Thomas Jefferson Takes A Vacation


In his spare time Jefferson served as vice president of the American Philosophical Society, a circle of amateur scientists who included his friends David Rittenhouse, a clockmaker and astronomer; Caspar Wistar and William Bartram, botanists; and Charles Willson Peale, the founder of America’s first museum. That spring the society was pondering two questions: When does the opossum’s pouch disappear and how can crop damage caused by the Hessian fly be stopped? Jefferson would take those questions with him on vacation.


On May 8 he wrote Rittenhouse that his son-in-law Thomas Randolph, Jr., had observed on the Virginia frontier that the “pouch of the opossum disappeared after weaning the young” and added: “Tho a single observation is not conclusive, yet the memory remains strong with me that, when a boy, we used to amuse ourselves with forcing open the pouch of the Opossum, when [it had] no young.”

More serious was Jefferson’s concern about the Hessian fly, which had been ravaging American wheat harvests. He had his scientific friends help him put together a list of questions to ask along his vacation route. The document does not survive, but we can deduce its nature from Jefferson’s systematic records of the answers given him by farmers, ferrymen, local officials, and tavernkeepers. He was to ask what variety of seed each farmer used and whether the farmers spread manure (the need for fertilizer had not been accepted by most farmers, who thought American soil rich enough); he was to note the year and extent of every Hessian fly infestation while inquiring about each of the last six years; he was to keep the names of all with whom he spoke so he could correspond with them later. A true man of the Enlightenment, Jefferson believed that systematically applied reason could lead to human progress and that such questions were of paramount importance, especially when they related to anything that endangered crops. To his mind the American future belonged to the independent farmer, not the city dweller, and he wanted to endow Americans with enough land to provide high nutrition and crop surpluses that they could sell or barter for whatever they themselves could not grow or make. As Secretary of State, Jefferson was also in effect Secretary of the Interior and Secretary of Agriculture, since these posts did not yet exist. He was going to use his unique position to carry out what could be considered the first federal scientific study.

ON MAY 9, 1791, MADISON LEFT Philadelphia for New York City to procure supplies and make travel arrangements. Jefferson sent him a suggested itinerary, writing, “I shall propose to you, when we tack about from the extremity of our journey, instead of coming back the same way, to cross over through Vermont to [the] Connecticut River and down that [river] to New Haven, then through Long Island to New York and so to Philadelphia. Be this, however, as you will.”

Madison replied, “Health, recreation and curiosity being my objects, I can never be out of my way.” Jefferson wrote to President Washington, himself touring the Carolinas, “I think to avail myself of the present interval of quiet to get rid of a headache which is very troublesome by giving more exercise to the body and less to the mind.”

A note to his son-in-law, Randolph, suggests a political agenda hidden in the planned trip. Jefferson sent Randolph a copy of a fledgling newspaper, the Gazette of the United States , which supported Hamilton, and confided, “We have been trying to get another weekly or half-weekly paper set up [to] furnish [our] vehicle of intelligence. We hoped at one time to have persuaded Freneau [Philip Freneau, a New York City journalist and Revolutionary War poet], but we have failed.” Jefferson and Madison intended to try again during their New York City stopover. Jefferson thus admitted what he had been denying in public: that he was involved in forming an opposition faction within Washington’s government and was seeking to establish his own partisan organ. He asked his son-in-law to send him Hamilton’s paper each week at stops along his route. He and Madison would be sure to have the latest political news to discuss during their long days on the road.

As usual, Jefferson was strapped for cash. He awaited the arrival of four hogsheads of Monticello tobacco to sell for travel money, but when the shipment came, it was so damaged it was worthless. It “cannot be sold here at all,” he moaned. At first Jefferson had offered to pay all of Madison’s expenses on the road, but Madison insisted on dividing them. As it turned out, Jefferson would run out of money and end up borrowing from his companion.

THE UNOFFICIAL BRITISH ENVOY wrote home to London to say Jefferson and Madison were setting out to foment a “commercial war with Britain.”

Jefferson set out on May 17. As his high black carriage rolled out of Philadelphia, he wrote in the travel journal he kept at the back of his pocket almanac: “heard the first whip-poor-will.”