Thomas Jefferson's All-American incognitum


Edouard de Montule's 1816 painting of the mastodon reconstructed in the Peale Museum. Note the down-turned tusks which were later turned the right way up.

Thomas Jefferson had an axe to grind when he wrote his Notes on the State of Virginia in 1781. Twenty years earlier the French naturalist Buffon had published the 9th volume of his epic series Histoire naturelle in which he compared the great, ferocious beasts of the Old World with the pitiful creatures found in the New World;

In general, all the animals there [in the Americas] are smaller than those of the old world, & there is not any animal in America that can be compared to the elephant, the rhinoceros, the hippopotamus, the dromedary, the giraffe, the buffalo, the lion, the tiger, etc.

To Buffon the Americas contained a degenerate fauna, everything about them (including Native Americans) being inferior to Old World creatures. Although Jefferson admired Buffon's general appreciation for natural history he would not sit idly by and let Buffon call the New World and his country (still experiencing labor pains as he wrote his Notes) degenerate. The discovery of the American incognitum earlier in the century and it's identification as some variety of elephant (albeit a carnivorous one) by the 1760's provided Jefferson with a perfect "American Monster" to counter Buffon. (We know the incognitum today as the American mastodon, Mammut americanum.) How could such an immense and destructive creature be called degenerate?

Jefferson provided even greater proof of the natural vigor of the Americas in the form of a comparison between the weights of American animals and those found in Europe. When compared American animals were certainly not smaller or could be called inferior to those found elsewhere, the incognitum being a clear example of that fact if the figures obtained for buffalo and bears failed to impress. The use of the mastodon as a prime example of American vigor was made all the more important by Jefferson's proposal that it was still alive somewhere on the North American Continent;

It may be asked, why I insert the Mammoth, as if it still existed? I ask in return, why I should omit it, as if it did not exist?

Using the legends of Native Americans as reason to spark interest in further exploration, Jefferson clearly felt that there was at least the possibility that the incognitum may have still roamed some uncharted part of North America. The fact that the creature was interpreted by indigenous peoples and anatomists alike strengthened Jefferson's argument; how much more terrifying would a giant, meat-eating elephant be than those known from the Old World? The bloodthirsty habits of the beast even gave good reason for it's elusiveness, for if it were that much of a threat surely people would have reduced the number of such destructive animals. The later discovery of the Megalonyx, first interpreted to be a lion even more massive than those found in Africa (later found to be a giant sloth), added another fearsome monster to Jefferson's pantheon. There was no reason to think that either would have been totally eliminated, God or Nature not allowing there to be a gap in the Great Chain of Being.

Most stories about Jefferson's interest in bones (both out of national pride and scientific curiosity) end here, displaying a scientific quirk of one of the founders of this country. Such narratives do a disservice to both Jefferson and readers; Jefferson did eventually accept the reality of extinction. After Jefferson's second term as president of the United States ended in 1809 he sent a letter to William Clark which denotes a departure from his earlier views. According to the terminology put in place by Geroges Cuvier, the American animal was now called mastodon for the breast-like bumps covering the teeth (in one account the proboscidean was said to be "bubby-toothed") and Jefferson felt that it was a herbivore, "... the limb of a tree would be no more to him than a bough of a cotton tree to a horse." There was no way such a huge animal, if a carnivore, would ever be sated, and so there was no other reasonable interpretation.

Even later, in 1823, Jefferson wrote to John Adams entertaining the notion that extinction of various productions of nature, not just of the mastodon, may have been a reality;

It is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is, in all this, design, cause and effect, up to an ultimate cause, a fabricator of all things from matter and motion, their preserver and regulator while permitted to exist in their present forms, and their regenerator into new and other forms. We see, too, evident proofs of the necessity of a superintending power to maintain the Universe in its course and order. Stars, well known, have disappeared, new ones come into view, comets, in their incalculable courses, may run foul of suns and planets and require renovation under other laws; certain races of animals are become extinct; and, were there no restoring power, all existences might extinguish successively, one by one, until all should be reduced to a shapeless chaos. [emphasis mine]

Where it had previously been unthinkable that the Great Chain of Being would be broken at any point (the destruction of one link destroying the whole for Nature must always be filled to the utmost) it became impossible to acknowledge the destruction and disappearance of some things. Whatever guiding intelligence their might have been for Jefferson it would have had to take a more active role in the universe, restoring and regenerating what had been lost as secondary laws played out in the universe. Rather than being a philosophical position extinction became an observation and philosophical systems would have to become adapted to it.

There is much, much more that could be said of Jefferson and his interest in fossils; I have only provided a quick sketch in honor of the holiday. Rather than being strange curiosities only of interest to modern scientists, fossils have captured the imaginations of the public and politicians for far longer than we often acknowledge. The earth has upturned remains that fuel our most savage nightmares and provided perspective about our place in nature, Thomas Jefferson just being one of many that "spoke to the earth" before the dawn of modern paleontology.

Further reading;

The Thomas Jefferson Fossil Collection at the Academy of Natural Sciences

American Monster by Paul Semonin

Big Bone Lick by Stanley Hedeen

Fossil Legends of the First Americans by Adrienne Mayor

The Great Chain of Being by Arthur Lovejoy

More like this

"...their regenerator into new and other forms."

So he was an evilutionist!

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 04 Jul 2008 #permalink

Even later, in 1835, Jefferson wrote ...

Um, I think you have an error in your date ... since Jefferson died in 1826. Unless, of course, it was a case of "spirit writing." ;-)

Thanks, John. The real date was 1823. I have no idea where the other date came from, but thanks for catching the error.

Incidently, that 1823 letter ("certain races of animals are become extinct") may be the same one the Discovery Institute is claiming shows that Jefferson was an IDer and that he didn't think ID was a religious concept ... which I dealt with at some length.

You know, when they came up with the Giants' Shoulders Carnival I was thinking they could do a month just devoted to Jefferson and his writing on all the different scientific disciplines. Great read.

Have you read up on the 'Missourium' that was excavated by Koch? You might enjoy it if you haven't.