Thomas Jefferson Takes A Vacation


BY THE END OF THE FIRST CONGRESS, IN THE SPRING OF 1791, Thomas Jefferson badly needed a vacation. The first Secretary of State disliked the noise, dirt, and crowds of the capital, Philadelphia, and the cramped routines of office work. He had suffered near-constant migraine headaches for fully six months; one cause of them may have been his growing struggle with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, who had views opposite to Jefferson’s on almost every issue facing the new government. Nor could he find peace in his rented house at Eighth and Market streets. It was on the main wagon route into the city, and besides, he had succumbed to his passion for remodeling; he felt he needed a library, a solarium, a new kitchen, and a larger stable, so for nearly a year the place had been torn apart and full of carpenters and bricklayers.


His infighting with Alexander Hamilton was especially painful. Jefferson opposed Hamilton’s increasingly pro-British trade policies and was alarmed that his old friend Vice President John Adams was also advocating more friendly ties with Britain. He therefore had been elated to receive a copy of Thomas Paine’s latest anti-British blast, The Rights of Man , just published in London. Jefferson wrote a note recommending its American publication and sent it off to a printer. He intended his comments to remain private, he later insisted—he was, after all, in Washington’s cabinet with Adams and Hamilton—but the printer published his letter, and scores of newspapers reprinted it. Overnight Jefferson seemed to become the spokesman for Americans disenchanted with the President’s policies. “I’ am sincerely mortified,” he wrote Washington, “to be thus brought forward on the public stage against my love of silence . . . and my abhorrence of dispute.”

HE sorely needed to get away from a job he had never wanted and, he said, “to get rid of a headache which is very troublesome.”

JEFFERSON SORELY NEEDED TO GET away for a while from a job he had never wanted. Returning to America in 1789 on home leave after more than five years as minister to France, he had expected to go back to his diplomatic post in Paris. Only Washington’s insistence that without him the new government would be in trouble had made him accept a federal office job.


For a long time Jefferson had wanted to visit Vermont. As the champion of the frontier farmer, he had come to think of the new state as the frontier ideal, a sort of unspoiled Virginia without slavery or entrenched tidewater aristocrats, a place where everyone would have a chance to own a home and land and make a good living.

Jefferson was not, in the strictest sense, an inventor, but he loved to set his mind to thinking about age-old things in new ways—like time and travel and how to combine them into something entirely new: the summer vacation. At a time when traveling for pleasure was almost unheard of, except for the once-in-a-lifetime grand tour of European capitals made by a small number of wealthy young men, Jefferson began to take annual trips away from cities and official business. In a half-dozen long sojourns from his diplomatic post in Paris, he had turned himself into a scientific traveler, always following a carefully arranged itinerary and carrying out a complicated agenda of activities. Traveling without servants, in a carriage crammed with books and a portable writing desk, he made detailed notes about farming methods, soil conditions, weather, architecture, currencies, government, art, trade, nutrition. Shunning politicians, he instead interviewed farmers, merchants, shopkeepers, shipowners, and workers of all sorts, in England, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany.

HE WROTE HIS CLOSE FRIEND THE Marquis de Lafayette on the eve of the French Revolution that to govern a country well, its leaders occasionally needed to go about “absolutely incognito” to see firsthand how people live: “You must ferret the people out of their hovels as I have done, look into their kettles, eat their bread, loll on their beds under pretense of resting yourself, but in fact to find if they are soft. You will find a more sublime pleasure . . . when you shall be able to apply your knowledge to the softening of their beds and the throwing of a morsel of meat into their kettles of vegetables.”

It had been seven years since Jefferson had made a long swing through the Eastern United States en route to France. To a former aide he confessed: “I know only the Americans of the year 1784. They tell me this is to be much a stranger.” Now, on March 13, 1791, Congressman James Madison wrote to propose that they make a tour together as far to the north as they could go and return within a month. Jefferson had lately been not only serving as Secretary of State but also designing the nation’s currency and the mint to coin it, establishing its system of weights and measures, and helping choose the site for the permanent capital. Madison’s suggestion offered a welcome respite.