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Thomas Jefferson Takes A Vacation
ON IT HE GAVE THE NEW nation a new industry, wrote a protoguide to New England inns and taverns, (probably) did some secret politicking, discovered a town that lived up to his hopes for a democratic society, scrutinized everything from rattlesnakes to rum manufacture—and, in the process, pretty much invented the summer vacation itself
July/august 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 4
His infighting with Alexander Hamilton was especially painful. Jefferson opposed Hamilton’s increasingly pro-British trade policies and was alarmed that his old friend Vice President John Adams was also advocating more friendly ties with Britain. He therefore had been elated to receive a copy of Thomas Paine’s latest anti-British blast, The Rights of Man , just published in London. Jefferson wrote a note recommending its American publication and sent it off to a printer. He intended his comments to remain private, he later insisted—he was, after all, in Washington’s cabinet with Adams and Hamilton—but the printer published his letter, and scores of newspapers reprinted it. Overnight Jefferson seemed to become the spokesman for Americans disenchanted with the President’s policies. “I’ am sincerely mortified,” he wrote Washington, “to be thus brought forward on the public stage against my love of silence . . . and my abhorrence of dispute.”
For a long time Jefferson had wanted to visit Vermont. As the champion of the frontier farmer, he had come to think of the new state as the frontier ideal, a sort of unspoiled Virginia without slavery or entrenched tidewater aristocrats, a place where everyone would have a chance to own a home and land and make a good living.
Jefferson was not, in the strictest sense, an inventor, but he loved to set his mind to thinking about age-old things in new ways—like time and travel and how to combine them into something entirely new: the summer vacation. At a time when traveling for pleasure was almost unheard of, except for the once-in-a-lifetime grand tour of European capitals made by a small number of wealthy young men, Jefferson began to take annual trips away from cities and official business. In a half-dozen long sojourns from his diplomatic post in Paris, he had turned himself into a scientific traveler, always following a carefully arranged itinerary and carrying out a complicated agenda of activities. Traveling without servants, in a carriage crammed with books and a portable writing desk, he made detailed notes about farming methods, soil conditions, weather, architecture, currencies, government, art, trade, nutrition. Shunning politicians, he instead interviewed farmers, merchants, shopkeepers, shipowners, and workers of all sorts, in England, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany.
It had been seven years since Jefferson had made a long swing through the Eastern United States en route to France. To a former aide he confessed: “I know only the Americans of the year 1784. They tell me this is to be much a stranger.” Now, on March 13, 1791, Congressman James Madison wrote to propose that they make a tour together as far to the north as they could go and return within a month. Jefferson had lately been not only serving as Secretary of State but also designing the nation’s currency and the mint to coin it, establishing its system of weights and measures, and helping choose the site for the permanent capital. Madison’s suggestion offered a welcome respite.
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.
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.
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.”
Two days later, in New York, Madison wrote to his brother that “Mr. Jefferson is here and we shall set out in a day or two. The extent of our joint tour will depend on circumstances.” Jefferson checked into Mrs. Ellsworth’s boardinghouse on Maiden Lane with Freneau and with his fellow Virginians Madison and John Beckley, clerk of the House of Representatives. The question of whether they were actively carrying out political activities in New York City has long intrigued historians, but reports that they were came almost exclusively from Hamilton’s faction. Hamilton’s confidant George Beckwith, the unofficial envoy of Britain to the United States, wrote to the foreign minister in London, that “the Secretary of State, together with Mr. Madison, are now gone to the Eastern States, there to proselyte as far as they are able a commercial war with Britain.” And Alexander Hamilton’s son John flatly asserted that the Virginians were meeting secretly in New York City with the newly elected U.S. senator Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s enemy, before going on to huddle with Gov. George Clinton, a leading anti-Federalist, in Albany. Burr had just unseated Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler.
If Jefferson and Madison were merely on vacation, they had no reason either to conceal or to record visits to New York politicians on their way north. But if they were engaged, as John Adams’s son John Quincy later wrote, in “double dealing,” they had obvious cause for silence.
As Jefferson and Madison set out on their tour, Jefferson gave Hemings his loaded carriage and enough travel money to go ahead on the post road to Poughkeepsie, where they would rendezvous. For all their obvious and numerous presence, slaves are almost invisible in most early American history: Jefferson’s expense records offer a rare glimpse of Hemings’s duties on the trip: “James for expenses to Poughkeepsie 6 (dollars).”
