In a review of Bernard Faÿ’s book, L’Esprit révolutionnaire en France et aux Etats-Unis à la fin du XVIIIe siècle, Gilbert Chinard expressed disappointment that the author had not included a chapter on French science in America, in which he might have discussed, among other things, the vogue of Buffon’s Histoire naturelle.1 In Chinard’s opinion, this was not merely a matter of fleeting fashion; he believed that Buffon and his collaborators exerted a durable influence here. Somewhat paradoxical is the opinion of a recent investigator who affirms that “the more popular works of Buffon, although available in several English translations, seem [not] to have attracted American booksellers.”2 He concludes that Erasmus Darwin was “the favorite European writer on natural history, judging from the number of American editions of his writings.” I wish to address myself to this question of Buffon’s vogue in the United States.
The life and extraordinary labors of the illustrious French scientist have received the attention of many scholars.3 The first three volumes of the Histoire naturelle had appeared in 1749. The vast project was not to be completed, however, until after Buffon’s death, which occurred in 1788. Ultimately, there were forty-four quarto volumes. An English translation of part of the bold undertaking, entitled The Natural History of Animals, Vegetables, and Minerals, with the Theory of the Earth in General, in six volumes, was published in London in 1775–76. Various other editions in English also made their appearance there before 1800.
Buffon became famous in the Old World in his lifetime. His epoch-making work enjoyed an immense vogue in France. What was the case in the New World? It goes almost without saying that other investigators have been concerned with Buffon and America.4 Some have written at length on the controversy that the eminent naturalist initially provoked here. Of this more later.
Buffon was the first Frenchman elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society. The election took place in 1768. Subsequently, he made donations of his books to the society.5 In 1782 the American Academy of Arts and Sciences elected him a member.6 As early as 1762 William Shippen, an eminent Philadelphia physician and teacher, had gone to the Jardin du Roi (today the Jardin des Plantes) in Paris to see Buffon, who was its superintendent.7 Franklin and Jefferson were friends of Buffon.8 Jefferson considered him “the best informed of any Naturalist who has ever written.” Daniel Webster once enjoyed hearing the Virginian describe his visit to Buffon’s residence in the country.9 John Adams tells of visiting the British Museum one day in 1786 where the keeper of the collection of natural history gave him an earful about Buffon. Such gossip, Adams writes, “is partly national Prejudice and Malignity, no doubt.”10
The Histoire naturelle was one of the first great popular scientific successes, Michael Kraus writes, and it was “scattered” over Europe and America.11 Although no work by Buffon was published in the United States in the eighteenth century, one could order his tomes from abroad, as some did. Or one could purchase them in a number of American bookshops. “Buffon’s natural history, 9 vols with plates,” for example, was advertised by William Young, a Philadelphia bookseller, in the General Advertiser, May 8, 1793. In 1795 Moreau de Saint-Méry, also in Philadelphia, published an extensive catalog of books for sale, which included editions of Buffon in both French and English.12 A Baltimore dealer offered the naturalist’s “Works” in an advertisement which appeared for the first time in both the Federal Intelligencer and the Maryland Journal on October 22, 1795. Robert Campbell, another Philadelphia bookseller, advertised “Buffon’s Natural history of Birds, 9 vol. 8 vo.” in the Gazette of the United States, December 27, 1796. His “System of Natural History” was available at Caritat’s circulating library in New York City, as was an edition of his complete works in French.
Harvard College was well supplied with volumes of the Histoire naturelle in French and with other writings of Buffon.13 The Yale library had no copy of the monumental work.14 The University of Pennsylvania received the Histoire naturelle (thirty volumes) in a gift of books made to it by Louis XVI.15 “Buffon in Quo. complete” was among the books which the king also gave to William and Mary College.16 The Charleston Library Society ordered Buffon.17 The Hartford Library Company owned his Natural History, in nine volumes.
