On the Road with Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson was not much of a traveler, but then he lived in a time when it took a month or more to cross the Atlantic, in what we would call rickety yachts. He had to ford eight streams in a horse or carriage just going from Monticello to Washington, DC. He did not do very well in sea travel—he had a weak stomach for sea swells. The inns of America, such as existed at all, were exceedingly unpleasant on the whole: two men, perfect strangers to a bed, the linens seldom changed, vermin, no bathrooms or showers, no central heating, no air conditioning, and bland food. No wonder Jefferson preferred the comforts of Monticello to the crap shoot of travel. He never traveled more than 75 miles west of his birthplace in Virginia, and if he had gone on the Lewis & Clark expedition they would have needed three keelboats to carry Jefferson’s wine, books, musical instruments, tea service, and gadgets.

Still, Jefferson traveled quite a bit for a man of his time. He visited most of the northern states, some several times, and he was back and forth to New York, Philadelphia, and eventually Washington, DC, quite often. He seems never to have ventured into North Carolina or any place south of the Virginia line. But he spent five years in Europe and saw quite a bit of it given his deep devotion to his administrative and diplomatic work, and his aversion to roughing it.

Jefferson’s letters are amazing for several reasons. He measured his every word, every phrase, and he wrote with an exquisite awareness of the person at the other end of the transaction. He was invariably gracious and thoughtful His penmanship is so precise, compact, legible, and perfectly modulated that it amounts almost to a work of art in itself. I’d give anything to own a single letter in Jefferson’s handwriting. Aside from his idiosyncrasies, such as not capitalizing the first word in a sentence, his letters are so legible that they give biographers and historians pure joy compared to the crabbed handwriting and illegibilities of most other historical figures. And beyond all of that, Jefferson had that extraordinary capacity to write memorable, pungent, stirring prose that John Adams called his “peculiar felicity for expression.”

It would be easy to make a list of the hundred greatest letters Jefferson ever wrote, and I don’t necessarily think they have to be his “greatest hits” as they are understood by most historians. I’m interested in letters that reveal not so much how Jefferson saw the American revolution and its aftermath as ones that reveal how Jefferson saw life.

One of my very favorites was written about travel, from Marseilles on the southern coast of France, on April 5, 1787. It was to one of his aristocratic salon friends, Madame de Tott. Jefferson always wrote more playfully to women than to men, as long as they were not his daughters, and he engaged in a kind of very light and delicate flirtation with them that they both knew as not a come-on of any sort.

Here’s my favorite paragraph in the letter, indeed one of my favorite passages in all of Jefferson:

A traveler, sais I, retired at night to his chamber in an inn, all his effects contained in a single trunk, all his cares circumscribed by the walls of his apartment, unknown to all, unheeded, and undisturbed, writes, reads, thinks, sleeps, just in the moments when nature and the movements of his body and mind require. Charmed with the tranquility of his little cell, he finds how few are our real wants, how cheap a thing is happiness, how expensive a one pride. He views with pity the wretched rich whom the laws of the world have submitted to the cumbrous trappings of rank; he sees him labouring through the journey of life like an ass oppressed under ingots of gold, little of which goes to feed, to clothe, or to cover himself; the rest gobbled up by harpies of various description with which he has surrounded himself.

This is precisely how I like to travel. Substitute suitcase for trunk, and leave out the satire about the burden of being rich, and you have my motto. I like to meet up with friends in my travels, but for relatively short bursts, and I’m actually happiest in life (if I’m not with my daughter Catherine) when I am alone with my books, notebooks, computer, iPad, and cell phone. There is nothing quite so satisfying as being in a faraway land with no set schedule, and plenty to both see and read. I cannot imagine traveling without reading at the same time. When I am alone in Rome or England I love to wander for a while, then sit in a café with a cappuccino and my book and Moleskin notebook; then wander for a while, ducking in to historic buildings, museums, shops, ruins, and churches, then finding a quiet (non-touristy) place for lunch. If it is h highly recommended on the Internet, I’m going somewhere else to dine. Then reading for an hour or so before wandering further in search of cultural delights. In late afternoon, another outdoor café for a quiet glass of wine, watching people while pretending to read more.

Travel has never been easier than it is today: cheaper, cleaner, safer, more convenient and comfortable in every way. One of the principal problems in America is how profoundly provincial we are as a people, thinking we are the only nation that matters, that other people’s history and traditions and dignities are of no concern to us. We need to fan out and see the world and bring back an understanding that we are just one nation among many interesting nations and we are not by any means the best at everything. In fact, in my view, we have more to learn from the rest of the world than they do from us.

I’m flying to Edinburgh in early December. I will start the day in Bismarck, ND, and end the day at a lovely inn in the greatest city of Scotland, appropriately called the Athens of the North. One day in air conditioned airplanes, with three meals, unlimited video entertainment, what is essentially an open bar, and internet if I want it. Plus, my iPad on which there are currently 50 books, 35 of which I have not completely read. If you explained all of this to Thomas Jefferson, he would not believe it. He thought the invention of hot air balloons was the greatest transportation breakthrough of his lifetime.

A traveler, sais I….

"Map of the state of Virginia" from the New York Public Library Digital Collections.