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Uncommon Sense


By oieahc · March 17, 2021

TJ takes on Buffon

WMQ 8 min read

By Gordon M. Sayre, author of “Jefferson Takes on Buffon: The Polemic on American Animals in Notes on the State of Virginia” in the January 2021 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly


Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia has intrigued me for my entire career. In my dissertation research I read Wayne Franklin’s Discoverers, Explorers, Settlers, which called attention to the powerful visual rhetoric of table 2 of the quadrupeds of Europe and of America: “the great blank space under ‘Europe’ is a coyly graphic reminder of Jefferson’s conclusion that America is far more lavish in its forms of life than the Old World.” I returned to NSV when writing about the imaginative portraits of Mound Builder civilization produced by travelers and politicians in the 1790s, and again each time I assigned Frank Shuffelton’s edition in my course on American Literature to 1800. My students read the polemic in Query VI and Jefferson’s aggrieved tone had its effect; in their papers and exams some students would misspell the name of Jefferson’s antagonist as “Buffoon” and ridicule his prejudices. At that time I did not yet know how I should correct them.

I designed a later version of the same course around feature films based on early American literature and history: Black Robe, Cabeza de Vaca, Disney’s Pocahontas, and James Ivory and Ismail Merchant’s Jefferson in Paris, which dramatize the story of Sally Hemmings a couple years before Annette Gordon-Reed’s first book appeared. James Ivory grew up in Klamath Falls, graduated from  the University of Oregon, and donated his papers to the UO library. A few of my students read through the budgets, casting notes, and draft screenplays there, and found correspondence documenting the opposition Ivory aroused when he decided to focus on the perspective of Sally, played by Thandi Newton, and James Hemmings, played by Seth Gilliam.

As I began work on my article about Jefferson and Buffon, I recalled a brief scene from the film in which Jefferson delivers to Buffon the skeleton of a moose, a story that I found has been retold several times as a lesson in patriotic whiggish history of science, such as in Lee Alan Dugatkin’s Jefferson and the Giant Moose.

During a 2015 sabbatical I began a project on the history of the species concept as linked to the history of books that circulated descriptions, images, and taxonomies of the plants and animals. Buffon’s encyclopedic Histoire naturelle was an important part of this history, and I began to delve into the 36 volumes of that work. I had visited the Buffon museum on his estate at Montbard in Burgundy, and read a couple of the inexpensive livres de poche that French publishers produced about Buffon. In those books I saw how the debate with Jefferson received no attention, and the theory of American degeneracy was not an important part of Buffon’s legacy for French scholars and students.

Buffon’s Histoire naturelle was enormously popular, and my library had several translations, anthologies, and reprints, but the original quarto volumes were available only on the internet. I came to rely on the Buffon website sponsored by the French Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique; a large digital humanities project that digitized the text of the entire Histoire naturelle. This enabled me to search for the names of species and to more easily find the weights of specimens, both in the extensive tables of measurements that Louis Daubenton prepared, and in the text of the chapters by Buffon. One of the reviewers of my first manuscript submission to the Quarterly was Stéphane Schmitt, co-editor of a new scholarly edition of the series, which had just recently released the volumes including the American quadruped species I was studying.

The table in the appendix to the article was part of my project from the very beginning. Once I realized Jefferson had selected nearly all the animals in the tables from his reading of Buffon, I decided to update the tables and learn about every species listed in them. For hours I pored over wikipedia in French and English, as well as the Biodiversity Heritage Library, Encyclopedia of Life, and a giant picture book entitled Animals, purchased at Costco for my kids. At the final stage Schmitt’s notes helped confirm or correct my species identifications. Wikipedia is well integrated with biologists’ networks, and it is the custom in these natural history works to cite the first scientific publication which described and named a species. Linnaeus’  Systema naturae was frequently referenced, but never Buffon’s Histoire naturelle. This was an important clue to the history of species taxonomy. Buffon ignored Jefferson’s challenge in NSV, which appeared only a couple years before he died, but he had been an intellectual rival of Carl Linnaeus for decades. Buffon prioritized the largest and the domesticated animals, and believed species could gradually change over time. He saw little use for a single systematic taxonomy encompassing all kinds of flora and fauna. The years when Jefferson was in Paris and published the three editions of NSV were a turning point for natural history, because comparative anatomy and the study of fossil bones enabled a comprehensive picture of extinct species and ancient zoology. Buffon’s work helped bring this about, even if his rival Linnaeus set the standard for taxonomy and nomenclature that still endures today.

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