Washington had an abridged edition of the Natural History. There were many volumes of the great work, in French, in the library of John Adams. Jefferson’s 1815 library contained much more of it than did Adams’s, also in the original. Around 1767 Jefferson had recommended Buffon as reading for the “Education of a Lawyer.”18 He was among the French writers most often mentioned by James Madison.19 Madison was very concerned with Buffon.20 He possessed much of the Histoire naturelle, and made notes on, and translations from, several volumes of it.21 James Logan in Philadelphia owned books by Buffon.22 William Short, Jefferson’s secretary of legation, had a French edition of his writings in fifty-eight volumes. A Baltimore resident, Mr. Parkin, possessed seventy-six volumes by the great naturalist.23 William Dunlap, a New Yorker, recorded in his Diary that he “bought… an Octavo close printed French edition of Buffon” and that he read in him.24 In the forests of New York State, a misanthropic bachelor, Mr. Seagrove, said, “To console me in these sad reflections, I study Buffon, the outstanding painter of nature.”25 The evidence indicates that many others either owned or had access to volumes of the Natural History. Charles Nisbet, president of Dickinson College, cited Buffon in his lectures on “Moral Philosophy.”26 At Union College students in the philosophical class, before completion of the undergraduate curriculum, had to be “acquainted” with a number of subjects. “Instead of the Greek” they could substitute “Buffon’s Natural History, in French, or some other approved French author.”27 The naturalist was quoted on “Les Modes” in the collection of prose extracts which Joseph Nancrède prepared for the use of Harvard students.28 And John Clarke, in Letters to a Student (1796) at Harvard, wrote, “In the works of Buffon, You will find the beauties of language with the wonders of nature.” A Harvard commencement speaker placed Buffon and Voltaire in a category of “extraordinary geniuses.”29
The French naturalist was mentioned and quoted in periodical literature. In 1787 the Columbian Magazine (Philadelphia) printed a memoir, “Method of Preserving Birds, and Other Subjects of Natural History,”30 which Buffon requested to be sent to Franklin. In a recommendation of books to a young lady, the author of an article on women’s education appearing in this periodical said, “Buffon [in the pursuit of natural history] will claim superior attention.”31 In its December 1788 issue the magazine reprinted in translation, from the Journal de Paris, an apparently well liked eulogy on the “Beautiful Characters of Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Buffon.”32 In July 1797 the American Universal Magazine devoted several pages to “Biographical Anecdotes of the Count of Buffon.” The New York Magazine reprinted from Buffon a “Description of the Sensations and Ideas of the First Man, on His Coming into Existence.”33 This magazine also printed selections from his Natural History of Birds.34 In the Philadelphia Monthly Magazine one finds “A View of Nature. From Buffon,” and again in this publication the “Description of the Sensations and Ideas of the first Man.”35 Incidentally, I. W. Riley believed that Buffon was influential here because his “View of Nature fortified the American deists.”36 I cannot validate this.
Let me turn to the question of Buffon’s impact on Americans who were particularly interested in the sciences. I have not found any reference to the Frenchman by Cadwallader Colden, the prominent colonial scholar and botanist. John Bartram sent a message to Peter Collinson in 1755, in which he mentioned Buffon’s name. Collinson, a London horticulturist, had introduced Bartram, by letter, to Buffon.37 Bartram’s son, William, attacked certain theories of Buffon.38 Brooke Hindle points out that David Rittenhouse published anonymously in the Columbian Magazine around 1786–87. “Some Observations on the Structure of the Surface of the Earth in Pennsylvania and the adjoining Countries” was the title of one of his articles. In such writings, according to Hindle, Rittenhouse “gave no indication whether he had read Buffon.”39 From 1791 on, according to another scholar, Charles Willson Peale “maintained a correspondence” with Buffon. “In all this the subject of interest to him was not so much natural history as museum administration, particularly the character and progress of the European institutions.”40 Peale would soon open his own museum in Philadelphia. Another investigator finds that Peale “identified his exhibits according to the writings of Buffon and classified them according to the system of Linnaeus.”41 Madame Necker sent Peale “a portrait of the sainted Buffon shown surrounded by representatives of all nature, including a little depiction of Rousseau kissing in adoration the threshold of the great man’s cabinet.”42
