The Reading Room

America’s Future Doomed by Climate (circa 1778)

In the 1770s, the greatest naturalist in the Western World, the French scientist George Louis Leclerc, comte du Buffon—echoed by many others viewed as the leading scientific authorities of the era—insisted that beyond doubt America’s natural environment was deleterious to all animal life. 
All indications were that something was amiss, terribly wrong. Something inherent in nature rendered the climate of the New World pernicious to all life, including the indigenous people of the area.
Buffon, director of King Louis XVI’s zoological park, today the Jardin des Plantes, and curator of the King’s nature cabinet, had been publishing what seemed an endless (36 volumes during his life, plus eight by friends posthumously) Natural History, [1] magnificently illustrated with species collected from around the world. In 1778, he published his critical assessment of the North American climate in a volume on Earth’s climate and its regional variations.
He presented a remorselessly pessimistic but “scientifically grounded” picture of the American environment. He explained that he had identified “some combination of elements and other physical causes, something that opposed the amplification of animated Nature.” The air was more humid, the topography uneven. And the weather was more variable. Were there not  extensive forests and miasmic swamps? It was an unhealthy climate in which to live and the results were apparent and inescapable.
New World animals had not developed like those on other continents. They were smaller than in the Old World. Did America have? Only the scrawny puma, hardly a real lion. It did not even have a mane, and was “smaller, weaker, and more cowardly than a real lion.” And elephants? No elephants and nothing to compare with the elephant. Buffon became a bit sarcastic: the best the New World could do was the tapir of Brazil. Ha! Like a six-month-old elephant calf.
A generalization now became possible. All American animals were “four, six, eight, and ten times… Smaller than those of the older continents.” What is more, domestic animals imported to the New World in time shrank. No wonder Americans were panicked. Buffon concluded, broadly, that “Living nature is thus much less active there, much less varied, and we may say, less strong.”
Sadly, the outlook for humans from the Old World transplanted to this unhealthy environment was not good, not a happy prospect.
Gordon Wood writes: “It is difficult to appreciate the extent of European ignorance about the Western Hemisphere…” [2] Climate then was seen as a belt of the Earth’s surface running between any two parallels. Europeans were surprised that this did not hold in the New World. London was north of Newfoundland; Rome was about the same latitude as New York; but how different their climates were!
Out of this sense of difference between the Old and New Worlds and the hearsay and reports of travelers, Buffon derived his hypothesis. Leading intellectuals across Europe adopted the theory of a New World unhospitable to life. Enlightenment thinkers in France, England, and Scotland advanced the ideas, which entered the thinking of the late eighteenth century, above all, among Americans—alarmed that if Buffon’s theory, the settled science on this subject—were true, then the chances for success of their bold republican experiment were not reassuring.
Americans did not let concern about their national prospects quell their new energy. But things they observed now seemed especially ominous. Temperature ranges did seem extreme, didn’t they? Winters with temperatures below zero, and sweltering summers.
And now, didn’t they understand better the devastating epidemics of yellow fever that swept American cities—the catastrophe in Philadelphia in 1783, with 10 percent of the population killed? And where else in the Western world did this happen? (The speculation launched an entire “industry” of proposals for dealing with crowded cities and their fermenting garbage, filth in the streets, putrefaction from which emanated effluvia, morbid fluids, and disease. Perhaps the American climate made big cities inadvisable; plans proliferated for remedies—the first American “urban renewal.”
Now, negative trends, unwanted developments, and, above all, catastrophes were explained by climate. The future seemed so promising, prosperous, and inviting—a whole continent awaiting—but always there was the climate. Perhaps cities could be downsized, if not eliminated.
No one, at least on record, worried as much as Thomas Jefferson. Buffon’s volume relating to America, its climate, and its species shocked and enraged him. He joined voices urging that “men cannot be piled on one another with impunity…” Americans must avoid Europe’s huge sprawling cities. In particular, he dwelt on the frightening prospects of swampy New Orleans.
Jefferson published only one book, Notes on the State of Virginia, and notably a major section was devoted to refuting Buffon’s claims. Interestingly, the first edition of this book was published in French (1785) and the second in English (1787). The pages of charts with measurements of American mammals of all kinds today are usually left out of editions of the book. Weights of each were given in pounds and ounces. With few exceptions, the American animal, as compared with the European, is equal or greater in size. To deal with the “elephant in the room,” Jefferson brought in the historic American mammoth. 
