Jefferson's Moose and the Case against American Degeneracy

Thomas Jefferson waged a second revolution, fighting the image created by European naturalists of a degenerate America
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Photograph by Richard Ross

Thomas Jefferson is best known for expressing in words the justification for American independence. But Jefferson the politician and statesman coexisted with Jefferson the scientist. The combination led Jefferson to invest a great amount of time and energy in debunking a popular European conceit—that America was a degenerate place. American degeneracy allegedly was evident in its weak and stunted flora, fauna and people.

Jefferson’s effort to illustrate the complete biological equality of the New and Old Worlds went beyond mere pride in his home continent—he and other founders believed that a successful rebuttal was necessary to ensure the growth and prosperity of their new country. The fight was important enough to have been noted in a eulogy at Jefferson’s funeral in 1826 by New York Senator Samuel Latham Mitchill, who called the antidegeneracy campaign the equivalent of proclaiming independence a second time. And one piece of concrete evidence that Jefferson thought he needed to win the day was a specimen of an American moose.

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