In 1785, Jefferson was the ranking American diplomat in France. And there, he decided to take on the misguided beliefs of Georges de Buffon, the leading French naturalist of the day. Buffon believed that the animals and plants of North America were inferior, in size and vigor, to those of Europe.
To prove Buffon wrong, Jefferson commissioned a hunter to shoot an American moose and ship it to him France, which was not a small feat. The American diplomat was disappointed in the size of the carcass that arrived, so he ordered another hunting expedition, writes historian Joseph J. Ellis in his 1996 biography American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson.
Although “somewhat frustrated that the [second] moose was only seven feet tall and that its hair kept falling out,” Jefferson had the carcass put on display in the entry of the hotel in which he lived, notes Ellis.
“Buffon, who was himself a minuscule man less than five feet tall, was invited to observe the smelly and somewhat imperfect trophy but concluded it was insufficient evidence to force a revision of his anti-American theory,” Ellis adds.
Interestingly, Jefferson believed not only that American plants and animals were no less impressive than European varieties, but that America produced more impressive plants and animals than Europe. In a sense, Jefferson became sort of an American Buffon, believing that mammoths – those large, hairy, prehistoric animals resembling modern elephants – still roamed the unexplored American West.