Thomas Jefferson Takes A Vacation

FROM that time on, whenever politics pressed in on him, he took a ride along the Schuylkill or Potomac and sat for a spell under a shade tree.

Jefferson would later confirm that this was indeed an as-yet-unclassified variety of azalea. There was a breathless quality in this family letter that he never betrayed in public, as he continued to catalogue the natural beauty he had found: “The honeysuckle of the gardens growing wild on the banks of Lake George, the paperbirch, an aspen with a velvet leaf, a shrubwillow with downy catkins [perhaps pussy willows], a wild gooseberry, the wild cherry with single fruit, strawberries in abundance. From the Highlands to the lakes it is a limestone country. It is in vast quantities on the Eastern side of the lakes, but none on the Western sides.” He had determined that “two very remarkable cataracts” of the Hudson River, “about 35 or 40 feet each,” between Fort Edward and Fort George, were “of limestone in horizontal strata,” but that the seventy-foot-high Falls of the Cohoes “we thought not of limestone.”

Then Jefferson took out fresh paper and wrote another letter, the most important document of the tour. Probably at dinner the night before, he had learned that the British, violating the Treaty of Paris of 1783, had built a blockhouse “something further south than the [Canadian] border,” had there stationed a sloop of war, the Maria , and were forcing American ships to heave to, even in storms, causing two of them to sink. Vermonters were nervous, and two hundred militia had manned a stockade nearby. State officials expected trouble. Jefferson would give Washington more details when they met in Philadelphia two weeks later.


With the clock ticking now, Jefferson and Madison slipped out of town before sunrise on Monday morning and rode fourteen miles before breakfast even though Madison’s horse was be- coming lame. Jefferson had tried to make light of the problem in his letter to Washington—they were having “cavalry troubles"—but once again they had to revise their plans. Madison had hoped to go on to Boston. Now they hurried south along the Connecticut River, no doubt by carriage. They stopped for a night at Northampton, then at Hartford, and finally at Guilford, before crossing Long Island Sound. On the North Shore of Long Island, they toured farms and stayed in comfortable inns for five nights en route to New York City, which they reached on June 16. In all, Jefferson calculated, they had traveled 900 miles, 236 by water, 664 by land, in just over a month.

IN THOSE LAST DAYS ON LONG IS- land, Jefferson interviewed farmers about the Hessian fly and visited Flatbush, the site of the first infestation. He would later collate all his data into a report and publish it in newspapers, disseminating his finding that a new, more resistant variety of wheat used in the Hudson Valley would, when fertilized, be strong enough to fight off the Hessian fly’s depredations. He also paused to interview three old women of the Unquachog tribe, writing down 250 native definitions for English words. It was the first of fifty brief tribal glossaries he gathered, hoping one day to make a systematic study of native American languages.

He also shopped for trees at a nursery in Flushing, ordering, at the top of his list, sixty maples for Monticello. They never produced any syrup or sugar, but Jefferson had learned another use for trees during their weeks on the road. From that time on, whenever politics pressed in on him, he took afternoon rides along the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia or the Potomac in Washington and sat for a spell under a shade tree. Thomas Jefferson had finally learned how to relax.