“Geniuses Which Adorn the Present Age”

in Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print November 2009 | ISBN: 9780226169149
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226169194 | DOI:
“Geniuses Which Adorn the Present Age”

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The fact that Thomas Jefferson had the time to write Notes on the State of Virginia, with its harsh critique of Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon's theory of degeneracy, is remarkable. On June 1, 1779, in the midst of the American Revolution, Jefferson was elected governor of Virginia. In May 1781, under threat of attack by British forces, Jefferson left the capital in Richmond and rode home to Monticello. It was an extraordinarily difficult period for Jefferson, and would have been even more so, if an unexpected opportunity to immerse himself in natural history had not arisen. That opportunity arose in the form of a series of queries posed by the Marquis de Barbé-Marbois. Many of Marbois' twenty-two queries centered on topics related to natural history. And no man in Virginia was better suited to field Marbois' queries than Jefferson. In Notes, Jefferson countered Buffon's assertion that there were more uniquely European animal species than American species, and that animals in Europe were larger. He also refuted Buffon's claim that domesticated animals imported from the Old World degenerate in America.

Keywords: degeneracy; Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon; America; Thomas Jefferson; natural history; Europe; Old World; Marquis de Barbé-Marbois; Virginia

Chapter.  6700 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of Science and Technology

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