Thomas Jefferson Takes A Vacation


Jefferson sought out the innkeeper, Conrad Lasher, for his first interview on crop damage: “The Hessian fly remains on the ground among the stubble of the old wheat. At ploughing time for sowing the new crop they rise in swarms before the plow horses. Soon after the wheat comes up, they lay the egg in it. ... In June, the Chrysalis bursts and the insect comes out, brown like a flax seed, a little longer, and with wings. . . . [Lasher] has counted 120 on one stalk, always under cover of the blade.” Jefferson noted that farmers nearby “have found a remedy,” using a “new sort” of white bearded wheat with “a more vigorous stalk” that suffered no damage.

Hurrying on toward Albany, the Secretary of State noted a variety of azalea he had never seen before. Its blooms were “wild-honeysuckle rose-colored, on stems four feet high loaded richly with large flowers of a strong, pink fragrance.” (That is, they smelled like pinks.)

IF THE TWO TOURISTS INDULGED IN politics in Albany, there is no record that they visited Gov. George Clinton. Quite the opposite, according to the Albany Register of May 30: “On Thursday last, this city was honored with the presence of Mr. Jefferson, Secretary of State, accompanied by... the celebrated Madison. We are informed they are going as far north as Lake Champlain.”

Madison was better known than Jefferson, who had been in Europe during the long debate over the new Constitution and its ratification, when Madison’s writings in the Federalist papers had been so decisive. In antiFederalist upstate New York, Madison was also appreciated as author of the recently adopted Bill of Rights. Most Americans did not yet know that Jefferson had written the Declaration of Independence; his authorship remained a state secret until he ran for President in 1800.


THE ALBANY REGISTER write-up was reprinted as far north as Burlington, Vermont, and as far south as Philadelphia. The article suggested that Jefferson and Madison were shunning not only their ally Clinton but other dignitaries too as they hurtled north: “It is to be regretted that their short stay in this city deprived our principal characters from paying that respectful attention due to their distinguished merit.” By contrast, the pro-Hamilton Albany Gazette did not even report the presence of the two men, yet John Hamilton later insisted that Jefferson and Madison had visited “under the pretext of a botanical excursion to Albany” whose real purpose was to study “Clintoniana borealis.”

One man in New York State was big enough to set politics aside when the two Virginians arrived: Maj. Gen. Philip Schuyler, recently unseated from the Senate by Burr. He was a local hero of the French and Indian War as well as the Revolution and was one of the wealthiest Hudson Valley patroons; his family holdings included land on which several battles had been fought. Schuyler rose above politics to welcome Jefferson and Madison and instructed his son to do likewise. Four years earlier in Paris, Jefferson had become a close friend of the general’s beautiful daughter Angelica who had frequently visited his home on the Champs Élysées. Now Jefferson and Madison spent several days touring the overgrown fields where British, German, French, and Americans had clashed for control of the continent.

Leaving these “scenes of blood,” as Jefferson described them to President Washington, he and Madison visited several factories around Albany, including one where sailcloth was made, a plant from which "1,000 barrels of salted herring [are] exported annually,” and a “distillery from which 1,000 hogsheads of rum are annually exported.” He “saw nails made by cutting them with a pair of shears from the end of a bar of iron.” Nail making was new to America; houses and furniture were still joined by pegs and glue. Jefferson was amazed to find that four thousand nails could be produced in a day. He wrote, “We saw 120 cut off in a minute” with “very simple” tools. He later introduced nail manufacturing to Virginia, at a factory he built at Monticello.

Like so many later tourists, Jefferson and Madison were struck by the serene beauty of the lake country. On May 29, 1791, Jefferson’s journal burst with “honeysuckle, wild cherry . . . black gooseberry, Velvet Aspen, cotton Willow, paper birch ... bass-wood wild rose... abundance of sugar maple.” The hemlock was covered with “moss of a foot long generally, but sometimes 4 [feet].” Strawberries were “now in blossom and young fruit.” His account of their two days on Lake George covers geography (the lake was thirty-six miles long), geology (”formed by a contour of mountains into a basin"), climate ("healthy"), and wonder at the scarcity of inhabitants. The waters he found “very clear.” He also recorded historical lore, that a stony precipice overhanging the lake was “famous by the name of Roger’s rock, the celebrated partisan officer of that name (Col. Robert Rogers of Rogers’ Rangers) having escaped the pursuit of Indians by sliding down it when [it was] covered with snow and escaping across the lake then frozen over.”