Thomas Jefferson, the French, and a Debate About Moose

If that title doesn’t get your attention, than that of the NPR article I just read will: “Thomas Jefferson Needs A Dead Moose Right Now To Defend America.” That in turn references the unusual book, “Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking At People Looking at Animals in America.” Needless to say, both the book and the article are pretty interesting. Here’s this gem for example.

So, from his residence in Paris, 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. As biologist Lee Alan Dugatkin describes it in his bookMr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose, the Founding Fathers quickly responded. Madison sent Jefferson a precise description of a local Virginian weasel, measuring all the parts — down to the “distance between the anus and the vulva.”

Jefferson put all these measurements into a table, and published it years later in his Notes on the State of Virginia, comparing a 410-pound bear from America to Europe’s 153.7-pound version, America’s 12-pound otter to Europe’s 8.9-pounder. Mooallem describes Jefferson as a man obsessed. He had to prove Buffon wrong, and (this being an Enlightened Age) he wanted to prove it scientifically — by measuring, describing and building his argument.

I’ll let you figure out what this out-of-context quote means. It’s actually a fascinating story that touches on the power of symbolism, the amusing pettiness of even the most respectable and intelligent statesmen, and the passionate (if not quirky) dedication of one of our most prominent historical figures.

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2 comments on “Thomas Jefferson, the French, and a Debate About Moose

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