Archive for the ‘Thomas Jefferson’ Category

Hessian fly

After doing the research for our novels about Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, I can’t imagine a richer historical setting than early America. And though we included a lot of the period details that captivated us, inevitably there were some characters that ended up on the cutting room floor. Among these was the Hessian fly, which was ravaging America in 1794, the year that Lewis and Clark met and in which our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe is set.

The notorious pest was Mayetiola destructor, known also as the barley midge, and it suddenly appeared in the farm country of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut in the late 1770s as the Revolutionary War raged. This tiny insect, scarcely visible to the naked eye, was capable of chewing through entire fields of wheat in a matter of days and was soon dubbed the “Hessian fly” after the notorious mercenary German soldiers hired by the British crown. Many believed that the fly had arrived in the United States in the filthy straw bedding of the Hessians. That is unprovable, but most scientists today believe the fly did arrive in straw, probably horse forage, shipped in by the British for use in putting down the revolution.

George Morgan, a revolutionary officer and farmer near Princeton, left a vivid description of the fly, which carried out its destruction in the larval stage:

…White Worms which after a few days turn of a Chestnut Color — they are deposited by a Fly between the Leaves & the Stalk of the green Wheat, & generally at the lowermost Joint, and are inevitable Death to the Stalks they attack.

Pending a scientific explanation, the destruction caused by the fly was an occasion for soul-searching. The Reverend Timothy Dwight suggested that “nothing can more strongly exhibit the dependence or littleness of man than the destruction of his valuable interests by such minute, helpless beings, nor can anything more forcibly display the ease with which his Maker punishes his transgressions.”

New England Farmer. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

After the Revolution, the fly embarked on a relentless flight westward, moving at a rate of about 20 miles per year. By the 1790s, American wheat exports had plummeted even as revolutionary France ramped up demand. Many of the big names in early American science worked to combat the fly, including Thomas Jefferson. In May 1791, Thomas Jefferson (then U.S. Secretary of State) and his colleague and close friend, James Madison, took a leisurely trip through New England where they mixed hiking and fishing with serious business matters. Jefferson had agreed to chair a special committee of the American Philosophical Society that would gather scientific data about the fly and develop methods of fighting it. During his trip he conducted interviews with farmers and townsfolk about their experiences and observations, and even traced the origin of the plague back to a spot in present-day Brooklyn.

Jefferson continued to fit his research in with his work as America’s top diplomat. In the summer of 1792, he pupated live Hessian flies, watched them hatch and lay their eggs, and examined them through his microscope. Unfortunately, Jefferson was then caught up in his intense feud with Alexander Hamilton and then in the Citizen Genet affair, which led to his resignation the following year. He never again took up his involvement with the fly’s saga, though that didn’t stop Federalists from lampooning him as an eccentric who interrupted the public business to write “dissertations on cockroaches.”

Interpreter Merritt Caposella of Colonial Williamsburg poses with an 18th-century microscope. Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg.

The fly moved south and west, wreaking more destruction. Between 1796-99, America exported virtually no wheat at all thanks to the fly’s depredations. Though Jefferson was no longer in the lead, the fly’s menace proved the kick-starter for the development of American entomology. By the early 19th farmers were starting to adapt their practices to combat the fly, specifically by delaying their fall plantings until after the fly was done spawning, planting varieties of wheat observed to be fly-resistant, and diversifying to other crops, especially corn and rye. The Hessian fly continues to munch on wheat to this day, never eliminated, only controlled.

For more reading, check out these excellent articles:

Fighting the Hessian Fly: American and British Responses to Insect Invasion, 1776-1789 (PDF)

Hessian Fly (Monticello)

Seeing the Light: A Close Look at 18th-Century Optics (Colonial Williamsburg)

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Location: Santa Fe, New Mexico

Historical drinking chocolate from the days of Thomas Jefferson

Now I admit that Santa Fe, New Mexico, which I was privileged enough to visit last week for the first time, might seem pretty far off the Lewis & Clark trail, and even further from the reach of the long arm of Thomas Jefferson. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, you can sample a very tasty part of the world of the Sage of Monticello right here, not far from the New Mexico State Capitol.

In 1775, even before he penned the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson had fallen in love with chocolate, writing to fellow revolutionary John Adams that “the superiority of chocolate, both for health and nourishment, will soon give it the same preference over tea and coffee in America which it has in Spain.” And considering the events that were sweeping the colonies, a good alternative to tea  was not the least of concerns for Adams and his young friend from Virginia.

As the comments indicate, chocolate in those days was consumed in the form of a beverage; the candy form of chocolate would not be invented until the 1840s. Even since they began their conquest of Mexico in the early 1500s, the Spanish had been wild about chocolate (from the Mayan word xocoatl). Conquistador Hernan Cortez reported that he was offered a drink in a golden goblet by the Aztec ruler Montezuma,who “took no other beverage than the chocolatl, a potation of chocolate, flavored with vanilla and spices, and so prepared as to be reduced to a froth of the consistency of honey, which gradually dissolved in the mouth and was taken cold.” The Spanish exported the beverage back home and added their own innovations, such as heating it and adding milk and sugar to make it a palatable after-dinner delight.

This 18th century London chocolate house looks a bit more rowdy than your average Starbucks of today.

The Spanish soon noticed how good the chocolate made them feel and considered it both a health drink and an aphrodisiac. For almost a century the Spanish were able to keep a monopoly on cacao, guarding it as closely as the formula of Coca-Cola is today. Their chocolate drinks were so thick and rich that some of them were served with spoons to be eaten like pudding. Eventually, the secret leaked out and the drink caught on throughout Europe and eventually returned home across the pond to make it big in the colonies.

The idea of chocolate as health food might seem a little strange to us today, but not when compared with the American breakfast beverages of choice: ale, beer, and hard cider. And like a lot of health foods, it was difficult to prepare, with a long list of ingredients including expensive chocolate wafers that had to be hand-grated, milk, wine or rosewater, and sugar and spices (which also had to be grated). For ideal preparation, a special pot called a chocolate mill was needed.

Jefferson loved chocolate and served it both at Monticello and at his Philadelphia home when he was serving as the nation’s first secretary of state. In fact, exasperated by the lack of vanilla beans with which to flavor the chocolate, he once set away to Paris for the kind of pods he had enjoyed while serving as envoy to France. Jefferson was indulging in a characteristic extravagance, as vanilla was extraordinarily expensive at the time. Philadelphia taverns and chocolate houses probably flavored their chocolate instead with cinnamon.

Thomas Jefferson’s chocolate mill, nicknamed “the duck” in his family. Courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

Also during his tenure in Philadelphia, Jefferson commissioned a local silversmith to make an amazing chocolate mill with a design based on an antique Roman pot he had viewed in the south of France. While in Europe, Jefferson had ordered a mahogany replica of the pot, and his silver design was nicknamed “the duck” by his family. A characteristically impractical Jeffersonian design, the chocolate mill was visually impressive but allowed the chocolate to get cold, unlike conventional pots. It is fun to imagine Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis discussing the westward expedition while enjoying their delicious (lukewarm) treat.