Its tone was often angry, raising challenges to Buffon’s credentials. Did he really have all the measurements of American animals? He had never been in America. And weren’t most of the reports on weather from French travelers in Canada? Were those making these reports real scientists? His conclusion was that European intellectuals, including even Buffon, did not know what they were talking about. One of the very first copies he had delivered directly to the great naturalist.
The controversy was broad and lasting, but accounts often climax with the story of Jefferson’s trip to Paris in the 1880s as American minister. He prepared to meet Buffon by bringing with him the largest panther skin he could obtain. He was duly introduced to Buffon and pressed him on his knowledge (ignorance, Jefferson implied) of American animals. Jefferson’s big gun was the American moose. Why, the moose was so huge that a European reindeer-- horns and all-- could walk under its belly!
Perhaps desperate to get rid of Jefferson, who with the years had become increasingly obsessed, viewing this controversy as pivotal to American optimism, Buffon promised that if Jefferson could produce a single specimen of moose with foot-long antlers, Buffon would concede his error.
The stories of Jefferson’s efforts to obtain this moose have been elaborated in detail. If they were not, they could scarcely be believed. He wrote to American friends: Send bones, send skins, send horns—better still, send the whole stuffed animal. Governor John Sullivan of New Hampshire responded with energy, sending out hunters and, when they made a kill, ordering a 20-mile swathe cut into the woods to drag out the body.
Unfortunately, by the time the carcass reached Portsmouth, ready to ship to France, it was half rotten, hairless, and had no head bones. Sullivan sent to Paris the horns of some other animal. They are not the horns of a moose, he explained to Jefferson, but attach them to anything you want.
Jefferson found himself apologizing for the meager specimen, assuring Buffon there was an even larger set of horns. Perhaps Buffon was an example of a reasonable scientist open to evidence. He proclaimed himself convinced of his errors and said the very next volume of his work would set things straight. But Buffon died before he was able to keep that promise.
Jefferson never lost his passion for the subject, urging the president of Harvard to beef up the study of natural history. From fossil remains of what is thought to be a giant sloth, he somehow deduced existence of a giant super lion, three times bigger than the African species. But 1801 brought the ultimate satisfaction, when near Newburgh, NY, Charles William Peale earthed the skeleton of a mastodon or mammoth. In his celebrated museum, Peale set off a veritable national mammoth craze. One town managed to put together a “mammoth cheese” that they sent to Jefferson.
Gordon Wood comments: “At times, it seemed as if the entire American intellectual community was involved in examining the creatures and the soil and climate of America.” [3] For example, meteorology became an American craze with thousands participating,, gathering facts in the best tradition of Enlightenment amateur science. Yale president Ezra Stiles filled six volumes with daily temperature and weather records. And every intellectual seemed compelled to present a paper on climate at one of the new American “philosophical” (natural science) societies. 
But the issue, understandably, kept coming back to the native Americans—the humans most affected by climate. Jefferson concluded and stated, emphatically, that on this issue, too, Buffon was wrong. As one intriguing sidelight, Americans became concerned that, given the environment, those on the frontier, most exposed to nature, might begin to degenerate toward a more and more savage state (there was anecdotal evidence!), to become “white savages.” Would the climate prevent the white man from becoming more civilized as it (purportedly) had kept the American Indian from becoming civilized?
The controversy had no decisive endpoint. There was no revised consensus that Buffon had been refuted or that the measurements of American species decisively disproved his climate theory. Instead, as decades passed and predictions never panned out, and one the prominent figures of the French Enlightenment—fully as widely read in his time as Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Voltaire—was overtaken by the reality of the future, the first great American climate panic simply faded away. 
[1] Georges Louis Leclerc Buffon, Buffon's Natural History: Containing a Theory of the Earth, a General History of Man, of the Brute Creation, and of Vegetables, Minerals,: &c. &c. Edited by James Smith Barr

[2]  Gordon S. Wood,  Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford History of the United States). Oxford University Press: London, 2011). Part of the Oxford History of America.

[3] Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty