Thomas Jefferson Takes A Vacation

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Now Madison was keeping a detailed travel diary. As they left New York State, he noted, “The road runs thro’ first about 3 miles of high level pine barren, then 7 or 8 very hilly clayey and middling land, the growth sugar maple and white pine.” When they crossed into Vermont, he saw a scene that must have matched Jefferson’s fondest imaginings: "7 or 8 [miles] of a fine fertile vale separating two ridges of low mountains” that rose above the prosperous farms of the Walloomsac River Valley, where the ground was “rich and covered with sugar maple and beech.” Unlike that of adjacent New York, this Vermont countryside was “closely settled,” the fields full of clover and half a dozen grass feed crops, plus corn, potatoes, and flax for making linens. Wood chips were being rendered into potash to sell in Canada for hard cash. A final enchantment: “Some sugar is made and much may be.”

This last would have been especially pleasing to Jefferson. Britain had recently resurrected a 1756 law that barred American ships from carrying British goods to and from British possessions in the New World, and Jefferson was determined to break his country’s reliance on Caribbean-grown sugar. At a time when Americans drank as many as fifteen cups of tea every day and wanted every cup sweetened, sugar was the nation’s leading import. The Secretary of State, searching for a substitute, had come across maple sugar.

Jefferson believed Americans could produce enough of it on their farms to meet all their domestic needs and have some left to export overseas to compete with the British. And maple sugar could be tapped, boiled, and bottled by free men, women, and children on family farms, with no need for slave labor. In 1790 Jefferson had instructed his son-in-law to plant maple seedlings at Monticello, but he hadn’t known where to situate them or how to cultivate them, and they all had died.

Just before going on vacation, Jefferson had written a fellow Virginia farmer, George Washington, the latest news about “the Sugar-maple tree,” passing on “the most flattering calculations.” He had also expressed his fear that farmers would distill the maple juice into an alcoholic spirit, drink it, and still need to import sugar. He reported that he had sampled the liquor and found that it “is exactly whiskey.”

As the two crossed the state line, Madison observed another fundamental difference: While most New Yorkers they had met were tenant farmers, Vermonters owned their own land. One can imagine him poking his head into farmhouses, making an impromptu survey: Do you own your house or do you rent it? Vermont farms, he recorded, “vary from 50 to 200 acres; in a few instances, they exceed 200.” Vermonters were “chiefly emigrants from New England. . . . Their living is extremely plain and economical, particularly in the table and ordinary dress. Their expense is chiefly on their houses, which are of wood and make a good figure without, but are very scantily furnished within.”

After stopping briefly at the site of the Battle of Bennington, the two road-weary travelers dismounted at Elijah Dewey’s Tavern (now the Walloomsac Inn) in Bennington on the afternoon of June 3 intending to spend the night there; but when Sen. Moses Robinson learned they were in town, he insisted they lodge with him. Until now they had been able to keep to Jefferson’s plan of traveling incognito, but they had not taken into account Anthony Haswell, a fiercely republican fan of Jefferson who edited the Vermont Gazette . Having gotten a copy of the previous week’s Albany Register , he had broken the story of the visit of the two highest U.S. officials ever to come to the newly minted state the day before they arrived. Nevertheless, Jefferson and Madison somehow managed to enjoy the amenities of the tavern, and a grateful Jefferson awarded Dewey’s a star.

THE TOWN OF BENNINGTON, SET in the middle of the richest wheatand corn-producing area in the young United States, had been a mecca for dissenters of various stripes since its founding thirty years earlier. Settled originally by breakaway separatists and more recently by refugees from the failed Shays’ Rebellion of the mid-1780s, Bennington was the biggest boomtown in the New England backcountry, its land-speculating aristocracy made up of a half-dozen intermarried families whose members lived in a hundred handsome white frame houses with distinctive bow windows. Young couples who came to the Walloomsac Valley enjoyed probably the best prospects for prosperity in the new nation; average newlyweds could buy land, build a house and barn, and pay them off in only five years, exporting their surplus crops by wagon to New York and rendering into potash and shipping up Lake Champlain to Canada any wood they did not build, fence, or heat with. This was the perfect forum for Jefferson’s doctrine of life, liberty, and land, and he was welcomed as a hero.