By the time Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were coming of age, coffee was overtaking chocolate as the American beverage of choice.

The hot chocolate we enjoy today bears little resemblance in taste or texture to the thick, grainy beverages of Jefferson’s time. The Kakawa Chocolate Bar in Santa Fe serves authentic historical drinking chocolate, prepared with organically grown ingredients and using recipes based on historical and anthropological sources. You can order rich cups of chocolate prepared  Mesoamerican style, with no sweeteners but seasoned with flowers, chilis, agave, vanilla, and other spices. You can also try elixirs based on old Spanish, French, and Italian recipes, along with something called the “Jeffersonian,” a simple American recipe that includes chocolate, milk, sugar, nutmeg, and vanilla. This recipe, thinner and sweeter than the European chocolates, is considered the direct ancestor of modern hot chocolate, which is also available at Kakawa.

I only wish I lived in Santa Fe so I could try all the chocolates! I highly recommend a visit to Kakawa for anyone wishing to take a chocolate time machine back into America’s delicious past. Their chocolate mixes are also available by mail.

Kakawa Chocolate House

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Mary and Liz in front of the old armory building, which houses the Meriwether Lewis exhibit

There are a few spots on Planet Earth where I have left thinking I had just experienced a superior place. A place that is visually stunning, awe-inspiring, and tranquilizing, yet full of special historical and cultural significance that engages the mind as well as the senses. One such place is Hawaii. Another is Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

Most people know Harpers Ferry because of John Brown’s notorious raid on the Federal Arsenal in 1859. A self-styled Old Testament prophet and avenger, Brown conceived his daring plan as a way to seize massive quantities of weapons and spark a slave uprising that would end the barbaric institution of slavery forever. I am fascinated by Brown, and you can view an excellent movie and exhibits on John Brown and his raid and visit the old fire engine house (known as John Brown’s Fort) where he held out against the siege of U.S. Army troops after the raid’s failure.

Harpers Ferry got its name from a ferry run by one Robert Harper, who began in the 1760s to serve travelers wanting to cross the Potomac to settle in the Shenandoah Valley. Situated at the confluence of the Potomac and the Shenandoah Rivers, the spot was a natural for commerce in the age of river travel and for industry in the age of water mills. In 1783, Thomas Jefferson visited the town and climbed to an observation point now known as Jefferson’s Rock. The rave review he gave in his book Notes on the State of Virginia would put Harpers Ferry on the map:

The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature. You stand on a very high point of land. On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountain a hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approaches the Patowmac in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their junction they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder and pass off to the sea. …

But the distant finishing which nature has given the picture is of a very different character. It is a true contrast to the former. It is as placid and delightful as that is wild and tremendous. For the mountains being cloven asunder, she presents to your eye, through the cleft, a small catch of smooth blue horizon, at an infinite distance in that plain country, inviting you, as it were, from the riot and tumult roaring around to pass through the breach and participate in the calm below. Here the eye ultimately composes itself; and that way, too, the road happens actually to lead. You cross the Patowmac above the junction, pass along its side through the base of the mountain for three miles, the terrible precipice hanging in fragments over you, and within about 20 miles reach Frederictown and the fine country around that. This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.

Talk about a five-star review on Tripadvisor! You reach Jefferson Rock by climbing a steep set of hand-carved stone steps that are themselves a historic landmark dating back to the early 19th century. Along the way, a worthwhile stop is St. Peter’s Catholic Church, constructed in the 1830s.

View from Jefferson Rock

The entire town of Harpers Ferry is carved out of a steep hillside and has winding streets that must give natives the calves and thighs one associates with San Francisco pedestrians. You can find a good exhibit on Meriwether Lewis’s time in the town in the old armory building. George Washington had designated Harpers Ferry as a federal armory in 1794, and mass production of military weapons had begun shortly thereafter. Lewis arrived in March 1803 and began working with superintendent Joseph Perkins on the guns, powder horns, bullet molds, tomahawks, knives, and other weapons the Expedition would need to make it across the continent, as well as his personally designed iron boat, a project he called “my favorite boat.”

Other historic buildings house special exhibits on the Civil War, the role of the rivers in manufacturing, and the fascinating history of Storer College. Founded in 1865 to educate newly freed slaves, Storer operated primarily as a teacher’s college, a vital service that is easy to underappreciate today. Though the education offered at Storer was basic by today’s standards, it was a lifeline for the African-American community of the whole region, who desperately needed teachers to provide children and adults with the basic tools to survive.

I was shocked to learn of the opposition to Storer from the white community in Harpers Ferry. Harassment and vandalism were commonplace. It is difficult to imagine the kind of racism that would compel someone to try to turn young people away from a chance to better themselves. In 1906, Storer hosted an historic conference of the Niagara Movement, a group started by educator W.E.B. Dubois to push for full civil rights for African-Americans. The group met with strong opposition even among some blacks, but eventually helped give rise to the NAACP. Spitefully, the state of West Virginia withdrew all support from Storer after being forced to integrate state colleges in the wake of the landmark Brown decision, and the college closed its doors in 1955.

Harpers Ferry street scene

There isn’t much in the way of dining in Harpers Ferry, but we got a great lunch at the Cannonball Deli. Many of the historic buildings host adorable shops, so the non-history buff in your family will have plenty to see and enjoy while you are trekking up hill and dale taking in all of the wonderful historic character of this beautiful spot.

We wanted to get a little more up-close and personal with the river, so while staying in Harpers Ferry we also went on an amazing raft ride on the Shenandoah River. It was beautiful, and we had the chance to see old ruins of mills that once used the river’s power to ply their trade, as well as ruins of a bridge destroyed by the Confederates. The river was alive with damsel flies (similar to dragonflies) and we spotted lots of herons and Canada geese.

River and Trail Outfitters did a great job, and our guide, a big crazy guy reminiscent of Seth Rogen, couldn’t have been nicer. We even got to swim in the river. I will say that because of water levels the paddling seemed harder and more strenuous than I expected for a  beginner-level ride. Our raft was hung up on rocks several times and I got a little scared in the strong current. Something to keep in mind if you want to go.

On our way out of Harpers Ferry we stopped and toured the small but interesting Civil War site known as Bolivar Heights. This peaceful spot was once the scene of horror and despair for over 12,000 Union troops trapped here by Stonewall Jackson’s forces in 1862. The debacle was compounded by the fact that many of the troops died of disease in Confederate prisons. The loss for the Union was not considered fully avenged until Gettysburg a year later.

I highly recommend Harpers Ferry to the Lewis & Clark buff or anyone who enjoys beauty and history. It is truly one of the most special places I have visited. And one last plug: we adored the Jackson Rose Inn, a beautiful and peaceful bed and breakfast on a quiet street. Stonewall Jackson used this house as his headquarters during the battle and apparently we stayed in his room. I hope he found a little peace here too.

