Some exploits are higher up on the glory scale than others. At least John Sullivan must have felt so when the request arrived. The Revolutionary War hero had fought in many battles, been captured at Long Island, and later had carried out a scorched earth policy against Britain's Native American allies in central New York and the Genesee Valley, destroying villages and crops and driving the Indians all the way to the Niagara frontier. He had gone on after the war to serve as a delegate to the Continental Congress, attorney-general of New Hampshire and then the state's governor. A distinguished career. Then Thomas Jefferson, ambassador to France, ordered a moose.

The U. S. was finding it difficult to be taken seriously by Europeans, especially the French, even more especially naturalists. One of these, Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, could be really insufferable. To quote the wife of the French finance minister, "M. de Buffon has never spoken to me of the marvels of the earth without inspiring in me the thought that he himself was one of them." He felt the New World was far inferior to Europe in plants, animals, and climate, degenerate and undeveloped. All that America could produce was reptiles and insects. He called the animals, "tractable and timid, very few ferocious or formidable." He even insulted the Indians. Whites probably took vicarious umbrage when he stated the natives were Nature's stepchildren. "The organs of generation are small and feeble. They have no beard or body hair and no ardor for the female." Another Frenchman claimed American men had milk in their breasts. Fighting words.

Few Americans can let canards like these go unchallenged (or duck them). Jefferson took on Buffon, mano a mano, pointing out that an American bear weighing 410 pounds had been encountered. Europe's largest specimen weighed 153.7 pounds. Our otters, 12 pounds, yours 8.9 pounds. Our beavers 45 pounds, yours 18-and-a-half pounds. Domestic animals, given equal care, are the same size. And, monsieur, you have 18 quadrupeds we do not. But. We have 74 you don't. And so on.

It was time for one grand gesture. Hence the request to Sullivan. Setting out through winter snows it took him and twenty soldiers two weeks to track down an impressive enough beast. Indians were set to work skinning the animal and the pelt and bones were crated for shipment out of Portsmouth. The horns had not been too impressive, so some spares were included. The assemble-your-own moose missed the first boat out. John Adams received the bill (item: one moose) at the London embassy and, puzzled but unflapped, paid it. When Jefferson presented Buffon with the ungainly ungulate the Frenchman was impressed and promised to retract his statements. But apparently he'd rather die, for, a short time later, that's what he did.

OUTRO
For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor




© 1999 David Minor / Eagles Byte


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