Thomas Jefferson

The Sacrament of Garden Life on the Dakota Plains

This spring has been so hectic that it would have been sensible not to plant a garden this year. But that is not the kind of life I wish to build for myself. A number of my close friends are gardeners, some of them master gardeners by my standards. One of them said you need to spend an hour a day in the garden just to stay on top of the weeds. Oh dear. Last year I lost control of my garden to two predators: Canada thistle and a group of pesky pheasants who live in the diminishing patch of prairie west of my house. Those darn pheasants are still here, or their cousins. They are as regular as a village rooster in the way they torment me at dawn every day with their "kruk, kruk" call.

I spent the winter devising a non-lethal pheasant abatement program. I need to test fire my paint ball assault rifle soon. A friend from work made me a heavy two-dimensional metal coyote silhouette out of a piece of oil field pipe. It is already holding a gleaming and tireless vigil at the corner of my tomato patch. And, after a reader last year suggested that critters are afraid of pinwheels, I ordered 40 of them online. If nothing else, my garden will be colorful this year! For added protection, I put four of those miniature solar-powered yard torches on the corners of my raised garden. If necessary, I will play tapes of Glenn Beck lectures to scare rabbits, raccoons, and pheasants away.

All of my tomatoes are planted: 47 by my last count, plus six ceramic containers where I planted cherry tomatoes for the famous triathlete Melanie Carvell, who stops by to graze before she runs off with the antelope towards Double Ditch.

I have two gardens this year—my regular vegetable garden, with a large and unruly raspberry patch in its center, and a 12x24 foot raised garden, which I'm calling my Square IX garden. It's part of a project I am doing with the garden staff at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. I send them Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara seeds, like the ones Meriwether Lewis sent to Jefferson from Fort Mandan in the spring of 1805, and Monticello sends me Jefferson garden seeds. We keep obsessive Jeffersonian planting records at both ends, and compare baskets of produce during Monticello's annual garden festival in the fall. Jefferson, who was one of the most orderly individuals who ever lived, designated one portion of his immense garden terrace "Square IX," as a plot in which to experiment with new or unusual seeds. He was a one-man cooperative extension farm before such things were invented in 1914.

Last year I did a fundraising dinner at a lovely farm-to-table restaurant in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and Monticello's head gardener Pat Brodowski supplied all of the vegetables from Jefferson's terrace. It may sound a little silly, but eating straight from the garden of the Sage of Monticello is a very heady and moving experience. We are, after all, what we eat.

I quadrupled my rhubarb patch this year. I made my first rhubarb pie of the year on Mother's Day, and my mother reported it that she devoured it like Little Jack Horner.

The late May freeze and the chaos of my schedule have kept me from being a very systematic gardener this year. On the day you read this I will be flying back from Calgary, Alberta. If my plane lands on time, I will have just enough time in the evening to finish planting, because the next morning I have to go to Fargo for a couple of meetings. What I have needed, and did not have this year, was a full weekend of long days with my hands in the soil. The best garden days are when you can stay dirty all day and well into the evening, hands in the soil, planting, grubbing, pruning, trimming, hoeing, mowing, weeding, weed-whacking, with periodic interruptions to drive to the plant store and the hardware store for flowers and parts and gadgets that suddenly seem necessary to make everything right. And then, at the end of the day, the simplest possible meal out on the deck, as the breeze comes up and the sun goes down—a baguette, some fine cheese, a bit of salami, and a good glass of wine. It's a ritual as old as humanity. You can read about it in Homer's epics, in the famous agrarian odes of the Roman poet Horace, in the Georgics and Eclogues of Virgil, and of course in Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia.

I love that moment, perhaps the greatest moment of North Dakota life, when you are sitting out on the deck on a summer evening, reading or talking with a friend or just gazing out onto the prairie, sipping (but not drinking) wine, and at first it is almost too hot and bright to enjoy the experience. But this is North Dakota, where for eight months per year it is too cold to sit on the deck, so in May or June you persevere out of a kind of "I will pretend this is California!" stubbornness. Then towards sunset, at first imperceptibly, the intensity of the heat and the light begins to diminish. At some point a kind of invisible trigger trips, and you realize that the temperature is now perfect and the breeze heavenly in its gentle caress. It is one of the happiest moments of life. Almost everything that really matters is free.

