Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Lacépède, 24 February 1803

To Lacépède

Washington Feb. 24. 1803.

Dear Sir

I have just recieved from mr Paine the copy of your Discours d’ouverture de l’an IX. which you were so good as to send me. a rapid view of parts of it only assures me of the pleasure I shall recieve from a deliberate perusal of the whole the first moment I have to spare. I was struck with the prophetic spirit of the passage pa. 10. 11. ‘bientot de courageux voyageurs visiteront les sources du Missisipi et du Missouri, que l’oeil d’un European n’a pas encore entrevues’ &c. it happens that we are now actually sending off a small party to explore the Missouri to it’s source, and whatever other river, heading nearest with that, runs into the Western ocean; to enlarge our knolege of the geography of our continent, by adding information of that interesting line of communication across it, and to give us a general view of it’s population, natural history, productions, soil & climate. it is not improbable that this voyage of discovery will procure us further information of the Mammoth, & of the Megatherium also, mentioned by you page 6. for you have possibly seen in our Philosophical transactions, that, before we had seen the account of that animal by mr Cuvier, we had found here some remains of an enormous animal incognitum, whom, from the disproportionate length of his claw, we had denominated Megalonyx, and which is probably the same animal; and that there are symptoms of it’s late and present existence. the route we are exploring will perhaps bring us further evidence of it, and may be accomplished in two summers.

I have long been fatigued with the eternal repetition of the term ‘Man in the state of nature’, by which is meant man in his savage and stupid state, with his faculties entirely undeveloped. if this be his natural state, then the foetus in embryo exhibits it in it’s utmost perfection. as if the improvement of the senses of man, the strengthening and developing his reasoning faculties, any more than the growth of his body, rendered him an unnatural being, and placed him beyond the limits of his nature! I was pleased therefore to observe your luminous correction of this idea, pa. 8. ‘parmi tous les etres vivans et sensibles, lart de lespece est sa nature. l’industrie qui ne vient que d’elle, celle qu’elle n’a reçue d’aucune espece etrangere, est le complement de ses attributs naturels. on n’aurait qu’une idée bien imparfaite de son essence, si on ignorait jusqu’on peut aller le developpement de ses facultés.’ the examination of the different races of men, which you propose, under this point of view, will produce an arrangement of them which has not hitherto been sufficiently admitted.

In the writings of M. de Buffon he has supposed the Moose of America to be the Renne of Europe, the deer of America to be the Chevreuil, and what we call a panther (tho’ it is certainly not one) to be a Cougar. I procured for him the skeleton, skin & horns of a Moose 7. feet high, the horns of our deer, and the skin of our falsely called panther. he was perfectly satisfied. he had been misinformed as to them all; & told me he would correct those articles in the first volume he should publish. however I think he did not live to publish another volume. has any thing posthumous of his been published? & particularly the corrections abovementioned? I presume the specimens I gave him of the animals are still in the Cabinet, the care of which has been so fortunately confided to you.   You will no doubt have heard that a tolerably compleat frame of the Mammoth has been carried by mr Peale to London, and he intends carrying it to Paris: so that you will have an opportunity of seeing this colossal subject, and of comparing it with the elephant.   returning to the principal object of my letter, I thank you for the friendly communication of your discourse, & for the occasion it has given me of turning for a moment from the barren field of politics to the rich map of nature: and I pray you to accept assurances of my great consideration and respect.

Th: Jefferson

PrC (DLC); at foot of first page: “M. de Cepede.” Enclosed in TJ to James Monroe, 25 Feb.

discours d’ouverture: TJ and Bernard Germain Étienne de La Ville-sur-Illon, the Comte de Lacépède, had not corresponded since TJ was U.S. minister to France and Lacépède assisted the Comte de Buffon in the preparation of his multivolume survey of natural history. During the interim, TJ had made an effort to keep up with the volumes that Lacépède wrote to complete the Histoire naturelle after Buffon’s death in 1788. During the French Revolution, Lacépède, who was born in 1756, served in the Legislative Assembly but left Paris during the Terror. After his return in 1794, he held a chair in zoology at the museum of natural history and was also, beginning in 1799, a member of the Conservative Senate of France. The opening and closing lectures of his course in zoology at the museum were published in Paris in 1801 as Discours d’ouverture et de clôture du cours de zoologie: Donné dans le Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, l’an IX de la République. Lacépède was one of the original members of the National Institute in 1795 (DSB description begins Charles C. Gillispie, ed., Dictionary of Scientific Biography, New York, 1970-80, 16 vols. description ends ; Dictionnaire description begins Dictionnaire de biographie française, Paris, 1933- , 19 vols. description ends , 18:1475–7; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, Washington, D.C., 1952-59, 5 vols. description ends Nos. 1029, 1044; Vol. 12:287–8; Vol. 28:358; Vol. 32:178).

passage pa. 10. 11: the lectures in Lacépède’s Discours had separate pagination. In the closing lecture, Lacépède referred to some explorers of northern North America such as Alexander Mackenzie and commented that no European had yet seen the source of the Mississippi or Missouri River (Lacépède, Discours, closing lecture, 11).

