File Under: Thomas Jefferson, Hero

Published:September 12, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

Today the online journal Slate has published an article that easily fits under the all-too-familiar rubric of “Thomas Jefferson, Hero.” Titled “Thomas Jefferson Debunked One of History’s Most Offensive Scientific Theories,” it explains that even as Mr. Jefferson had “more pressing matters to attend to”—”oh yes, there was the matter of writing the Declaration of Independence”—he nevertheless “took it upon himself to correct the scientific record and fight a slander against his country—a slander that had political, philosophical, and economic consequences.”

What slander? A Frenchman named Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte. de Buffon, had proposed that North America’s climate rendered its biological specimens underdeveloped, weak, and degenerate. For example, Buffon wrote this about American Indians: “The savage is feeble, and has small organs of generation.”

Those are fighting words in any language, and Jefferson took to writing Notes on the State of Virginia in part to counter such libel—if not on the Indians’ behalf, then on behalf of gentlemen like himself, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin, who disproved Buffon’s claim that America had not produced “one able mathematician, one man of genius in a single art or a single science.”

The article in Slate celebrates Jefferson’s defense, with author Lee Alan Dugatkin writing that while Jefferson respected Buffon, “on the question of degeneracy, he thought the count had crossed a boundary that should not be crossed. How dare he use natural history in such a fashion to damn an entire continent!”

Indeed! How dare he! And bravo, Mr. Jefferson, who, Dugatkin tells us, worried that Buffon’s argument would live a long life: “He was right—degeneracy fit into a Eurocentric view of the world too well to be set aside by people who thought themselves naturally superior to all others. For the next 70 years, European thinkers would line up to defend the theory of degeneracy. Fortunately, there were Americans to counter them.”

By now you see the irony of all this, right? Jefferson, by writing Notes, is a hero for bravely doing battle with “people who thought themselves naturally superior to all others.” And yet what was it that Jefferson also wrote in Notes? Something about how American blacks prefer sex with whites “as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranatoon [orangutan] for the black women over those of his own species.”

Wait, what? That’s right: Jefferson wrote that blacks want to have sex with whites in the same way that male orangutans insist on having sex with black women, a metaphor that implies—I’m sorry to have to spell it out—that orangutans did in fact regularly have sex with black women.

In his forthcoming book Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, Henry Wiencek writes:

Jefferson had extracted this tidbit from Buffon’s report of travelers’ accounts of apes kidnapping and raping African women. Jefferson probably summoned up the fantastical image of an ape mating with an African woman to deflect attention from the actual reality of Virginia society—the pervasive rape of black women by white men.

Jefferson also wrote in Notes that while American blacks may have memories equal to whites, “in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous” and “in reason much inferior.” (Case in point, right?) He also observed that there is yet no evidence of a black person “capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid.”

Black people, in other words, are inherently inferior to whites—degenerate, even.

Of course, on this question one must agree that Mr. Jefferson has crossed a boundary that should not be crossed. How dare he use natural history in such a fashion to damn an entire people! (It also must be said that Jefferson’s theory is one that many American thinkers lined up to defend—for about the next 70 years, as it happens.)

If, as the folks at Slate seem to believe, Jefferson was countering “One of History’s Most Offensive Scientific Theories,” wasn’t he only offering to replace it with an even more offensive theory?

IMAGES: Table of contents for Notes on the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson (University of Virginia Special Collections); Thomas Jefferson Shark Hunter by Meredith Borders