffon said America was a degenerate place as shown by its weak and stunted flora, fauna, and people.

Jefferson, fearing such an impression could impede the economic and cultural maturation of the U.S., wanted to bring Buffon the bones of a huge moose, hoping its size would convince him to drop his degeneracy theory.

Before Jefferson left to be ambassador to France, he wrote to friends pleading for hunters to procure for him the skeleton of a giant moose. In France, meanwhile, Jefferson met with Buffon, telling him that a European "reindeer could walk under the belly of our moose." He left the meeting with the impression that Buffon would change his mind if he could see such a creature.

Finally, after many delays, Jefferson received the moose bones. Here the story kind of peters out. Jefferson did show Buffon the moose and felt he was suitably impressed, but Buffon was ill and died before he could change his book.

The author of the Scentific American article I've used for this - historian Lee Dugatkin - said that some form of the idea of degeneracy in the New World lasted "for at least another six decades before withering and leaving only a dried husk of general anti-Americanism."

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