Degenerate Americans


Does the stereotypical boastfulness of Americans — da biggest & da bestest, by jimminy! — stem from a deep insecurity?

Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America, by Lee Alan Dugatkin, is about the mammoth chip on the shoulder of the early European Americans. Their betters in France told them they were degenerate, puny, and sickly, because of North America itself. The cold and the damp here shrunk everything, animals wild and domestic, people native and come-ashores.

The world’s most renown naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon said so, over and over again in the dozens of volumes of his 36 volume Histoire Naturelle. The theory of New World degeneracy was spread further by the nasty Prussian clergyman Cornelius de Pauw, shilling for the Prussian ban on out-migration. Back in France, Guillaume-Thomas Raynal, often referred to as the Abbe Raynal although he was always getting in hot water with the church, piled on. Even after Franklin had the Americans and Frenchmen at dinner together stand up, proving the Frogs were shrimps in comparison. Raynal was at that dinner.

The Englishman William Robertson’s monumental History of America (1777) ventured “the principal of life there seems to have been less active and vigorous.” Kant, Hegel, John Keats, even young Charles Darwin all followed Buffon’s lead. Meanwhile, on the side of evidence were Humboldt, Byron, and Mazzei, who wrote 14 volumes in defense of the New World after having introduced viniculture to Virginia.

Neither Buffon, de Pauw, or Raynal had ever seen North American in person. Buffon believed the reasons for American biological inferiority were climatological. The cold and damp made the natives childish and the Creoles, meaning Europeans born in the New World, degenerate to the same level. (Other than this wildly influential but baseless crotchet, Buffon was an impressive naturalist for his day; he accepted the fact of extinction, something Jefferson didn’t. Raynal was vocal in his anti-slavery sentiments. History is complicated.)

Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia is a sustained argument against Buffon’s theory of degeneracy. He also thought a large moose who show Buffon up. But it would take more than that: most of the 19th century was about Americans trying to get over their inferiority complex in regard to Europe.

One of the most galling European charges about the Americas is that the birds here did not sing. Yes, you heard that right.

The all-singing all-dancing Alexander Hamilton, writing in the Federalist Papers, put the only footnote in that whole corpus: taking de Pauw to task for claiming the dogs in America were mute.

All this Euro-trash nonsense may have made Americans overcompensate. The boosterism, ignorant jingoism, and fundamentalist bellicosity of “God’s country” now boils down to grunts of “We’re number one” — in the face of much statistical evidence to the contrary.

Our week of books continues.

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