For more reading:

Meriwether Lewis’s Iron Boat
Harpers Ferry Armory and Arsenal (great photos and history)

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Jefferson's Instructions to Meriwether Lewis, 1803

Jefferson's Instructions to Meriwether Lewis, 1803

On your arrival on that coast endeavor to learn if there be any port within your reach frequented by the sea-vessels of any nation, and to send two of your trusty people back by sea, in such way as shall appear practicable, with a copy of your notes. and should you be of opinion that the return of your party by the way they went will be eminently dangerous, then ship the whole, & return by sea by way of Cape Horn or the Cape of good Hope, as you shall be able. as you will be without money, clothes or provisions, you must endeavor to use the credit of the U. S. to obtain them…

So wrote Thomas Jefferson in his instructions to Meriwether Lewis at the outset of the Lewis and Clark expedition. If Lewis and his party were successful in reaching the Pacific Ocean, Jefferson instructed, he was hopeful that Lewis could hitch a ride home on a friendly ship, or at least send back a couple of trusted members of his party and his precious journals by sea, if returning by land seemed too dangerous.

Captain Robert Gray

Captain Robert Gray

How practical a plan was this? The Pacific Coast or “Northwest Coast,” as it was called back in the early 19th century, was well known to ship captains engaged in the fur trade. The first American trading vessels recorded as having been in the area were the Columbia Rediviva and the Lady Washington of Boston, which arrived on the Pacific Coast in September 1788. Under Captain Robert Gray, the Columbia Rediviva made a second voyage from Boston to the Northwest in September 1790, spending the winter of 1791-92 at an encampment just north of Nootka Sound (on present day Vancouver Island). While there, Gray and his fifty crew members explored the area and collected sea-otter furs for sale in China.

Also in the area at that time was British Captain George Vancouver, in the British sloop Discovery. When Gray and Vancouver met, Gray showed Vancouver his map pin-pointing the location of the then-unnamed Columbia River. Although Vancouver had noted “river-colored water” in the sea as the Discovery had passed a spot off the coast just two days earlier, he dismissed Gray’s discovery as the outflow of a few minor streams.

On May 11, 1792, Gray navigated the Columbia Rediviva across the treacherous sand bar at the mouth of the Columbia River and became the first western trading vessel to actually enter the Columbia waterway. Gray and Vancouver are both credited with the “discovery” of the Columbia River, though Vancouver deemed it “not suitable for major commerce.”

George Vancouver at the mouth of the Columbia

George Vancouver at the mouth of the Columbia

The next decade saw an increase in trading ships along the Columbia, with several ships a year visiting the coast to engage in fur trading with the coastal Indians. By the time Lewis and Clark reached the coast in 1805, there was a thriving trade in furs centered at Nootka Sound. Ships sometimes encountered in Pacific Northwest waters included Boston traders, French expeditions, British, Russian, and Spanish explorers and merchantmen, New England whalers, and even an occasional Japanese junk.

So, it was not unreasonable for Jefferson, Lewis and Clark to hope that a ship might happen by to carry the explorers home. In fact several ships were in the area that year. Most notably, the American ship Lydia of Boston, under Captain Samuel Hill, entered the Columbia River in 1805 to acquire timber for spars. The Lydia entered the lore of coastal legend not because it picked up Lewis and Clark, but because it picked up another famous, unlucky passenger. In his book The Way to the Western Sea, historian David Lavender sums up the story:

In the spring of 1803, a trading ship hunting for sea-otter pelts sailed into Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Resentful of several years of mistreatment by white traders, the Indians massacred all the crew except the ship’s twenty-year-old, English-born armorer (blacksmith) John Jewitt, and the sailmaker, John Thompson. Those two languished as prisoners until rescued on July 19, 1805, by Captain Samuel Hill of the brig Lydia, out of Boston. The salvation was effected without bloodshed, and on departing for further trading operations along the Northwest Coast, Captain Hill said he would return to Nootka within a few months to pick up whatever pelts the Indians gathered during his absence.

The Columbia Rediviva

The Columbia Rediviva

The Lydia traded along the Pacific Coast until August 1806 before heading for China, so it could have, in theory, been within hailing distance during Lewis and Clark’s time on the coast. On November 6, 1805, Clark reported, “we over took two Canoes of Indians going down to trade one of the Indians Spoke a fiew words of english and Said that the principal man who traded with them was Mr. Haley,and that he had a woman in his Canoe who Mr. Haley was fond of &c.    he Showed us a Bow of Iron and Several other things which he Said Mr. Haley gave him.” The “Mr. Haley” the Indians were speaking of was, presumably, Captain Samuel Hill.

As it turned out, “Mr. Haley” was a popular figure along the coast. On November 11, 1805, Clark reports talking with a Cathlama Indian dressed in a “Salors Jacket and Pantiloons,” who reported trading with white people. Sergeant John Ordway wrote balefully, “they tell us that they have Seen vessels in the mouth of this River and one man by the name of Mr. Haily  who tradeed among them, but they are all gone.”

On January 1, 1806, Clark made a list of “the names of Sundery persons, who visit this part of the Coast for the purpose of trade &c. &c. in large Vestles; all of which Speake the English language &c.—as the Indians inform us.” He again mentioned Mr. Haley, recording that the Indians said that he “Visits them in a Ship & they expect him back to trade with them in 3 moons to trade — he is the favourite of the Indians (from the number of Presents he givs) and has the trade principaly with all the tribes.”

Lewis and Clark at Celilo Falls, Columbia River (Mural from the Oregon State Capitol)

Lewis and Clark at Celilo Falls, Columbia River (Mural from the Oregon State Capitol)

Captain Hill/Mr. Haley’s well-supplied ship certainly would have been a welcome sight, but unfortunately for Lewis and Clark, he proved to be elusive. But was the Lydia really anywhere near Fort Clatsop? In 1815, when the Lydia‘s rescued sailor John Jewitt’s secret diary of his captivity was published – under the potboiler title Narrative of the Adventures and Sufferings of John R. Jewitt – the narrative contained a surprising factoid not in Jewitt’s original diary. According to David Lavender, Jewitt related that “the Lydia had crept about ten miles into the Columbia estuary in search of a convenient stand of timber from which to cut a new mast and spars. While the traders were there, visiting Indians showed the mariners medals given them by Lewis and Clark, who, they said had arrived by land with a small party and then, only a fortnight earlier, had started home, again by land.”

This would seem to have been a heartbreaking miss of an easy ride home. But, the historical record and common sense shows that Jewitt’s recollection of the timeframe, especially almost ten years out, is suspect. Given the talkative nature of the coastal Indians. it is highly unlikely that any ship in the area would have gone unreported by the Indians and unnoticed by Lewis and Clark. Besides, according to Mary Malloy, author of Devil On The Deep Blue Sea: The Notorious Career of Captain Samuel Hill of Boston, Hill’s reputation as a sea captain was decidedly mixed, with murder, rape, kidnapping, and madness among his rumored capabilities. So even if Hill had shown up, it might not have been an easy ride home after all.