After Jefferson had cleared his hotel bill and, for the second time in three days, visited a barber, the two tourists bade their friends good-bye and boarded the fast sloop of Capt. John Cooper. While they were sailing north, Jefferson brought up-to-date his three-column record of each day’s expenses and mileage, spreading out the expense sheets on the laptop desk he brought along. As the sloop slid past the dark, brooding Palisades, Jefferson made no notes about the scenery, but at the overnight stop at Conklin’s Tavern he not only wrote down the price of breakfast but also began to rate the inns along the route. A nondescript one got no comment; a good one, a plus mark or star; a bad one, a minus. (Conklin’s got no comment.) Jefferson kept such records to pass on to family and friends. When, thirty-five years later, his granddaughter went to New England on her honeymoon, he provided her with a set of his notes and travel recommendations from this vacation.
In the morning they went back aboard Captain Cooper’s sloop, and Jefferson began to keep yet another journal, a botanist’s account of the tour: “May 22. Conklin’s in the highlands. Found here the Thuya Occidentalis, called White cedar, and Silverfir, called hemlock. .. . Also the Candleberry myrtle.” Botany was the cutting-edge science of the age, and Jefferson had been keeping scrupulous garden records at Monticello for nearly twenty years, but here he was keeping a detailed traveling botanist’s record book for the first time.
Paying his $7.23 bill, Jefferson awarded the place his first star. Leaving Poughkeepsie, he took up his pen and continued his record of plants and trees he had never seen farther south—white pine, pitch pine, and juniper, with “berries used for infusing gin.” He and Madison went sixteen miles before breakfast; in all, they rode thirty-seven miles that first exhilarating day on horseback, while James Hemings drove the carriage behind them, and Jefferson awarded their next stopover, Lasher’s Inn, in Claverack, another star.
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.)
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.
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.”
Jefferson and Madison did more than make journal entries; they went fishing. The “abundance” of fish “added to our other amusements the sport of taking them,” the Secretary of State wrote. They caught salmon trout “of 7 lb. weight,” speckled trout, Oswego bass “of 6 or 7 lb. weight,” rock bass, and yellow perch. Jefferson noted wild ducks and seagulls—also “in abundance"—and he doubtless heard the loon. “Rattlesnakes abound on it’s [sic] borders. Two of which we killed,” he noted, and as any visitor to the area in late May would know, the lake was also “infested with swarms of mosquitoes and gnats, and two kinds of biting fleas.” That was a man of science, observing that they were two kinds of flea while swatting and picking off the insects.
What most impressed James Madison was finding a free black farmer whose house stood all alone at Lake George’s north end, on what is now called Black Point. “He possesses a good farm of about 250 acres which he cultivates with 6 white hirelings,” Madison wrote. The “free Negro,” named Prince Taylor, a native of Massachusetts and a veteran of the Commissary Department in the Revolutionary War, had paid about $2.50 per acre, “and by his industry and good management turns [it] to good account. He is intelligent; reads, writes and understands accounts and is dexterous in his affairs.” Not all of Madison’s observations were so serious. At Fort Edward he noted, “Here we saw a sow having a litter, belled in the manner of cattle and sheep.”
They stopped over at the ruins of Fort Ticonderoga, toured its ramparts, and enjoyed a French meal at an inn owned by a family of refugees from Canada who had helped the revolutionists during the war. The next day Jefferson and Madison sailed out onto Lake Champlain, and into one of those sudden, fierce storms that can make the mountain-ringed lake so treacherous. After a full day gaining little headway, they lodged for the night at an inn on Chimney Point, on the Vermont shore. The following morning Jefferson was delighted to discover what was for him a new species: “We have met with a small red squirrel, of the color of our fox squirrel with a black stripe on each side, weighing about six ounces generally.” Red squirrels were “in such abundance, on Lake Champlain particularly, . . . that twenty odd were killed at the house we lodged in ... without going ten steps from the door. . . . We killed three which were crossing the lakes, one of them just as he was getting ashore where it was three miles wide and where, with the high winds then blowing, he must have made it five or six miles.”
Jefferson vented his frustration in his journal: “Lake Champlain is a much larger but less pleasant water than Lake George.” Yet he jotted down his admiration for the Vermont shore, calling it “champagne” country with rolling golden fields of wheat running up to the Green Mountains. He wrote Patsy: “We have been obliged by a head wind and a high sea to return, having spent a day and a half in sailing on [Lake Champlain]. Our journey hitherto has been prosperous and pleasant.”
Sailing and driving south sixty-two miles in the next two days, they retraced their route to Saratoga, crossed the Hudson, and went at Vermont from the southwest, riding thirty-one miles over a bone-jarring dirt road to Bennington, stopping every day at blacksmiths to have their horses reshod.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.