On May 17, 1785, Jefferson became the United States’ second-ever minister to France, succeeding the equally-famous Benjamin Franklin. As his nation’s top diplomat in Paris, he met many of France’s top leaders and thinkers, including Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, a well-regarded naturalist. Buffon, like many European elites at the time, believed that Europe was inherently superior to the Americas and, by extension, that Europeans were superior to the white people now living across the Atlantic. Buffon’s belief wasn’t just idle speculation, though; he was a scientist, and he had a scientific explanation. America, he argued, “was mostly swamp and had only recently lifted itself up out of the sea. It was still drying out, so anything that lived there could not compete with the drier, hardier, more bracing climate in Europe… American animals and plants were smaller, more fragile and less diverse and life in America was a diminished, second-best version of Europe.”
That argument is ridiculous to modern ears, but it resonated with Europeans at the time. Thought leaders began to adopt this theory that anything that lived in America would degenerate, becoming a weaker version of their best selves. And that caused a problem for the fledgling United States. Jefferson quickly realized the long-term consequences, should the theory of degeneracy take hold. Why would Europeans trade with America, or immigrate to the New World, if Buffon and his followers were correct? Indeed, some very powerful people were already employing the degeneracy argument to stop immigration to America.
So, Jefferson decided to push back. At first, Jefferson wrote his colleagues — Franklin, Madison, and others — asking them to go out and measure American animals, so he could create his own data set. Then he collected that data and that of European equivalents and published a treatise of his own, showing that American bears were larger than European bears, American beavers were larger than European beavers, and . . . well, you get the idea. Unfortunately, that changed few minds; anyone could make up facts and figures to fit their narrative. Jefferson realized he needed something concrete. He needed a moose.
Moose, Jefferson noted, were much larger than reindeer, the largest similar creature native to Europe. And, as American Scientist explains, “moose should have been familiar to Buffon from French travelers in Canada.” Live moose had been imported to Britain in the 1770s and records of them existed throughout Western Europe. But a picture of a moose wouldn’t change any minds. Jefferson wanted an actual moose — and he had a pretty good idea of how to get one. Moose were common in Vermont, so he asked the governor of the state to get him one.
Jefferson wrote to John Sullivan of New Hampshire on January 7, 1786, asking him to send to Paris “skin, the skeleton, and the horns of the Moose, the Caribou, and the Elk … but most especially those of the moose.” Jefferson specified how he would prefer the animal dressed: “… to leave the hoof on, to leave the bones of the legs and of the thighs, if possible, in the skin, and to leave also the bones of the head in the skin with the horns on, so that by sewing up the neck and belly of the skin we should have the true form and size of the animal.” Such an acquisition, Jefferson wrote, would be “more precious than you can imagine.”
And Jefferson didn’t stop there. Finding a moose became a fixation for Jefferson, and for about a year, interspersed within his official correspondence to James Monroe, George Washington, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin over urgent matters of state, Jefferson repeatedly begged them to send him a moose.”
Ultimately, Governor Sullivan delivered. He shipped Jefferson a Moose. Unfortunately, the moose Sullivan procured was missing its antlers, so a different set of antlers from another creature, were sent and the moose carcass was lost a few times in transit so that by the time it arrived, most of the hair had fallen off the hide and the whole carcass was probably rancid but it was close enough to make the point. Jefferson showed it to Buffon, who, per Jefferson, agreed to revise his treatise to reflect the fact that some animals in the Americas were indeed significantly larger than their European counterparts.
Unfortunately, that never happened. Buffon died before publishing a revised version of his work. Nevertheless, his “degeneracy” argument had been mortally wounded, and it dissipated from public discourse soon thereafter.
So, in matters of urgent diplomatic redress, never forget the power of data and the importance one small moose can make if disproving irrational theories.