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

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Natural History was a huge success, and was translated into English, Dutch and German. It was also the talk of the Paris salons, and Buffon quickly became a national hero, on the scale of Voltaire and Rousseau, with Louis XVI having his statue cast and placed in front of the Royal Gardens where it remains to this day. Thus, they have degenerated. Animals found only in the New World are degenerate compared to those found only in the Old World. Any attempt to domesticate animals e. Buffon also had a theory for why degeneracy occurred in New World animals, hypothesizing that the New World was colder and more humid, and that this combination led to degeneracy.

And it was not chance that Buffon thought that cold and humidity were the norm for North America. Much of the information he had was from French travelers that had been there and then returned to Paris. Such travelers often spent their time trapping in Canada and the northern United States, where it was extremely cold during the winter, or in the humid French-owned province that would become Louisiana. She treated them rather like a stepmother than a parent, by refusing them the invigorating sentiment of love, and the strong desire of multiplying their species…In the savage, the organs of generation are small and feeble.

He has no hair, no beard, no ardour for the female…. It has been used many times, and in many different ways in biology, physics and mathematics, referring to everything from mental characteristics and degenerative communication systems to the degeneracy that is, redundancy of the genetic code and degenerative distributions in mathematics.

De Pauw was educated at the University of Gottingen, after which he accepted a clergy position in the Prussian district of Xanten. From then until his death in , he led a secluded life that appears interrupted only by two visits to Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, at his palace at Potsdam. After just a few months, de Pauw missed the seclusion he enjoyed in Xanten, and returned to his parish.

He spent some additional time with King Frederick in later years, but again returned to Xanten. The Creoles, descended from Europeans and born in America… have never produced a single book. This degradation of humanity must be imputed to the vitiated qualities of the air stagnated in their immense forests, and corrupted by noxious vapours from standing waters and uncultivated grounds.


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If Buffon had already laid out the basic idea of degeneracy in North America, why did de Pauw feel the need to write a book-long extension of this idea, emphasizing the effects on Creoles? The answer probably lay in the general fear that many Europeans had regarding the potential of the New World. The idea that Europeans could now emigrate and obtain vast tracts of land on the other side of the globe was not appealing to Old World monarchs, including Fredrick the Great.

Frederick had a strong anti-emigration policy when it came to North America. Indeed, he had established a special bureau in Hamburg whose primary function was to prevent emigration to the New World, and instead to attract potential newcomers to Prussia.

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These orders were clearly written by a man who knew his natural history. But, Jefferson was more than interested in natural history—he was enamored with it.

Thomas Jefferson Defends America With a Moose

Was natural history the object of their travels? Did they measure or weigh the animals they speak of? Or did they not judge of them by sight, or perhaps even from report only? Were they acquainted with the animals of their own country, with which they undertake to compare them? Have they not been so ignorant as often to mistake the species? As if both sides were not warmed by the same genial sun; as if a soil of the same chemical composition, was less capable of elaboration into animal nutriment; as if the fruits and grains from that soil and sun, yielded a less rich chyle, gave less extension to the solids and fluids of the body, or produced sooner in the cartilages, membranes, and fibres, that rigidity which restrains all further extension, and terminates animal growth.

The truth is, that a Pigmy sic and a Patagonian, a Mouse and a Mammoth, derive their dimensions from the same nutritive juices. Jefferson admitted that climate might affect the size of animals, but argued there is no evidence that it actually does. Two of the tables Jefferson used as evidence against the theory of New World degeneracy. Again, he finds no evidence that those in the latter are larger. Sullivan had been a representative at the Second Continental Congress, and when Jefferson approached him about obtaining a moose to send to Buffon, he was Attorney General of New Hampshire. Still, Sullivan searched for the moose himself, and he also sent out orders to some of his colleagues to look for the perfect animal for Jefferson.

In , while the hunt for the moose was on, Jefferson was appointed minister plenipotentiary to France. And to preserve the skins with hair on, with the hoofs on and bones of legs and thighs in skin without putrefaction…the skin of the head being whole and well dressed sic it may be drawn on at pleasure. The stuffed moose, after a number of false starts, finally arrived in Paris in early October Jefferson wanted to deliver it to Buffon himself, in person, but Buffon was too ill to receive visitors.

But there was to be no such next volume of Natural History.


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  • Soon after he received the moose, Buffon died. There was no retraction. Jefferson knew that Buffon knew he was wrong, and that gave him some solace.


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    But he feared that the theory of New World degeneracy would live on after the Count and weave its tentacles into the brains of many, and for a long time. Philosopher Georg Wilhelm Fredrich Hegel — was a vociferous advocate of the theory of degeneracy. Where shall I learn to get my peace again? To banish thoughts of that most hateful land…. That monstrous region, whose dull rivers pour. Ever from their sordid urns unto the shore….

    Iced in the great lakes, to afflict mankind;.

    Wrestling the Moose

    Whose rank - grown forests, frosted, black, and blind…. There bad flowers have no scent, birds no sweet song,. And great unerring Nature once seems wrong. What caused such deep astonishment? Americans countered degeneracy in many ways, including in early school textbooks Miller The most striking example of this is in the textbooks of the Reverend Jedidiah Morse — , a well-respected historian and geographer of his day, and a contributor to the first encyclopedia published in the United States Moss Chapter 1 of The History of America in Two Books quotes at length both Buffon and de Pauw, so students could see for themselves the sort of material that European philosophers were writing about their country.

    Morse told his young readers that even if climate was responsible for the traits that Buffon and De Pauw believed existed, they misapplied their own theory. The response to degeneracy is evident in many genres of early American writing. One such genre was the satirical poem, many of which were political in nature. These satires would appear in newspapers and, above and beyond their political overtones, were a form of entertainment in the years following the American Revolution.

    Where filling suns defraud the western day. Paint the dank, sterile globe, accurst by fate. Created, lost, or stolen from ocean late. See vegetation, man, and bird, and beast,. Just by the distance squares in size decreased…. Columbian turkeys turn European flies. Exotic birds, and foreign beasts, grow small. And man, the lordliest, shrink to least of all.

    While each vain whim their loaded skulls conceive. Whole realms shall reverence, and all fools believe…. All nature lessening to the sage De Pau w.

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    And all the abbe blossoms in his face;. His peerless pen shall raise, with magic lore. And let philosophers say what they please. Your victories won—your revolution ended. Your constitution newly made and mended…. Will make the age of heroes, wits and sages. The first in the story to the latest ages! Why the degeneracy theory vanished when it did in the mid s is difficult to determine. Part of the reason may have been a sort of natural decay. By the s, the key players were all long dead, and the loss of such dramatic personalities would naturally result in a loss of interest in what they were fighting about.

    More than that, it would have been obvious to almost all the players on the world stage that America was not degenerate. People moved more freely between Europe and America, and could see for themselves that what Buffon and de Pauw and others had said about humans degenerating in America was incorrect. In addition, the study of natural history had advanced significantly since the time of Buffon, and there was no evidence of American degeneracy e. The economic facts, with America emerging as power player, also spoke against degeneracy. In the face of all that, support for the theory of New World degeneracy diminished and then disappeared.

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    Download PDF. Evolution: Education and Outreach December , Cite as. Buffon, Jefferson and the theory of New World degeneracy. Open Access. First Online: 06 June 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. 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. How to Tame a Fox and Build a Dog.