Lacépède knew of the megatherium from the skeletal remains found in South America and described by Georges Cuvier. Lacépède speculated that perhaps the animal still lived in some remote part of that continent (Lacépède, Discours, closing lecture, 6–7; Vol. 29:300n). He expressed that view again in his volume on whales in the Histoire naturelle, first published in 1804. There, Lacépède observed that while humans had found their way to every part of the ocean where whales could exist, there were still places in the Americas where large land animals such as the mammoth and the megatherium could live, unknown as yet to science. In a footnote to that statement, Lacépède paraphrased and quoted (in French) much of the first paragraph of TJ’s letter printed above (Anselme-Gaëtan Desmarest, ed., Histoire naturelle de Lacépède, comprenant les cétacées, les quadrupèdes ovipares, les serpents et les poissons, 2 vols. [Paris, 1844], 1:42).

in our philosophical transactions: TJ’s and Caspar Wistar’s descriptions of the Virginia megalonyx appeared in APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Transactions, 4 (1799), 246–60, 526–31.

pa. 8: among living and sentient beings, Lacépède declared in his Discours, the distinctive feature of a species was its “art,” the skills that could have come from that species alone and complemented its innate attributes. One could have only an imperfect idea of a species without understanding the development of its faculties through time. In Lacépède’s view, the different races of men were distinguished by the adaptations they had made of the properties that nature had granted to the human species—“L’usage que chaque race de l’espèce humaine a fait des qualités que la Nature lui a départies” (Lacépède, Discours, opening lecture, 8).

In Paris in 1787, TJ obtained the bones and hide of a moose from northern New England, along with antlers of North American moose, caribou, elk, and deer, for Buffon. renne is the French word for reindeer. Earlier TJ gave the naturalist the stuffed skin of an American cougar. “I have convinced him that our deer is not a Chevreuil,” TJ wrote during his campaign to educate Buffon about American fauna (DSB description begins Charles C. Gillispie, ed., Dictionary of Scientific Biography, New York, 1970-80, 16 vols. description ends ; Vol. 9:130–1; Vol. 10:625; Vol. 12:194–5).

from the barren field of politics: the Magasin encyclopédique, a French periodical, published a French translation of TJ’s letter to Lacépède in the spring of 1803. That translation differs from the extracts quoted by Lacépède in the Histoire naturelle the following year (see above). At least one other publication in France printed the full translation. In November 1804, the Port Folio of Philadelphia published TJ’s letter in the form of a retranslation into English of the French-language version. In the text published in France, TJ’s sentence beginning “the examination of the different races of men” appeared as “L’examen des différentes races d’hommes que vous proposez sous ce point de vue, produira un classement dont on n’a point jusqu’ici suffisamment tenu compte,” rendered in the Port Folio as “The examination of the different races of men, which you propose, under this point of view, will produce a classification, which has not hitherto been sufficiently valued.” TJ’s passage beginning “if this be his natural state” and running through “correction of this idea” became, in the Port Folio, “If such is the state of nature, the fœtus, in its embrio state, would be its highest term or degree, for then is discovered its least developement. Surely there is nothing more contrary to nature, in the developement of the faculty of perception and thinking, than in the increase of its body. You will hence perceive how greatly I have been charmed to see this false idea combatted by you.” The Port Folio translation was by someone identified only as “An Observer,” who also provided several paragraphs of commentary. Those remarks admonished TJ for holding “the infidel philosophy which supposes different races of man.” Such “classification,” declared “Observer,” would “establish the inequality of men, and thereby destroy not only one of the elements of our proclamation of independence, which declares that all men are born equal, but the authenticity of the Scriptures, which inform us, that all men are descended from Adam.” In the French translation, TJ’s report that the western expedition “will perhaps bring us further evidence” of the megalonyx became “éclaircira probablement ce fait,” translated in the Port Folio as “will, we hope, illuminate this fact.” Taking the “fact” in question to be the survival of the megalonyx into the current era rather than its relationship to the megatherium, “Observer” avowed that Americans “of common sense” did not believe TJ’s “scientific voyagers” would encounter a living megalonyx. Mocking the president’s interest in natural history, “Observer” warned that “the philosophers of Europe, who are entitled to that name, will laugh at seeing him eternally mounted upon the mammoth, and his ridiculous inquiries after his moose’s skeleton, his deer’s horns, and panther’s skin.” “Observer” went on to criticize portions of TJ’s 8 Nov. 1804 annual message to Congress. Several newspapers reprinted the Port Folio’s version of the letter to Lacépède—some with and some without the commentary (Magasin encyclopédique, ou Journal des sciences, des lettres et des arts, 9th year, 1 [1803], 254–7; Port Folio, 24 Nov. 1804; Richmond Enquirer, 4 Dec.; Norwich, Conn., True Republican, 26 Dec.; New York Evening Post, 28 Jan. 1805; New-York Herald, 30 Jan.; Dover, N.H., Sun, 2 Feb.; Bennington Vermont Gazette, 11 Feb.; Peacham, Vt., Green Mountain Patriot, 12 Feb.).

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