In the end, no trading ship appeared during the entire long winter of 1805-1806, captained by “Mr. Haley” or anybody else. There was no way to communicate with anyone back home, no safe passage for the journals, and no new supplies for the Corps of Discovery. Fortunately, Thomas Jefferson had considered just such an eventuality. His instructions provided Lewis with a Plan B:

Should you find it safe to return by the way you go, after sending two of your party round by sea, or with your whole party, if no conveyance by sea can be found, do so; making such observations on your return as may serve to supply, correct or confirm those made on your outward journey.

On March 23, 1806, the Corps of Discovery began the long walk home.

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Thomas Jefferson by Thomas Sully

Thomas Jefferson by Thomas Sully, 1821

The last years of Thomas Jefferson’s life were plagued by terrible financial problems. Perpetually in debt because of his loose spending habits and the never-ending construction at Monticello, Jefferson also suffered from lower-than-expected income from the crops he produced on his various plantations. But the ultimate ruinous blow came from an unexpected source: Jefferson’s friend Wilson Cary Nicholas, a former senator and governor of Virginia and president of the Richmond branch of the Bank of the United States.  Jefferson’s involvement with Nicholas would lead to the loss of everything.

In the fall of 1817, Jefferson asked to borrow $6000 from the Bank of the United States, and Nicholas gladly co-signed two separate notes of $3000 each. Six months later, Nicholas asked Jefferson to return the favor and be co-signer on a loan for him – this time two notes of $10,000 each, for the total sum of $20,000. He assured Jefferson that he was worth at least $350,000 and would easily be able to repay the notes, to come due in the fall of 1819.

Nicholas had been a close friend and political supporter of Jefferson’s for years. Jefferson’s beloved grandson Jeff Randolph was married to Nicholas’s daughter. With no reason to doubt Nicholas’s solvency, Jefferson signed the papers “in utter confidence” and the loans were approved.  He seems not to have given the matter much thought.

Wilson Cary Nicholas by Gilbert Stuart

Wilson Cary Nicholas by Gilbert Stuart

Fast-forward to August 1819, when Jefferson received a letter in the mail from Nicholas. Something had gone terribly wrong. Despite his earlier assurances, Nicholas confessed to Jefferson that he had been not been able to keep up with his loan payments. The bank had investigated and found that Nicholas was far from solvent – in fact, rash speculation in western lands had put Nicholas $200,000 in debt. They were calling in the loan.

Jefferson realized immediately that if Nicholas went bankrupt, as co-signer of the loan, he was now on the hook to pay back the money. “He said very little,” Jefferson’s granddaughter wrote, “but his countenance expressed a great deal.” Unfortunately, Jefferson’s next action made a bad situation worse. He asked the bank to extend the term of the loan for a full year, and offered to bring in another co-signer—to whom he would deed land worth $20,000—to help guarantee the loan. The second co-signer was Nicholas’s son-in-law and Jefferson’s grandson, Jeff Randolph.

Wilson Cary Nicholas’s unexpected death  on October 10, 1820, plunged the Jefferson family into an unfathomable financial disaster. In the days before Chapter 11 and other bankruptcy protection laws, the family stood to lose everything. There was no way Jefferson could pay back $20,000 plus interest – about the equivalent of four years of earnings on his farms. But if he defaulted or died – he was then 77 years old – the debt would pass to his grandson, saddling him with a crushing liability.

Thomas Jefferson Randolph by Charles Willson Peale

Thomas Jefferson Randolph by Charles Willson Peale

Desperate, Jefferson conceived of a plan for the family’s salvation that came to him “like an inspiration the realms of bliss,” according to his daughter Martha Randolph. The family could sponsor its own public lottery, selling tickets and offering as a prize some of Jefferson’s farmland that his obligations to the bank left him unable to sell. Jefferson hoped to raise $60,000 from the public raffle, enough to pay off the debts, secure the family’s immediate future, and live comfortably for the remainder of his life. Jefferson even had secret hopes that the Virginia state government would buy all the tickets and burn them in a great patriotic bonfire, allowing him to keep both the land and the money. All he needed was approval from the Virginia legislature.

Unfortunately, that approval was not easily forthcoming. Then as now, “family values” were an important part of political rhetoric, and the lottery Jefferson proposed was considered gambling – and gambling fostered immorality.  Jefferson was crushed by the legislature’s chilly reception. “I see in the failure of this hope a deadly blast to all my peace of mind during my remaining days,” he wrote disconsolately. “I am overwhelmed at the prospect of the situation in which I may leave my family.”

Twilight at Monticello by Alan Pell Crawford

Twilight at Monticello by Alan Pell Crawford

In February 1826, the Virginia legislature relented and approved the lottery bill—but with important and chilling alterations. The farmland being offered as a prize would have to be independently appraised to make sure the $60,000 raised did not exceed the value of the prize – which it most certainly did. Therefore, the land prize would not be enough to get the lottery approved. A more attractive prize must be offered – Monticello itself. As a generous concession, the bill would allow Jefferson and Martha to remain in the house for the rest of their lives.

The thought of losing the home was unbearable. Due to the family’s dire financial straits, Monticello was already suffering from lack of upkeep. When the public learned of Jefferson’s plight, many people began to raise money outright and donate it to the Jefferson family. Though touched by these patriotic gestures, Jefferson tried to discourage them because he feared it would divert attention and money from the lottery.

Jefferson did not live to see the outcome. He passed away on July 4, 1826, surrounded by his family, and was buried in the family graveyard. Months later, his family held a public auction in a last-ditch attempt to raise much-needed cash. Over five days in January 1827, they watched forlornly while eager buyers picked through Monticello and carted off everything from Parisian furniture, prints and maps, and stemware to hogs, horses, saddles and ordinary household items. The auction of Jefferson’s slaves was an awful  ordeal, as families that had lived on Monticello and served the Jeffersons for years were sold off and dispersed. It was, Jefferson’s grandson wrote, “a perfect hell of trouble.”

Monticello in ruins, late 19th century

Monticello in ruins, late 19th century

Unfortunately, interest in the lottery quickly waned after Jefferson’s death,  and the idea was abandoned. In July 1828, after laboring heroically for years to save the family from his grandfather’s debts, Jeff Randolph put Monticello up for sale. By the time he finally found a buyer three years later, the mansion was decrepit, dilapidated and a shadow of its former self. The new owner was a druggist from Charlottesville, who purchased the mansion and grounds for $7000, about half of the asking price.

Adding insult to injury, he had poor taste. Proving that blood will tell, Jefferson’s granddaughter Cornelia wrote sadly: “[I] have some fear that he may disfigure that beautiful & sacred spot by some of that ‘gingerbread work’ which grandpapa used to hold in such contempt.”

More great reading: Marc Leepson’s Saving Monticello

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One of the most humorous incidents in the aftermath of the Lewis and Clark Expedition was poetical rather than political. In those days, political disagreements were fought out in newspapers affiliated with the rival parties, often by anonymous correspondents. While those newspapers affiliated with President Jefferson trumpeted the return of the Lewis and Clark expedition in September 1806 and heaped praise on the homecoming heroes, not everyone was impressed, and some even resorted to barbed satire.

