Thomas Jefferson Takes A Vacation

HE URGED THE ASSEMBLED Vermonters to consider seriously a new cash crop: maple sugar. They got the message and began their annual harvests.

He spent much of Saturday interviewing local citizens about the Hessian fly and learning that there had been little damage this far north. In his memo for the American Philosophical Society, he noted, “Bennington. Had a few in 89, 90. Have not heard if there are any this year.” Saturday afternoon he and Madison went to Robinson’s home, where Jefferson was fascinated by a giant balsam poplar tree in the front yard. That evening the senator gave them a lavish dinner and introduced them to the local gentry. Several guests at the table had represented Vermont as agents to the Continental Congress in the off-and-on, decade-long effort to enter the Union, most notably Robinson and the state supreme court justice Isaac Tichenor, a Newark-born and Princeton-educated man so adroit at manipulating Vermont’s laws and lawmakers to his own ends that he had earned the nickname “Jersey Slick” Tichenor.

According to Anthony Haswell of the Gazette , Jefferson gave a talk, in his low, slow voice urging the assembled Vermonters to consider seriously a new cash crop: maple sugar. Haswell, ablaze with the news that Jefferson thought Vermonters could make money from the trees all around them, reported that the Secretary of State had “ascertained beyond a doubt” that there were enough maples to produce sugar “adequate to the consumption” of every American and some Europeans too. He wrote: “Refineries are about [to be] established by some wealthy foreigners resident in the Union. . . . Agents will be established . . . who will loan out kettles, etc., on reasonable terms to persons unable to purchase [them]. . . . Cash will likewise be lodged to purchase the raw sugar. . . . Attention to our sugar orchards is essentially necessary to secure the independence of our country.”


Bringing to the maple-rich, cash-poor Vermont frontier a promise of dripping prosperity, Jefferson gave birth that night to its maple syrup industry. David Fay, one of the guests at Moses Robinson’s table, promised to launch a large-scale experiment, and that autumn he began sending reports—as well as crates of maple saplings—south to Jefferson. The next year, as Jefferson promised, a Dutch company did set up a maple sugaring operation in nearby Rutland. It soon failed, but Vermonters got Jefferson’s message and, using ancient Indian techniques, began their annual midwinter harvests.

If the two Virginians had hoped to move on after a one-night stopover, they had not reckoned with a new Vermont blue law that forbade travel on the Sabbath. As a high government official Jefferson could have claimed pressing business and applied to a magistrate for a waiver. But as Secretary of State he was in charge of protocol, and he decided he must observe the newest state’s newest law. He and Madison stayed in Bennington until Monday morning.

BEING IN BENNINGTON ON THE Sabbath meant going to church. One Vermont historian notes that the “zealously pious” Senator Robinson took Jefferson and Madison along to the great gambrel-roofed Congregational meetinghouse and led them to his family pew. According to local legend, the pastor, the Reverend Job Swift, refused to bow to the dignitaries; years later, when Jefferson ran for President, Reverend Swift joined the chorus of New England Congregationalist clergy who denounced him as a slaveholding atheist. The Reverend Swift’s version of their visit, written after his political views had led to his being fired by the congregation, was hardly unbiased. He mentioned that Senator Robinson “was a little proud of the performance of the choir of singers” and “insisted” on getting his notable guests’ opinions of it, “especially how it compared with the church music in other places.” Swift reported that Jefferson and Madison had been “obliged to confess that they were no judges,” having not “attended church before in several years.” In fact both Jefferson and Madison had attended a memorial service for Benjamin Franklin only weeks earlier.

That afternoon, at Senator Robinson’s house, Jefferson found peace and quiet of his favorite sort, writing letters. He took out several slips of birchbark and wrote his son-in-law a long account of the first four hundred miles of their tour. He began by enumerating the “scenes of blood” they had visited, but went on: “We were more pleased however with the botanical objects . . . either unknown or rare in Virginia . . . the sugar maple in vast abundance, the silver fir, white pine, pitch pine, spruce pine, a shrub they call jumper, an azalea very different from the nudiflora with very large clusters of flowers, more thickly set on the branches, of a deeper red, and high pink fragrance. It is the richest shrub I have ever seen.”