Alaska Life

To defend America from faulty scientific speculation, Thomas Jefferson turned to the moose

Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

To win an argument against a Frenchman, produce a moose. That might sound like the worst attempt to create an aphorism, but it is how Thomas Jefferson once defended American honor and handled an academic dispute. This article may not feature Alaska, but it does center on a subject Alaskans know all too well: the moose. And Alaskans certainly know far more about moose today than any European scholar did in the eighteenth century.

George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), in English the Count Buffon, was a French naturalist and author, one of the most acclaimed scholars of his generation. Though less well-regarded now, in his time, he was considered a worthy peer of intellectual heavyweights such as Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Buffon’s masterwork was a 36-volume “Histoire Naturelle: Générale et Particulière,” a mineral and zoological encyclopedia published between 1749 and 1788.

Written in an engaging and often poetic style, each volume was a cultural sensation, repeatedly reprinted and translated into several other languages. Anyone with the slightest literary or intellectual pretensions owned copies. The “Histoire Naturelle” volumes were some of the best-selling books of the 18th century. Short chapters on specific animal species constitute most of the series: larks followed by warblers, and so on. But he also included some more general treatises on the natural world, most notably his theory on the degeneracy of animals and man on the North and South American continents.

Buffon believed the animals and Indigenous people of the American continents were degenerated compared to those elsewhere. His usage of degeneracy does not refer to the immoral meaning of the term but that the animals and people were inferior: smaller, weaker and less prolific. The animal record was his primary evidence. For example, he noted how big cats in the Americas were smaller and “more cowardly” than lions. He likewise argued that the absence of elephants, camels, rhinoceroses and giraffes in the Americas meant, “Living nature is thus much less active there, much less varied, and we may even say, less strong.” Moreover, he argued that species from elsewhere transplanted to the Americas would necessarily degenerate. The negative implications therein were not lost upon the inhabitants of certain British colonies along the North American east coast, those that became a new, independent nation in the later years of Buffon’s life.

Buffon’s self-aggrandizing — given his continental origin — theory was far from new and far from the last of its type. Variants have existed since the times of the ancient Greek philosophers, beliefs that the lands beyond that of the author possessed inferior fauna, flora and inhabitants. When Queen Isabella of Spain, of the Ferdinand and Isabella who dispatched Christopher Columbus west, heard the first reports of the new to her world, she remarked, “This land, where the trees are not firmly rooted, must produce men of little truthfulness and less constancy.” English poet John Donne (1571/1572-1631) described the Americas as “that unripe side of earth.” And German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was at least partially influenced by Buffon in his 1837 text “Lectures on the Philosophy of History” when he wrote, “America has always shown itself physically and spiritually impotent, and it does so to this day.”

As regards the animals of the Americas, Buffon was unaware or lacked a proper understanding of the caribou, larger bears, musk oxen, moose and bison. Of moose specifically, Buffon dismissively wrote that they were “considerably smaller in America than in Europe, and that without exception.” Of worthy note, the French nobleman never visited the Americas. Instead, he relied upon the accounts of others, sometimes no better than rumors. At a certain point, the insult toward the United States became too clear. Thus entered Thomas Jefferson.


By the early 1780s, the future president was familiar with Buffon’s claims and dismayed by the apparent critical failures, including the quality of the data collection. In “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson’s only full-length book, he heavily critiqued the theory of American degeneracy. Regarding Buffon specifically, he wrote, “There has been more eloquence than sound reasoning displayed in support of this theory; that it is one of those cases where the judgment has been seduced by a glowing pen.”

Jefferson spent most of 1784 to 1789 in France as a trade negotiator and, eventually, the official American minister to France. The posting allowed him more direct opportunities to rebut Buffon and his adherents; “Notes on the State of Virginia” was first published anonymously in 1785 Paris. In 1786, Jefferson even dined at Buffon’s home, where the count acknowledged a minor taxonomic error but otherwise declined to alter his beliefs on American degeneracy.

Jefferson had heretofore argued like a scientist, with measurements, animal skins and fossil records but was consistently rebuffed in ways small and minor when not altogether ignored. He required a bit more shock and awe to move the European mindset along, an individually spectacular response that could not be ignored. He needed a specimen so large and grand that it would singularly counter arguments about tiny American wildlife. As any Alaskan would understand, he settled upon a moose. However, he needed an actual moose, not notes or antlers, sent to France.

Moose were an especially appropriate target as Buffon did not believe they existed as their own species, thinking they were instead miscategorized reindeer. And for a Virginia resident, Jefferson was a moose expert. He had been researching moose on his own for several years by that point. Before leaving for France, he dispatched surveys to his colleagues — the statesman and prolific letter writer had a lot of colleagues — regarding moose with questions on their behavior and size. Among his respondents was John Sullivan, a general during the American Revolution and future governor of New Hampshire.

Sullivan, who had been present at Washington’s Delaware River crossing among other battles, wrote to Jefferson in January 1787 with the good news. He had a moose in mind if not in hand. In his excitement, he wrote to Jefferson somewhat prematurely. Had he known the difficulties to come, he might have waited.

As of that letter, the moose in question lay dead in remote Vermont. From there, it took 14 days and the clearing of a 20-mile-long road amid a notably nasty winter before the moose arrived at Sullivan’s home. Further, in his eagerness to aid Jefferson, Sullivan had failed to consider his complete lack of training as a taxidermist. Once prepared, the moose still required a long sea voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to England, and then on to the French port of Le Havre, and from there to Paris.

The project’s substantial costs were closer to ruinous than not for Sullivan. He had to borrow money from his brother for the transportation. In a detailed expense report, he wrote, “I only charge for the expenses I have paid in cash, without any thing for my own trouble which has been very considerable.”

Jefferson finally received the object of his desires around the tail end of that September. The moose, once a striking example of its kind, was a shambolic assortment of skin and bones after months of questionable taxidermy and shipping delays. It was more kit than specimen. Sullivan had managed to preserve most of the skeleton except the head and antlers. As for the head, he wrote, “the skin being whole and well dresst it may be drawn on at pleasure,” an uninspiring option. A replacement set of antlers was included that “may be fixed on at pleasure.” Worse, as Sullivan wrote, “the skin of the moose was drest with the hair on, but a great deal of it has come off, and the rest of it is ready to drop off.”

From this assortment of moose pieces, the Declaration of Independence author was able to reconstruct a full, stuffed moose. In appearance, it was certainly less than it could have been. As connected as Jefferson was, he was unlikely to convince another person to kill, prepare and ship a moose to France on his behalf, so he made do. An Alaskan today might have wondered how many diseases the moose had before it died, but it must have been a startling sight for Europeans of the time.

[Mystery meat of 1951: Did an exclusive club eat a frozen woolly mammoth from the Aleutians?]

The moose was duly delivered to the count. In a letter to Daniel Webster, Jefferson wrote that Buffon “promised in his next volume, to set these things right.” But the Frenchman made no reply, neither base insult, formal rebuttal nor surrendering apology. More to the point, he died within six months after the arrival of the moose. There is surely no causal link between the two events, though it is amusing to imagine that the sight of an American moose sent the Frenchman into a death spiral of shame and remorse. American pride had demanded a response; perhaps this was it.

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Key sources:

Dugatkin, Lee Alan. Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Nature History in Early America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Gerbi, Antonello. The Dispute of the New World: The History of a Polemic, 1750-1900. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973.

Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1955.

Webster, Fletcher, editor. The Private Correspondence of Daniel Webster, Volume 1. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1857.

David Reamer | Histories of Alaska

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.