Joel Barlow

Joel Barlow

An epic poem produced by Joel Barlow to commemorate Meriwether Lewis’s achievement proved an irresistible target. Barlow was a Republican politician, diplomat and writer whose claim to fame was producing bombastic poetry extolling the glory of the young American nation. Barlow was best know for his epic poem, The Vision of Columbus: a poem in nine books, which was published in 1787, thanks to subscriptions he had received from people as distinguished as King Louis XVI of France, the Marquis de Lafayette, and George Washington.  This 250-page monster not only praised Christopher Columbus, but provided an entire landscape of America –political, social, and geographic – and instructed its citizens on how best to appreciate their country. In 1807, Barlow had returned to this theme, this time with a 10-volume poem called The Columbiad, an epic vision of the rise of freedom in the New World.

Historian Albert Furtwangler put it diplomatically when he said, “In the view of most critics, then and later, [Barlow’s] talents for poetry could not sustain a serious epic.” Although sensational at the time, Barlow’s verse is painful to modern eyes.  His poem about the Lewis and Clark Expedition, “On the Discoveries of Captain Lewis,” is no exception. Penned for a homecoming dinner party to be held in Lewis’s honor in Washington, D.C. on January 14, 1807, the poem is full of hyperbole, mixed metaphors, and just plain awful verse. The premise of the poem is Christopher Columbus looking down from heaven and praising Lewis as the hope of a new millennium for the United States. Apologies to our readers, but I cannot resist including the whole of it here.

Let the Nile cloak his head in the clouds, and defy
The researches of science and time;
Let the Niger escape the keen traveller’s eye,
By plunging or changing his clime.

Columbus! not so shall thy boundless domain
Defraud thy brave sons of their right;
Streams, midlands, and shorelands elude us in vain.
We shall drag their dark regions to light.

Look down, sainted sage, from thy synod of Gods;
See, inspired by thy venturous soul,
Mackenzie roll northward his earth-draining floods,
And surge the broad waves to the pole.

With the same soaring genius thy Lewis ascends,
And, seizing the car of the sun,
O’er the sky-propping hills and high waters he bends,
And gives the proud earth a new zone.

Potowmak, Ohio, Missouri had felt
Half her globe in their cincture comprest;
His long curving course has completed the belt,
And tamed the last tide of the west.

Then hear the loud voice of the nation proclaim,
And all ages resound the decree:
Let our occident stream bear the young hero’s name,
Who taught him his path to the sea.

These four brother floods, like a garland of flowers,
Shall entwine all our states in a band
Conform and confederate their wide-spreading powers,
And their wealth and their wisdom expand.

From Darien to Davis one garden shall bloom,
Where war’s weary banners are furl’d,
And the far scenting breezes that waft its perfume,
Shall settle the storms of the world.

Then hear the loud voice of the nation proclaim
And all ages resound the decree:
Let our occident stream bear the young hero’s name,
Who taught him his path to the sea.

Barlow’s poem was hailed at the dinner and was reprinted widely in the American press. It is worth noting that the verse in the poem that attracted the most attention was the last one. Barlow was suggesting that the “occident stream” – the Columbia River – be renamed in honor of Meriwether Lewis.

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams

Barlow’s poem, and his suggestion, proved too big a target to resist. An anonymous Federalist published a satirical jab at the poem and the expedition in the Monthly Anthology and Boston Review in March 1807. The satire is attributed to Jefferson’s rival and eventual successor in the White House —his Federalist nemesis, John Quincy Adams. (Adams never explicitly claimed the satire, but it is worth noting that in the monthly minutes of the Anthology Society for February, the following entry was made: “An excellent poetical communication from J.Q. Adams at Washington was approved.”)

Adam’s poem was set to the tune of Yankee Doodle. Adams said in a preface to the poem, “Our intention is not to deprecate the merits of Captain Lewis’s publick services. We think highly of the spirit and judgment, with which he has executed the duty undertaken by him, and we rejoice at the rewards bestowed by congress upon him and his companions.”  Nevertheless, the poem begins by poking fun at the supposed scientific achievements of the expedition and points out everything that Lewis didn’t discover.

Good people listen to my tale, ‘Tis nothing but what true is;
I’ll tell you of the mighty deed Atchiev’d by Captain Lewis –
How starting from the Atlantick shore By fair and easy motion,
He journied, all the way by land, Until he met the ocean.

Heroick, sure, the toil must be To travel through the woods, sir;
And never meet a foe, yet save His person and his goods, sir!
What marvels on the way he found He’ll tell you, if inclin’d, sir –
But I shall only now disclose The things he did not find, sir.

He never with a Mammoth met, However you may wonder;
Not even with a Mammoth’s bone, Above the ground or under –
And, spite of all the pains he took The animal to track, sir,
He never could o’ertake the hog With navel on his back, sir.

And from this day his course began,Till even it was ended,
He never found an Indian tribe From Welchmen straight descended:
Nor, much as of Philosophers The fancies it might tickle;
To season his adventures, met A Mountain, sous’d in pickle.

Despite the sarcastic words, the poem at one point seems to absolve Lewis of blame for Barlow’s hyperbole. Adams suggests that Lewis himself would pooh-pooh the absurd claims Barlow made about his abilities: “To bind a Zone about the earth, He knew he was not able—, They say he did –but ask himself, He’ll tell you ’tis a fable.”

He never dreamt of taming tides, Like monkeys or like bears, sir –
A school, for teaching floods to flow, Was not among his cares, sir –
Had rivers ask’d of him their path, They had but mov’d his laughter-
They knew their courses, all, as well Before he came as after.

And must we then resign the hope These Elements of changing?
And must we still, alas! be told That after all his ranging,
The Captain could discover nought But Water in the Fountains?
Must Forests still be form’d of Trees? Of rugged Rocks the Mountains?

We never will be so fubb’d off, As sure as I’m a sinner!
Come-let us all subscribe, and ask The HERO to a Dinner-
And Barlow stanzas shall indite- A Bard, the tide who tames, sir-
And if we cannot alter things, By G–, we’ll change their names, sir!

The poem then takes aim at Barlow’s suggestion that the Columbia River be renamed in honor of Lewis, suggesting that Jefferson’s mistress Dusky Sally, Joel Barlow, and even the United States itself should get a new name. The poem ends with a dig at Jefferson and Barlow, suggesting that since the Republicans couldn’t bring about a French-style Reign of Terror, they are going to undermine the Constitution by confusing everyone with a Babel of names.

Let old Columbus be once more Degraded from his glory;
And not a river by his name Remember him in story-
For what is old Discovery Compar’d to that which new is?
Strike-strike Columbia river out, And put in – river Lewis!

Let dusky Sally henceforth bear The name of Isabella;
And let the mountain, all of salt, Be christen’d Monticella –
The hog with navel on his back Tom Pain may be when drunk, sir –
And Joel call the Prairie-dog, Which once was call’d a Skunk, sir.

