Thomas Jefferson’s Quest to Prove America’s Natural Superiority – The Atlantic

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Though the specimen was not ideal, after inspecting the crates, Jefferson forwarded it on to the royal collections where Buffon was the superintendent. Jefferson later recounted that the French naturalist examined the moose and promised to “set these things right” in the next volume of his Histoire Naturelle, but this correction never came to pass because Buffon died six months later.

Despite this setback Jefferson remained obsessed with the subject. After returning to the United States, he wrote a paper for the journal of the American Philosophical Society in which he announced the discovery of the bones of the Megalonyx—an animal that he likened to a gigantic lion but which was (disappointingly for him) eventually classed as a ground sloth. A few years later, during his presidency, Jefferson turned the East Room of the White House into a storage facility for mastodon fossils, many of which he then duly dispatched to the Académie des Sciences in Paris.

Over the next decades and buoyed by the continent’s scale, Americans invested nature with patriotic sentiment. The Rockies were more impressive than the Alps, they insisted, just as John Adams declared the river Thames ‘but a rivulet’ compared to the majestic Hudson. Primeval forests, vast plains, and huge waterfalls were linked to the national character and to the uniqueness of America. Among the most spectacular discoveries were the Big Trees in the Sierra Nevada. The English suggested to call them Wellingtonia gigantean but luckily for the Americans they were believed to be related to the towering California coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) and therefore were named Sequoia gigantea. In 1868, one delighted botanist declared: “we are not now obliged to call the largest and most interesting tree in America after an English military hero.”

The giant sequoia, just like Jefferson’s moose, became an expression of the nation’s strength and manifest destiny. The very wildness of America’s rugged mountains and glorious forests was the embodiment of a nation that had freed itself from the shackles of tyranny. America, Jefferson claimed, was “made on an improved plan,” while Europe was only “a first idea, a crude production, before the maker knew his trade.”

Thomas Jefferson’s Quest to Prove America’s Natural Superiority – The Atlantic