Why Thomas Jefferson Was Obsessed With Moose

If you were alive during the American founding, you’d be pretty old by now and probably warrant a Now I Know about your life and longevity. And you probably also would have seen the name Thomas Jefferson many times throughout that period. The primary author of the Declaration of Independence, the nation’s first Secretary of State, second Vice President, and third President, Jefferson was a fixture in the politics of his day. 

And Jefferson likely knew he was important. Which is probably why he had no problem badgering the governor of Vermont about going on a moose hunt.

On May 17, 1785, Jefferson became the United States’ second-ever minister to France, succeeding the equally-famous Benjamin Franklin. As his nation’s top diplomat in Paris, he met many of France’s top leaders and thinkers, including Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, a well-regarded naturalist. Buffon, like many European elites at the time, believed that Europe was inherently superior to the Americas and, by extension, that Europeans were superior to the white people now living across the Atlantic. Buffon’s belief wasn’t just idle speculation, though; he was a scientist, and he had a scientific explanation. America, he argued, “was mostly swamp and had only recently lifted itself up out of the sea. It was still drying out, so anything that lived there could not compete with the drier, hardier, more bracing climate in Europe,” according to NPR’s Robert Krulwich. The effect of this (incorrect) geographic difference was substantial; as Krulwich notes, Buffon concluded that “American animals and plants were smaller, more fragile and less diverse and that “life in America[. . . ] was a diminished, second-best version of Europe.”

That argument is ridiculous to modern ears, but it resonated with Europeans at the time. Thought leaders began to adopt this theory that anything that lived in America would degenerate, becoming a weaker version of their best selves. And that caused a problem for the fledgling United States, as author Lee Alan Dugatkin explained in his book, Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose (excerpted here): “Jefferson quickly realized the long-term consequences, should the theory of degeneracy take hold. Why would Europeans trade with America, or immigrate to the New World, if Buffon and his followers were correct? Indeed, some very powerful people were already employing the degeneracy argument to stop immigration to America.” 

So Jefferson decided to push back. At first, per Krulwich, “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.” He collected that data and that of European equivalents and published a treatise of his own, showing that American bears were larger than European bears, American beavers were larger than European beavers, and . . . well, you get the idea. Unfortunately, that changed few minds; anyone could make up facts and figures to fit their narrative. Jefferson realized he needed something concrete. He needed a moose.

Moose, Jefferson noted, were much larger than reindeer, the largest similar creature native to Europe. And, as American Scientist explains, “moose should have been familiar to Buffon from French travelers in Canada. Live moose had been imported to Britain in the 1770s” and records of them existed throughout Western Europe. But a picture of a moose wouldn’t change any minds. Jefferson wanted an actual moose — and he had a pretty good idea of how to get one. Moose were common in Vermont, so he asked the governor of the state to get him one. The official website of Monticello, Jefferson’s estate, describes the efforts:

[Jefferson] wrote to John Sullivan of New Hampshire on January 7, 1786, asking him to send to Paris “skin, the skeleton, and the horns of the Moose, the Caribou, and the Orignal or Elk … but most especially those of the moose.” Jefferson specified how he would prefer the animal dressed: “… to leave the hoof on, to leave the bones of the legs and of the thighs if possible in the skin, and to leave also the bones of the head in the skin with the horns on, so that by sewing up the neck and belly of the skin we should have the true form and size of the animal.” Such an acquisition, Jefferson wrote, would be “more precious than you can imagine.”

And Jefferson didn’t stop there. Krulwich cites another author, Jon Mooallem, who states that finding a moose “became a fixation” for Jefferson, and for about a year, “in the midst of correspondence with James Monroe, George Washington, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin over urgent matters of state, Jefferson found time repeatedly to write to his colleagues — particularly those who liked to hunt — all but begging them to send him a moose.”

Ultimately, Governor Sullivan delivered — mostly. Sullivan procured a moose but the antlers were lost, so he sent over a set of antlers from another creature as the best alternative. The moose carcass was lost a few times in transit and by the time it arrived, “most of the hair had fallen off the hide [. . .] and the whole carcass was probably rancid,” according to American Scientist. But it was close enough to make the point. Jefferson showed it to Buffon, who, per Jefferson, agreed to revise his treatise to reflect the fact that some animals in the Americas were indeed significantly larger than their European counterparts.

Unfortunately, that never happened. Buffon was ill at the time and died before publishing a revised version of his work. Nevertheless, his “degeneracy” argument had been mortally wounded, and it dissipated from public discourse soon thereafter.

Bonus fact: If you come across a wild moose, don’t feed it — you’ll be setting up the next passerby for danger. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, feeding wild moose is “illegal and dangerous. Moose that are fed by humans often become conditioned and will act aggressively when they are not fed as expected. A moose with a history of being fed may approach an unsuspecting person in hopes of receiving a hand-out. It may attack if it sees that the person has no food to offer.”

From the Archives: Thomas Jefferson’s Silent Armies: How pictures of Jefferson can be useful tools for enacting change.