Arts & Culture

Object lesson

When Thomas Jefferson visited Yale

Richard Conniff ’73 is the author of, most recently, Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time.


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On June 8, 1784, en route to Boston and then Paris, Thomas Jefferson visited Yale, carrying an "uncommonly large" panther skin in his luggage. President Ezra Stiles played host, showing Jefferson the library and an electrical apparatus that had been donated by his friend Benjamin Franklin. The visit went well. In his diary, Stiles called Jefferson "a most ingenious Naturalist & philosopher—a truly Scientific & learned Man—& every way excellent."

From the road, Jefferson sent a warm note back enlisting Stiles's help with a mysterious "animal incognitum," which he intended to use as evidence against a French "theory in general very degrading to America." The great French naturalist Buffon had argued that "a niggardly sky and an unprolific land" caused species in the Americas, including humans, to become puny and weak. This "theory of American degeneracy" was a sore point for a new nation, and not just on account of wounded pride. Jefferson was heading to Paris as part of a trade commission, and obtaining credit would be difficult if Europeans believed that the American experiment was bound by nature to fail.

Jefferson had written a detailed refutation of Buffon's theory. He was also hoping to present Buffon in person with the panther skin in his luggage, and he later followed up with a moose. (Franklin probably got further with wit: at a dinner in Paris where a Frenchman was arguing for Buffon's theory, Franklin sized up the European and American guests, seated on opposite sides of the table, and then proposed: "Let both parties rise, and we will see on which side nature has degenerated." The Frenchman—a "mere shrimp," according to Jefferson—stayed seated.)

But the incognitum was Jefferson's best hope. Bones and teeth of this monstrous creature were turning up with increasing frequency along the Hudson and Ohio rivers. Stiles's own grandfather, Massachusetts poet Edward Taylor, had estimated the animal's height at 60 or 70 feet and hymned its "Ribbs like Rafters" and arms "like limbs of trees," not to mention a nose like "an Hanging Pillar wide."

Stiles kept up the family interest. In his diary, he allotted one line each to the heights of his seven children, followed by a full paragraph on the dimensions of the latest incognitum specimen. "It is a Grinder Tooth of some great Animal," he wrote, "but whether an Elephant or Gyant, is a Question." As a Congregational minister, he favored the idea that these were remains of the giants mentioned in Genesis: "I suppose them to be human." Stiles wrote to Jefferson with details of the latest Hudson River excavations, and Jefferson persuasively argued in reply that the bones belonged to a type of elephant like the Siberian mammoth. Stiles considered the scientific evidence and soon acknowledged, "I was mistaken."

Jefferson remained intent on refuting Buffon for years afterward. As president, he would send Lewis and Clark to explore the American West in part with the hope that they would find mammoths still living there. He also once laid out the bones of a specimen on the floor of the East Room in the White House, and played a part in the recovery and reconstruction of the first nearly complete skeleton, which became a national sensation. A Philadelphia baker sold "Mammoth bread," a "Mammoth Eater" in New York consumed 42 eggs in ten minutes, and Massachusetts sent Jefferson a 1,260-pound Mammoth Cheese. The mammoth set loose the characteristic American delight in things boisterous and big, helping to create a national sense of identity and self-confidence. But the French, alas, had the last word. In 1806, anatomist Georges Cuvier determined that the incognitum was in fact not a mammoth at all, but a new species, which he named mastodon.  


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