Thomas Jefferson loved science and data, and took copious notes on measurements he made of the natural world all around him. Thus he was particularly disturbed by the writings of a French naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, who claimed, without evidence, that the animals of America were smaller in size and number than those of Europe. Jefferson would not let that allegation stand. The author writes:
“Jefferson was already quite busy with the Revolutionary War. Still, he found time to search for numbers to correct Buffon and tell the world what American was really like.”
Jefferson published a book in 1781, Notes on the State of Virginia, in which he challenged the theories of Buffon, providing all the data he could in order to, inter alia, compare the sizes of animals on both continents.
The Monticello website explains:
“No doubt there was an element of personal pride, as a man of science, in refuting these misconceptions, but as an American minister charged with promoting the growth and commerce of his young country, Jefferson seemed intent on not just letting these allegations prove themselves wrong over time. The growth and prosperity of the new nation depended upon a positive image that would encourage immigration and commerce.”
At the end of the American Revolution, Jefferson went to France as the representative of the new United States. He asked a friend to give his book to Buffon, but discovered the Frenchman remained unconvinced. So Jefferson wrote to James Madison, requesting he send a moose skeleton to him that he could show to Buffon. Alas, within six months of the arrival of the moose, Buffon was dead, and there is no evidence he changed his mind prior to his demise.
The author notes however:
“But back home in the United States, Jefferson’s book became a BIG success. From then on, when Americans had any questions about numbers, they knew they could COUNT on Thomas Jefferson.”
In an Author’s Note at the conclusion of the book, Rockliff adds, “Jefferson never lost his love for numbers.” She then provides examples of some of the data Jefferson collected (such as how much a horse eats, how long it takes to grow a pea, and so on).
A list of sources follows.
Often droll watercolor illustrations by S.D. Schindler ably reflect the historical period while adding humor and interest to the somewhat dry text.
Evaluation: The author uses an entertaining anecdote about Jefferson to stress the importance and value of science and data, a lesson that is, sadly, more needed than ever. The story and valorization of Jefferson might have been more nuanced however. Not everything in Jefferson’s book was accurate; in fact, it became notorious for its claim – based on “evidence” as faulty as Buffon’s, that blacks were physically and intellectually inferior to whites. It was something Jefferson apparently needed to believe to justify his relationship to slavery. Perhaps Buffon needed to believe the Old World was superior to the New.
Published by Candlewick Press, 2020