George Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon
In the wake of the American Revolution the fledgling United States was eager to assert its national identity, and proclaim its capacity to create a new society which could be morally superior to those of Europe. Yet one man proved to be a fly in the ointment; Georges Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon (1707-88), the best selling scientific author of the eighteenth century. Work after work from Buffon’s pen claimed that the New World, upon which the new Republic was staking its territory, was fundamentally inferior; a land of weaklings, limp foliage and stunted animals. How could the American experiment in liberty flourish in such surroundings?. It was soon realised by Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson that Buffon would have to be refuted. If not the United States would fail to gain sorely needed financial assistance and credit in Europe. The very future of the young state was in jeopardy.
The thesis Buffon presented in the ‘Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière’ was that the New World, in which he had never set foot in his life, was an immature landscape. The continent had only recently been raised up from the depths and was substantially younger in geological terms than the Old World. Its flora and fauna, including its native peoples, were under-developed and greatly inferior. Its mountains were higher, its environments wilder and more inaccessible and its animals much smaller; including the European livestock which had been shipped over. According to Buffon only snakes and insects could survive in such a cursed land:
‘Even those which, from the kindly influence of another climate have acquired their complete form and expansion, shrink and diminish under a niggardly sky and an un-prolific land, thinly peopled with wandering savages, who, instead of using this territory as an master, had no property or empire; and having subjected neither the animals nor the elements, nor conquered the seas, nor directed the motions of the rivers, nor cultivated the earth, held only the first rank amongst animate beings and existed as creature of no consideration in nature, a kind of weak automatons, incapable of improving or fecunding her intentions.’
Later on, Buffon described the American Indians in these somewhat derogatory terms:
‘The American savage is feeble and has small organs of generation; he has neither hair nor beard, and no ardour whatsoever for his female.... he is also less sensitive, and yet more timid and cowardly; he has no vivacity, no activity of mind, the activity of his body is less an exercise, a voluntary motion, than a necessary action caused by want; relieve him of hunger and thirst and you deprive him of all the active principle of all his movements; he will rest stupidly upon his legs or lying down entire days.’
We might question Buffon’s objectivity when critiquing the genitalia of America’s native peoples. He was relying on purely anecdotal evidence and idle speculation. A principle motivation of the Comte was his vehement opposition to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's notion of the "noble savage" which argued that humans had lived in a state of primeval grace before becoming corrupted by the evils of civilisation. Another was undoubtedly his aristocratic snobbery towards the United States, a country with a somewhat too egalitarian outlook which irritated the French aristocracy. In time other writers such as the Abbe Raynal and Corneille de Pauw were to extend the ideas of Buffon, even going so far as to claim that Europeans emigrating to the United States were also becoming degenerate. Native American males, wrote de Pauw, were not only reproductively unimposing, but 'so lacking in virility that they had milk in their breasts'. In his Histoire philosophique et politique des deux Indes, the abbe Raynal wrote:
"One must be astonished that America has not yet produced one good poet, one able mathematician, on man of genius in a single art or a single science.These European attitudes, and some of the more arrogant pronouncements of Buffon, incensed Thomas Jefferson who exclaimed that in two hundred years:
"in war we have produced a Washington . . . in physics we have produced a Franklin, than whom no one of the present age has made more important discoveries . . . [and] we have supposed Mr. Rittenhouse second to no astronomer living."
In 1781 Jefferson threw himself into writing his only book, ‘Notes on the State of Virginia’, in which he mounted a vigorous defence against Buffon’s accusations. As well as defending the American Indian by referring to eloquent speeches by native celebrities such as Chief Logan, he also addressed the claim that the animals of the Americas had been stunted. Here he pointed to the fact that the American black bear weighed in at an impressive 412 pounds compared to the European bear at 18. The American beaver, Jefferson wrote, trounced its European counterpart at 45 pounds to 18. He wasn’t above being a little economical with the truth, claiming a little unrealistically that the American cow weighed 2,500 pounds against the European version at 763.
Yet Jefferson lacked a decisive trump card. At one point he was excited to discover a fossil claw, which he incorrectly identified as belonging to an American lion that had been larger in size than any lion of the old world. Sadly, as it transpired, the claw had come from a sloth, a somewhat less inspiring creature. He also tried to use the Mastodon as an example to refute Buffon; not realising it was extinct.
In the end Jefferson was to build his argument around the moose, an animal, he claimed, that was so big a European reindeer could walk under it. When Jefferson moved to Paris he went so far as to write to his friend General John Sullivan, the governor of New Hampshire, asking for a large specimen to be sent over in order to add force to his arguments. Accordingly, in one of the most bizarre military operations in recorded history, 20 men were sent out into the northern woods to prove the strength of American quadrupeds. After two weeks of searching they were able to shoot a moose, but when inspected, it was found that the specimen lacked the imposing horns that Jefferson had asked for. General Sullivan therefore decided to attach a set of anthers from a stag which bestowed a greater sense of majesty to the corpse.
Having been decorated, the moose was shipped to France and delivered by Jefferson to Buffon’s associate "in hopes that Monsieur de Buffon will be able to have it stuffed, and placed on his legs in the King's Cabinet.". Sadly, Buffon was too sick at this point to view the by now rancid carcass, but by this time he had been sufficiently impressed to retract his thesis. Jefferson later told Daniel Webster that Buffon had "promised in his next volume, to set these things right . . . but he died directly afterwards."
The efforts of Benjamin Franklin had been no less important in persuading Buffon to change his mind, although the way he went about it was much different. At a dinner party in Paris when a great number of American guests and French dignitaries were assembled, Franklin asked his fellow countrymen to stand up. When the Frenchmen including the Abbe Raynal rose to their feet, it quickly became apparent that their American counterparts towered over them. Rather than revelling in this victory, Franklin graciously remarked that he wasn’t exactly the tallest of men.
Following a number of scientific discussions with Franklin, Buffon was to remark that:
"because we know from the celebrated Franklin, that in twenty-eight years the population of Philadelphia (without immigration) doubled . . . in a country where the Europeans multiply so promptly, where the life of the natives is longer than previously, it is not possible that humans degenerate."
Honour had been restored and the flora and fauna of the great American continent had been elevated to the high esteem it has remained in ever since; mainly thanks to the efforts of a few founding fathers and the far less appreciated moose.
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