And when the wilderness shall yield To bumpers, bravely brimming,
A nobler victory then men;– While all our head are swimming
We’ll dash the bottle on the wall And name (the thing’s agreed on)
Our first-rate-ship United States, The flying frigate Fredon.

True – Tom and Joel now, no more Can overturn a nation;
And work, by butchery and blood, A great regeneration; –
Yet, still we can turn inside out Old Nature’s Constitution,
And bring a Babel back of names – Huzzah! for REVOLUTION!

Federalists got a good laugh out of Adams’ poem, but fortunately for the future of American letters, the poetical war of words ended here. The merits of the expedition continued to be a matter of public debate, with Jefferson partisans hailing Lewis’s scientific and anthropologic discoveries, and Federalists complaining that the expedition was an expensive and unproductive boondoggle.

Although the Lewis and Clark Expedition seems tailor-made for an epic poem about the American experience, no other poet attempted it. The journals have to speak for themselves.

More interesting reading: Lewis and Clark Return to Heroes’ Welcome — or Do They?

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Among the things that Meriwether Lewis took west with him on his expedition to the Pacific Ocean was a special cipher designed by President Thomas Jefferson for encoding messages. The cipher consisted of a table of 26 rows and 26 columns of sequentially arranged letters, plus an example keyword (Jefferson actually provided Lewis with two examples, one with the keyword “artichokes” and another with the keyword “antipodes”).  Upon receipt of the coded message, presuming the recipient knew the agreed-upon keyword, he could use the cipher table to decode the message.  In one example, Jefferson showed Lewis how to encode the optimistic message, “I am at the head of the Missouri. All well and the Indians so far friendly.”

Jefferson's Cipher to Lewis (Library of Congress)

Jefferson's Cipher to Lewis (Library of Congress)

Although there is no evidence that Lewis ever used the cipher to code a message to Jefferson, clearly the president was concerned about the possibility of Lewis’s correspondence from the field being intercepted by agents of European powers who opposed American expansion to the West. Simple but ingenious, this cipher was one manifestation of Thomas Jefferson’s interest in cryptography, defined as “the practice and study of techniques for secure communication in the presence of adversaries.”  As in so many of his scientific pursuits, the president’s thinking in this area was decades ahead of his time.

Jefferson and Science, by Silvio Bedini

Jefferson and Science, by Silvio Bedini

As Silvio Bedini writes in his fascinating monograph Jefferson and Science, Jefferson first became interested in the security of the government’s official communications while serving as George Washington’s Secretary of State in the early 1790’s. With war threatening between England and France, and delicate negotiations ongoing with Spain over American trade and navigation on the Mississippi River, Jefferson knew that plain text letters to his overseas representatives could easily be intercepted and read by prying eyes, blowing his diplomatic efforts out of the water.  It was at that time that he began experimenting with different ways to put messages into secret code.

Jefferson first devised a system of 26 paper strips, each containing a scrambled version of the alphabet, which he could arrange and rearrange in different ways to form a flexible cipher system. More than one correspondent could use the system, with each person having an individually assigned keyword for coding and decoding messages. However, with 26 moving parts to keep track of, the system proved too cumbersome and impractical for most of his correspondents.

Undaunted, Jefferson came up with the idea of having a wheel-style cipher, that could more easily be used in the field. He took as his inspiration the cipher padlock, typically used to secure diplomatic dispatch boxes. Like our modern combination lock, the cipher lock unlocked when lettered disks were arranged to spell a certain keyword.

Reproduction of Jefferson's wheel cipher (courtesy Monticello)

Reproduction of Jefferson's wheel cipher (courtesy Monticello)

Jefferson took the 26 strips of paper and had the scrambled alphabets punched onto a wooden cylinder, which was then segmented into disks and mounted on a spindle. It is known that Jefferson had two of these devices made while he was Secretary of State. He apparently tested the device with Robert Patterson, a professor of mathematics, chemistry and natural philosophy and a member of the American Philosophical Society. The two exchanged a series of coded messages, but the wheel cipher was never put into diplomatic service. At some point, for some reason, Jefferson set the wheel cipher aside and forgot about it. The two wheel ciphers used by Jefferson and Patterson have been lost, though a detailed description of how to make it was saved among Jefferson’s papers.

It was another hundred years before the science of cryptography caught up with Jefferson’s mind. In 1890, Commandant Etienne Bazeries, chief of the cryptographic bureau of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, invented a “cylindrical cryptograph” that was almost identical to Jefferson’s design. During World War I, a U.S. infantry captain named Parker Hitt refined Bazeries’ design, using a methodology very similar to Jefferson’s.  After extensive testing by Assistant Commandant Joseph Mauborgne of the Army Signal Corps, the device was approved for military use in 1918. It was not until 1922 that the device was actually manufactured for military use, becoming known as “Cipher Device M-94 of the U.S. Army.”

Cipher Device M-94 of the U.S. Army

Cipher Device M-94 of the U.S. Army, partially disassembled

Ironically, that same year, Jefferson’s original description of the device was discovered among his papers in the Library of Congress, astonishing the military community. Army cryptographers were stunned that President Jefferson had already envisioned a device that had taken them 100 years to develop, and that his description had been available to the public all this time.

Jefferson would have been pleased to know that Cipher Device M-94 proved to be a robust security device, especially practical for tactical communications from the field. It saw two decades of military service before finally being phased out during World War II.

More great reading:

Discovering Lewis & Clark: Cryptography

Monticello: Thomas Jefferson’s Wheel Cipher

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What did Lewis and Clark believe about heaven? It is perhaps telling that in the entirety of the journals, despite the jaw-dropping beauty of many of the places they passed through, the word “heaven” was never once invoked by either Lewis or Clark. The closest they came to referring to any kind of afterlife was in Lewis’s 31st birthday note of August 18, 1805, when he mentioned that “I had in all human probability now existed about half the period which I am to remain in this Sublunary world” – implying that he believed there might be a world apart from this earthbound one.

A Soul Brought to Heaven by WIlliam-Adolphe Bouguereau, 19th century

A Soul Brought to Heaven by WIlliam-Adolphe Bouguereau, 19th century

Like most educated men of the enlightenment, Lewis and Clark were deists. The deist image of heaven in the late 18th and early 19th century was of a very beautiful place, far away and separated from this cruel and dark world. Full of clouds, angels and harps, it was a place where a virtuous man might, after death, enjoy reward, respite, and reprieve from the toils and pains of physical life. For all its beauty, the deist heaven was somewhat impersonal. The individuality and identity of the soul on earth was no longer of much importance once you reached the celestial plane.

Thomas Jefferson, Lewis’s mentor, has been considered by some an agnostic and heretic, and his religious belief – or lack thereof – remains a matter of controversy. But even Jefferson believed in the concept of heaven. In general, Jefferson applauded the idea of heaven’s existence because of the positive, practical effect the promise of heaven had on earthbound human behavior. Jefferson also believed in the intervening hand of Providence. In his First Inaugural address, he declared that we should be “acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter.”

