Ramblings & ephemera

Why did Thomas Jefferson bring a stuffed moose to France?

From David G. Post’s “Jefferson’s Moose” (Remarks presented at the Stanford Law School Conference on Privacy in Cyberspace: 7 February 2000):

In 1787, Jefferson, then the American Minister to France, had the “complete skeleton, skin & horns of the Moose” shipped to him in Paris and mounted in the lobby of his hotel. One can only imagine the comments made by bemused onlookers and hotel staff.

This was no small undertaking at that time — I suppose it would be no small undertaking even today. It’s not as if he had no other things to do with his time or his money. It’s worth asking: Why did he do it? What could have possessed him?

He wanted, first, to shock. He wanted his French friends to stand back, to gasp, and to say: There really is a new world out there, one that has things in it that we can hardly imagine. He wanted them to have what Lessig called an “aha! moment” in regard to the New World from out of which Jefferson (and his moose) had emerged.

But there was another, more specific, purpose. He wanted to show them that this new world was not a degenerate place. The Comte de Buffon, probably the most celebrated naturalist of the late 18th Century, had propounded just such a theory about the degeneracy of life in the New World. Jefferson described Buffon’s theory this way:

“That the animals common both to the old and new world, are smaller in the latter; that those peculiar to the new, are on a smaller scale; that those which have been domesticated in both, have degenerated in America; and that on the whole the New World exhibits fewer species.”

Though it may be hard to appreciate from our more enlightened 21st century perspective, this was deadly serious stuff — both as science and, more to our point here, as politics; to Jefferson, Buffon’s theory had ominous political implications, for it was, as he put it, “within one step” of the notion that man, too, would degenerate in the New World. Thus, it could and did give a kind of intellectual cover to the notion that man in the New World could not be trusted to govern himself.

Sometimes a picture — or, better yet, a carcass — is worth a thousand words. So out comes the moose; larger than its European counterparts (the reindeer and caribou), its brooding presence in downtown Paris would surely make observers think twice about Buffon’s theory. Jefferson was no fool; he knew full well that one data point does not settle the argument, and he would provide, in his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” a detailed refutation of Buffon’s charge, page after page of careful analysis of the relative sizes of American and European animals.

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