It is difficult to imagine now the depth of ignorance that European scientists possessed about the Americas back in Lewis & Clark’s day. The greatest and most influential naturalist of the 18th century, French scientist Georges Louis LeClerc, the comte of Buffon, published extensively on the New World and essentially trashed it. Buffon wrote that the New World had emerged much later from the biblical flood and was thus still in the process of drying out. It was possessed of an unhealthy climate and rife with underdeveloped animals that couldn’t hold a candle to the lions and elephants in the Old World. Worse still were the people, Buffon wrote. The Indians were hairless and cold-blooded, like reptiles, and possessed of tiny and weak genitals. And black people were becoming lighter, their African glory fading away from some mysterious environmental cause. (As Dave Barry used to say, I am not making this up.)
Considering that Buffon in his day had a reputation akin to that of Charles Darwin in a later era, these were devastating charges. Among educated Europeans, America essentially had a reputation as a degenerated land full of barbarous and debased people and animals. These notions filtered down to the man on the street as well: Hessian mercenaries who fought with the British in the American Revolution wrote home of their surprise to find their opponents to be white men not so different from themselves. Literary critics even blamed America’s climate for the continent’s alleged failure to produce a decent artist or writer.
In what has been called the most important American book written before 1800, America’s leading intellectual — Thomas Jefferson — took on Buffon and the European scientific establishment. First published in France in 1785, Notes on the State of Virginia would be the only book Jefferson ever wrote. He requested that one of the first copies off the press be delivered personally to Buffon.
The first section of Notes is usually omitted from modern reprints, but Jefferson considered it to be the heart of his argument. Side by side in table after table, Jefferson compared the animals of the Old World and the New World by weight. In almost every instance the American animal was larger, in many cases astoundingly so. The American cow weighed in at 2500 pounds vs. 763 for a European heifer. The bear tipped the scales at 410 pounds vs. 153 for a European bear. And so on. Jefferson even estimated the weight of the extinct prehistoric mammoths being uncovered in the United States to counter Buffon’s jibe about the New World’s lack of elephants. Among those who helped Jefferson gather this data on American animals were Doctor Thomas Walker, explorer of the Cumberland Gap and relative of Meriwether Lewis, and George Rogers Clark, conqueror of the Old Northwest and brother of William Clark.
Jefferson also refuted Buffon’s statements about the Indians who were, he wrote, “neither more defective in ardor nor more impotent with his female than the white.” Indians were “in body and mind the equal of the white man.” Indians were at an earlier stage of the civilization process, it was true, but that was not due to a lack of native genius; in fact, Jefferson could cite numerous instances in which Indians had assimilated, a process which was bound to continue as they became more familiar with “husbandry and the household arts.”
Unfortunately, Jefferson decided to weigh in on the merits or lack thereof of the African-American race, and these statements hang over Notes of the State of Virginia today. His statements on the character and appearance of slaves are all the more tragic because of what we know to be his hypocrisy on the puzzlement as to just why those Africans were lightening up in the New World. In the interest of not letting Jefferson off the hook, a brief excerpt of his views on skin color:
And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?
The underlying tone of the narrative section of Jefferson’s Notes is confrontational. In it, Jefferson submitted questions designed to embarrass and expose the great Buffon for his pseudo-science. Who, Jefferson wanted to know, were the European travelers who had supplied the naturalist with his information? Where was the data about the animals they encountered? Could it be examined?
Shortly after the publication of Notes, Jefferson was named United States minister to France. Though Jefferson generally avoided personal confrontations, he courted one with Buffon, calling upon him to present him with the hide of an exceptionally large American panther. Jefferson repeated many of his questions to Buffon in person, finally telling him that the American moose was so large that a European reindeer could walk under its belly. Buffon called Jefferson’s challenge, telling the upstart Virginian that if he could produce moose antlers that corroborated his story, he would retract his statements about the degeneracy of New World animals.
Jefferson swung into action, bombarding his contacts back in the States with requests for moose and other American animals that would essentially bludgeon the smirk off Buffon’s face for good. Governor John Sullivan of New Hampshire was deputized to get the moose, but unfortunately bungled the job and ended up sending Jefferson a hodgepodge of several animals. However, Jefferson apparently wore Buffon down with his dogged pursuit of the truth. Reportedly, Buffon promised Jefferson to set the record straight on New World animals, but he died in 1788 before he had the chance to write further on the subject.
Jefferson and his proteges continued lifelong work on examining the creatures, geology, and native peoples of America. Some twenty-five years later, the naturalist Alexander Wilson, a close friend of Meriwether Lewis’s, was still excoriating Buffon. In his landmark nine-volume American Ornithology, Wilson calls special attention to Buffon as a man who committed countless errors “with equal eloquence and absurdity.”