Founding Faith by Steven Waldman (2008)

Founding Faith by Steven Waldman (2008)

In his first message to Congress in 1801, Jefferson optimistically thanked the “beneficent Being” who had instilled in the contentious political parties a “spirit of conciliation and forgiveness.” In his second message, he attributed the nation’s economic prosperity, peace abroad and even good relations with the Indians to the “smiles of Providence.” Sounding the same theme in his second inaugural address, Jefferson said that to avoid making the mistakes which he, as a human, was prone, “I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life.” Jefferson might have been a man of Reason, but clearly God –if not organized religion – had a strong presence in his life and thinking.

Jefferson had a strong belief that the Bible and Christianity had been “corrupted” shortly after the death of Christ. Influenced by Joseph Priestley’s book, The History of the Corruptions of Christianity, Jefferson came to distrust organized religion and to despise any religious doctrine that eliminated good behavior as the path to salvation. While Jefferson doubted the divinity of Christ, he had the highest admiration and respect for Christ’s teachings, which he compiled into his own version of the Bible. “Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips,” Jefferson asserted, “the whole civilized world would now have been Christian.”

Like Jefferson, Lewis and Clark appeared to be men who turned to the power of science, rather than religion, to explain the world and to prove the existence of God. Both were Freemasons, which emphasizes virtue, education, good works, and service, rather than strictly faith in Christ, as a valid means of getting into heaven. But they clearly believed God was looking out for them. On May 11, 1805, Lewis wrote in his journal:

Set out this morning at an early hour, the courant strong; and river very crooked; the banks are falling in very fast; I sometimes wonder that some of our canoes or perogues are not swallowed up by means of these immence masses of earth which are eternally precipitating themselves into the river; we have had many hair breadth escapes from them but providence seems so to have ordered it that we have as yet sustained no loss in consequence of them.

Jonah and the whale

Jonah and the whale

Clark referred indirectly but humorously to God in January 1806, when recounting that the Corps of Discovery was able to procure a small supply of blubber and whale oil from a beached whale on the Pacific Coast. “Small as this Stock is I prise it highly,” Clark wrote, “and thank providence for directing the whale to us; and think him much more kind to us than he was to jonah, having Sent this monster to be Swallowed by us in Sted of Swallowing of us as jonah’s did.” In July 1806, Lewis remarked that it was only “the hand of providence” that had saved the men from grizzly bears, “or some of us would long since have fallen a sacrifice to their farosity.”

Lewis and Clark’s lack of mention of heaven and roundabout references to God reveal an impersonal relationship with the divine that was characteristic of their time, deist faith, and social station. It was a very different view than most Americans have today. I was fascinated to learn recently about how much a single, long-forgotten book shaped our modern notions of heaven as a deeply personal place in which personality, soul, and family remain intact. This information is from Drew Gilpin Faust’s excellent book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. (Thanks to Rebecca at My Adventures in History for putting me onto this gem.)

In the aftermath of the awful, grisly cataclysm of the Civil War, a young woman named Elizabeth Stuart Phelps penned a novel called The Gates Ajar. Phelps had lost her lover in the war. Overwhelmed not only by her own grief but by the enormity of the tragedy suffered by all who had lost husbands, fathers, sons and brothers, she decided to write a book that offered comfort to the bereaved and suggested they would see the beloved dead once again.

The Gates Ajar by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

The Gates Ajar by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

The view of heaven presented in The Gates Ajar was a perfect recreation of Victorian domesticity, where families are reunited with their loved ones, live in houses, walk the streets of heaven, and spend eternity in perfect harmony. Broken bodies are restored to health, and earthly toil and fear of death are banished forever in the light of heavenly happiness. Phelps does not explicitly say that all our old pets will run out to greet us, but she comes close. Released in 1868 and reprinted 55 times, The Gates Ajar was one of the best-selling books of the 19th century, second only to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This one book shaped, much more than we realize, notions of heaven that we cherish to this day.

More great reading:

Excellent article on Jefferson’s religious beliefs: The Pious Infidel

Lewis & Clark as Masons

Lewis & Clark: Did They Pray?

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Flight from Monticello, by Michael Kranish

I’ve been on a Thomas Jefferson kick lately. There’s so much to learn and try to understand about this fascinating, enigmatic, and contradictory man. I just finished reading Flight from Monticello by Michael Kranish and really, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Kranish tells a story that was almost entirely unknown to me: the story of Jefferson as the wartime governor of Virginia. In 1781, the British, led by the traitor Benedict Arnold, mounted a major invasion of the state, and one objective was clear: Get Thomas Jefferson. How Jefferson escaped, how and why the British overran the state, and how they were stopped at Yorktown make for truly delightful reading.

 This is a book worth savoring for its many untold stories. One of the most astonishing concerned the aftermath of the stunning American victory at Saratoga, New York, in 1777. As a result of the victory, the Americans had taken prisoner over 5000 British and Hessian (German mercenary) troops. In those days, it was generally a tradition to “parole” prisoners of war on the condition that they promise never to take up arms in the conflict again. But after about 1000 prisoners were released to Canada, Congress realized that the chances of the British honoring such a ban were practically nil.

Congressional representatives from Virginia made an audacious proposal. They suggested that Virginia would build a sprawling prisoner-of-war camp near Charlottesville, home of Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson and others believed that housing thousands of enemy soldiers would result in a bonanza of federal money into the area. In addition, the soldiers would buy local goods, and craftsmen among the prisoners could be put to work on local plantations. Jefferson, a fine violinist who was ever restless about the lack of cultural peers in Virginia, also voiced the hope that some fine musicians among the Hessian officers might be willing to play with him.

Hessian Prisoners of War (Courtesy National Archives)

The prisoners reached Charlottesville in January 1779 after a grueling winter march from their previous barracks in Boston. As one Hessian officer wrote, “Never have I seen men so discouraged and in such despair as ours, when, tired and worn out from the long trip and the hardships, they had to seek shelter in the woods like wild animals.” But before long, the crude, leaking shelters known as “Albemarle Barracks” became home to some 4000 men — making the encampment the largest “city” in Virginia, nearly twice as large as the capital at Williamsburg.

Jefferson was worried about the scandalous conditions, which soon prompted calls to move the barracks away from Charlottesville. He estimated that the POW camp was pumping about $30,000 a week into the local economy (well over $300,000 a week in current dollars). As spring arrived, conditions improved, mostly due to the efforts of the prisoners themselves, who fixed up the barracks, planted gardens, began to raise livestock, and constructed their own store, coffeehouse, church, tavern complete with a billiard table, and a theater with a sign reading “Who would have expected all this here?” A number of the German prisoners simply walked away from the prison to intermarry with local girls or move out west to begin new lives.

William Phillips (1731-1781). Phillips died during the invasion of Virginia and is buried in Petersburg, Virginia. Jefferson called him "the proudest man of the proudest nation on earth."

Meanwhile, thanks in part to Jefferson’s lobbying, the officers were permitted to rent some of the best homes in Charlottesville for their lodging. Jefferson soon became close with Brigadier General William Phillips, a stout and ruthless artillerist, and Baron Frederick von Riedesel, the Hessian commander. Riedesel was even joined at the mountainside estate of Colle by his three daughters and his statuesesque wife, who shocked Charlottesville society by riding her horse astride.

