- Historic Sites
Thomas Jefferson Takes A Vacation
ON IT HE GAVE THE NEW nation a new industry, wrote a protoguide to New England inns and taverns, (probably) did some secret politicking, discovered a town that lived up to his hopes for a democratic society, scrutinized everything from rattlesnakes to rum manufacture—and, in the process, pretty much invented the summer vacation itself
July/august 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 4
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.”
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.
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.