I have alluded above to the controversy that Buffon stirred up by some of his theorizing in the Histoire naturelle. There are excellent and detailed accounts of this lengthy polemic, which took place in the latter half of the century, over the question of the degeneracy of animals and men in the New World.43 I shall only touch upon the debate here. The chief European detractors of America were Peter Kalm, Cornelius de Pauw,44 Buffon, Raynal, and William Robertson. Franklin, Jefferson, and John Adams were the principal defenders. They replied to the detractors with facts, not theories. “The opinion advanced by the Count de Buffon,” Jefferson wrote, “is 1. That the animals common both to the old and new world, are smaller in the latter. 2. That those peculiar to the new, are on a smaller scale. 3. That those which have been domesticated in both, have degenerated in America: and 4. That on the whole it exhibits fewer species. And the reason he thinks is, that the heats of America are less; that more waters are spread over its surface by nature, and fewer of these drained off by the hand of man. In other words, that heat is friendly, and moisture adverse to the production of large quadrupeds.”45 In a letter to Chastellux in 1785, Jefferson said, “As to the degeneracy of the man of Europe transplanted to America, it is no part of Monsr. de Buffon’s system. He goes indeed within one step of it, but he stops there. The Abbé Raynal alone has taken that step.”46 It was also the abbé who, writing in French of course, remarked in his most celebrated work that “one must be astonished that America has not yet produced one good poet, one able mathematician, one man of genius in a single art or a single science.” In the Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson marshalled fact after fact in order to refute Buffon.47 He sent or had sent to the naturalist specimens of American animals. He defended the Indians and the white population of North America against the charges of degeneration. Both Buffon and Raynal later “modified,” to use Chinard’s expression, their opinions of this continent. Apropos of the biological specimens Buffon received from Jefferson, Harlow Shapley affirms that the French scientist “was generous enough to write, ’I should have counseled you, sir, before publishing my Natural History, and then I should have been sure of the facts.’”48 I have not been able to locate the source of Shapley’s quotation.
The charges of degeneracy provoked other Americans and called forth many responses.49 There was an element in the controversy, however, that went beyond arguments over such matters as friendly or unfriendly heat and “adverse” moisture. Michael Kraus, for instance, in his book The Atlantic Civilization, cites eighteenth-century evidence of belief that America was a healthy place, not one of degeneracy. “This was more than an academic question,” Chinard writes, “and its political implications grew apparent as the British colonies progressed towards independence and finally formed a new nation.”50 At issue was civilization itself. Ultimately, the controversy was a dispute between the adherents of Old World culture and the supporters of a new order of the ages. Commager and Giordanetti affirm that for Europeans “America was merely a kind of stalking-horse for their own domestic problems” and that “to attack or to defend America were methods of criticizing the evils of government and economy and society in the Old World.”51 To sum up, one can say, speaking generally, that the French critics of America were the champions of French culture and civilization, and the French champions of America were those critical of France. The quarrel lingers on! So much for the controversy and Buffon’s role in it.
The great naturalist was much admired for his “elegant pen.” He had a vogue here, and the Histoire naturelle exerted an influence of sorts. He and his work were both praised and criticized, as the two following quotations from Americans of that age attest.
In an address at the University of Pennsylvania in November 1800, Charles Willson Peale expressed himself in this manner:
Although he is so much celebrated, yet, I think it my duty to say, however dazzling and captivating the stile of Buffon, such theoretical writers should be read with caution: we ought always to suspect an author, when he suffers his thirst for variety of language to lead him into unjust comparisons of the operations of nature; or to use irreverend [sic] expressions of the Creator, when through shortsightedness things appear strange, or unaccountable.
In the course of these lectures, in the description of American animals, some such instances will be illucidated; and although I may not spare his faults, I shall with candour always acknowledge how very serviceable his works have been to me in my studies.52
Samuel Miller had this to say of Buffon:
As a writer, in which he excels all other natural historians, [he] is far less accurate and philosophical. His neglect of regular systematic arrangement is a great defect, and must ever lessen the value of his works. He was a zealous cultivator of zoology, and by his splendid publications and captivating style made himself admired throughout the scientific world. And though many of his hypotheses are whimsical, extravagant, and delusive, it must yet be allowed that he did much to encourage and forward the study of nature; that he made many observations of great value; that he collected a multitude of interesting facts; and that his works hold a very important place in the zoological history of the age.53
For the prevalence of the study of natural history in the second third of the eighteenth century, wrote the knowledgeable Mr. Miller, “we are, perhaps, indebted to the genius, labours and influence of no two individuals so much as to those of Linnaeus, and the Count de Buffon.”54