Music formed the foundation of friendship between Jefferson and the Hessians. Before long, just as Jefferson had dreamed, he was playing duets with a Hessian violinist, while Mrs. Jefferson played the pianoforte and the Baroness led dances. Apparently, Jefferson saw nothing disturbing in forming close friendships with officers who had led brutal charges against American soldiers. He also apparently thought nothing of the intimacy with which the British and Hessians were coming to know the rivers and roads around Charlottesville, even allowing Phillips and Riedesel to leave Charlottesville to travel to Berkeley Springs, 134 miles further into the interior of the state, to visit a health resort.

In the summer of 1779, Jefferson became governor of wartime Virginia and had to leave Charlottesville for the seat of government in Williamsburg. Not long after taking office, he received a furious letter from George Washington, commander of the Continental Army, demanding to know why hundreds of British and Hessian prisoners were simply packing their bags and walking away from the lightly-guarded camp in Charlottesville. Though embarrassed, Jefferson was convinced Phillips and Riedesel knew nothing of the escapes.

Later in the year, the two officers were exchanged for American prisoners. Riedesel and his family ended up in Canada, where the Baron served as a senior military official. As for Phillips, Jefferson looked forward to socializing with him again in times of peace. And Phillips would indeed return to Virginia: as commanding officer of a force of 4500 with orders to invade the state and take Thomas Jefferson prisoner.

Albemarle Barracks was belatedly closed by Governor Jefferson in the fall of 1780, as the state lay open to invasion. The remaining prisoners were marching north to Fort Frederick, Maryland, where they were held until the end of war. As in Charlottesville, a number of the Hessians remained behind and settled in the United States.

Flight from Monticello tells a story that is complex, fascinating, and at times even funny. This is a must-read book for any history lover!

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Location: Charlottesville, Virginia, about two miles from Monticello 

View of Ashlawn Highland, home of James Monroe

James Monroe’s Ashlawn-Highland is a stark contrast to Mr. Jefferson’s intellectual pleasure palace just two miles down the road. The home is beautiful, but quite small, and reflective of the gifts of its owner. As a president and a man, Monroe strikes me very much in the mold of Harry Truman or Gerald Ford. To his detractors, he was a partisan hack who put political loyalties first. To his admirers, he was a good and decent man on whom his country leaned in times of crisis without ever fully appreciating him.

James Monroe

James Monroe: No pushover, he

Monroe’s connections with Thomas Jefferson ran deep. When the Revolution broke out, Monroe was one of the young students at the College of William and Mary who raided the Governor’s Palace and liberated the swords and muskets that were stored there. He enlisted in the Continental Army and was badly wounded in the shoulder at the Battle of Trenton, an incident recounted in fascinating detail in David Hackett Fischer’s book Washington’s Crossing. Back home in Virginia, he studied the law with none other than former governor Jefferson (himself a brilliant attorney). As a Jefferson ally, he was soon elected to the Virgina House of Delegates, the Continental Congress, and at age 32, to the United States Senate.

In 1794, Monroe was appointed U.S. minister to France at the height of the French Revolution. Like Jefferson, Monroe strongly favored the revolution but not the extreme bloody turn that it took. He acted quickly to rescue all the Americans who fell from favor and faced a potential turn at the guillotine, including Thomas Paine and Madame Lafayette. But his bent for the radical faction also earned him the ire of President Washington back home, who fired Monroe and ordered him to return home.

Ashlawn Highland's incredible white oak was planted in Monroe's day

Politics had taken an ugly, paranoid turn as the political class, once united as the “Founding Fathers,” split apart into Hamiltonian (Federalist) and Jeffersonian (Republican) parties. As a leading Jeffersonian, Monroe was elected governor of Virginia; outside the state he was criticized by Hamiltonians as a French dupe, a Jacobin, and occasionally, a traitor. The election of 1800 was disputed between Jefferson and Aaron Burr and came down to a narrow vote in the House of Representatives. Many believed that Monroe and other middle state governors were prepared to arm their state militias and attempt to overthrow the government if Burr somehow won the election.

What makes Ashlawn-Highland a “Lewis & Clark” stop is, of course, Monroe’s next act, a critical role in the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France. As detailed in our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe (on sale now, click “Buy Now,” folks), Louisiana had been the pawn of France and Spain for decades, and a major impediment to the dreams of Americans like Jefferson who dreamed of westward expansion.

Around 1800, the master French diplomat Talleyrand became concerned about Spain’s weakness in North America. It was easy to see that the Americans were a rising people and would eventually overrun the Spanish territory, with or without their government’s consent. Talleyrand negotiated the cession of Louisiana back to France, though for the most part it continued to be administered by Spanish officials.

Liz touring the outbuildings of James Monroe's Ashlawn Highland

As president, Jefferson was trying to maintain cordial relations with both European powers, but the French takeover of Louisiana was a setback to say the least. It seems that Talleyrand and his boss, Napoleon, had big dreams for reestablishing a true French colonial presence in Louisiana. As Jefferson wrote to his minister to France, Robert Livingston, “There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our habitual and natural enemy. It is New Orleans, through which the produce of three-eighths of our territory must pass to market … France, placing herself in that door, assumes to us the attitude of defiance…” A inveterate hater of all things British, Jefferson began to reluctantly eye an alliance with Britain as the only way to ensure that U.S. commerce could travel freely on the seas … unless …

In 1802, Jefferson sent his old friend James Monroe to France with $2 million and an order to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans and “West Florida” (the present-day Gulf Coast of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and the Florida Panhandle) from the French. Even as Monroe was crossing the Atlantic, things were happening fast. The plans of Napoleon and Talleyrand had collapsed in the face of an unexpectedly bloody and costly uprising in Santo Domingo (Haiti). When Monroe arrived on the scene, he found the French leaders ready to smash it all for cash — not just New Orleans, but the entire Louisiana Territory, almost one million square miles of land.

Many historians believe that Napoleon and Talleyrand believed they could simply lift the Americans’ wallets, then take the territory away again by force when they got back on their feet. In any case, in a whirlwind succession of secret meetings, and without any authority whatsoever except their faith that Thomas Jefferson had their backs, Monroe and Livingston concluded the deal, purchasing Louisiana for a cool $15 million — surely one of the greatest real estate bargains in world history.

Statue of James Monroe at Ashlawn Highland

Historian John W. Foster wrote of the significance of the Louisiana Purchase this way: “It made the acquisition of Florida a necessity. It brought about the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, the thirst for more slave territory to preserve the balance of power, the Civil War, and the abolition of slavery. It led to our Pacific Coast possessions, the construction of the transcontinental lines of railway and our marvelous Rocky Mountain development, the demand for the Isthmus Canal, the purchase of Alaska, the annexation of Hawaii … it fixed our destiny for world power.”

 Not bad for two weeks’ work in a long and storied political career. Thanks, James Monroe.

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