Thursday, November 12, 2009

Jefferson, the French, and a Moose: America’s First Battle for Geographic Respect

There is a unique story in United States’ past that deals directly with geography on several levels. Thoughts about European supremacy, environmental determinism, and real thoughts about evolution combined to create a geography-battle who’s importance has not been reviled by today’s academic geography fights. The cast of characters in this true story were none other than future American president Thomas Jefferson and famed French geographer Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon.

Buffon was already a famous scientist by the end of the eighteenth century for his many works on natural history and studies of various environments. His works into why similar environments sustain different flora and fauna helped found the modern field of biogeography. His studies led him so far as to endorse micro, but not macro, evolution.

The first geography battle of the United States of America was started when Buffon wrote in his Histoire Naturelle that the physical geography of the Western Hemisphere in general and America in particular creates degeneracy. The cold, wet climate with swamps and poor forest soils has made both humans and animals weaker and smaller than they would be in the Eurasia. He went so far as to say that certain important male organs were “small and feeble” because of long-term inhabitation in the Americas. Buffon’s ideas quickly caught on and became part of the first-wave of anti-Americanism in Europe.

Thomas Jefferson, serving as ambassador as France, knew this was more than a simple “Where is the Midwest”-style academic geography debate that had no real importance. Jefferson believed that if the environmental determinist theory of degeneracy in America caught on then no one would want to trade with inferior people with inferior goods and that immigration would collapse (who wants their great-great grandson to have a small and feeble organ).

Jefferson first responded with his famous geography text Notes on the State of Virginia. He then quickly followed up by having bones of ancient Ice Age mammals shipped to France. Buffon and others scuffed at these stating that these merely proved North America is where large animals went to go extinct.

A man of lesser will may have given up at this point but not revolutionary Jefferson. Jefferson commissioned General John Sullivan to go into the wilds of New Hampshire on an American safari. Sullivan spent two weeks hunting a giant moose in the deep of winter. After a period of time involving enlarging the animals by putting on bigger antlers and an international shipping disaster the moose was presented to Buffon and other French naturalist/geographers. It had the desired effect. Buffon apologized for his claim of degeneracy in the Americas and the United States won some geographical respect.

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