Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Jefferson's moose

During the late 18th century, the Frenchman Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon was the world's most respected zoologist and botanist. In his comprehensive natural history of the world, he expressed the pontifical opinion that native animals of the New World are smaller than those of Europe, that there are fewer species of animals in America, and that domesticated European species degenerated upon crossing the Atlantic.

On his mountain top in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson read these opinions with outrage. In 1784, he was appointed Minister to France. Before leaving America, he asked John Sullivan, Governor of New Hampshire, to capture a moose, the biggest that could be found, prepare it for stuffing, and ship it to Paris. He would teach Buffon a thing or two.

The governor's agent "sallied forth with his forces" into the snowy wilderness of Vermont, where he killed "with Difficulty" a moose. By the time the animal reached Sullivan it was in a sorry state of putrefaction. The governor set about having the moose cleaned and prepared for shipment, a job (as he wrote Jefferson) "such as was never before attempted."

The moose's antlers were apparently unimpressive, but Sullivan sent along the horns of a deer, an elk, and a caribou. "They are not the horns of this moose," he wrote, with some lack of scientific objectivity, "but they may be fixed on at pleasure."

Sullivan's bill arrived in Paris before the moose. Jefferson had expected that an animal could be obtained from some hunter for a pound or two, to which might be added a few pounds for shipment. To his dismay, Sullivan's carefully itemized invoice amounted to 46 pounds sterling. As nearly as I can figure it, this would be about $4000-5000 in present money, a pricey put-down for Buffon.

At last, the moose itself appeared in Paris, in an appalling state of decay. Jefferson nevertheless sent it on to Buffon, along with the horns of the elk, deer and caribou, assuring him that all of the specimens were disappointingly small. "The horns of the Deer which accompany these spoils [sic], are not the fifth or sixth part of the weight of some I have seen," wrote Jefferson in his cover letter, undoubtedly with red-faced embarrassment.

Buffon was unimpressed. I have not been able to ascertain what happened to the moose.