I like to linger then just a little bit longer, to watch the western sky exfoliate in arrays of pink, tangerine, slate, charcoal, and Bloody Mary red, and someone says, because they cannot help it, "I cannot believe it's still light this late in the evening." And everyone goes silent with wonder, and somehow all of those months of trying to start the snow blower at 23 below or waking up and coming home in the dark are instantly redeemed. The last step in such an evening of perfection is to sit out until it is just barely chilly enough that you think you should go in to get a jacket, but you don't, because you realize the chill is actually not uncomfortable. In its own way, it is a very agreeable sensation.

This year I am dedicating my garden to Eleanor Rixen, who was precisely what we think about when we remember the ideal rural women of North Dakota, when we were still a lovely forgotten backwater in America, scratching a living out of the soil, and thanking God for the blessings he had laved on us, and watching the western sky for hail. She supplied the hollowed gallon coffee cans that protect my tiny tomato plants. They are rusted and battered from thirty summers. I love them for all the memories and the quiet humble husbandry they represent.

Jefferson: Seems Content on the $2 Bill!

I feel much alarmed at the prospect of seeing General Jackson President.  He is one of the most unfit men I know of for such a place.  He has had very little respect for laws and constitutions, and is, in fact, an able military chief.  His passions are terrible.  When I was President of the Senate, he was Senator; and he could never speak on account of the rashness of his feelings.  I have seen him attempt it repeatedly, and as often choke with rage.  His passions are, no doubt, cooler now; he has been much tried since I knew him, but he is a dangerous man.

Daniel Webster’s Interview with Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson was no fan of Andrew Jackson, whom he regarded as a vulgarian, a man of rashness and passion, and a duelist. They dined together at Jefferson's retreat home Poplar Forest in August 1815. Jackson was still riding high from his stunning victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans (December 24, 1814-January 8, 1815).

Jackson was engaged in a large number of "affairs of honor," several of which found their way to the dueling grounds. On May 30, 1806, Jackson killed a man named Charles Dickinson in a duel. Dickinson had not only accused the future President of cheating him on a bet involving horse racing, but of insulting Jackson's wife Rachel, whom Dickinson called a bigamist.

Jackson's "Americans" appeared in force at his first inauguration on March 4, 1829. After the ceremony, the first held on the East Portico of the Capitol, the mob forced its way into the White House, climbed through windows, stood on the furniture, and tore down draperies. In order to clear the White House, bowls of punch and other hard liquors were place on the front lawn.

Needless to say, this was not the sort of dignified republic Jefferson had in mind. He was, all of his life, fearful of the role of popular military leaders in the governance of a free society.

Given that, plus Jefferson's antagonism to paper currency, I doubt that he would lose much sleep over the removal of Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill. Jackson displaced Grover Cleveland on the $20 back in 1928.

Whether he would be in favor of replacing Jackson with Harriet Tubman (ca. 1820-1913) is another question, of course.

Like most Virginia slaveholders, Jefferson lived in fear of a general slave revolt, and helped to put down such minor revolts as that of Gabriel Prosser in 1800. Jefferson placed newspaper ads offering rewards for Monticello slaves who ran away. He regraded slavery as a nightmare and a violation of natural rights, but somehow managed to learn to live with the institutional all of his life. He freed only eight slaves: three in his lifetime, five at the time of his death in 1826. He would have been against the Underground Railroad (an anachronistic term for TJ).

Jefferson never met Harriet Tubman. It's not clear what she would have thought of Jefferson. Because he had written a passionate denunciation of slavery in Notes on the State of Virginia, he was often cited by abolitionists who, without forgetting that he was a lifelong slaveholder, nevertheless regarded Jefferson as an ally of careful manumission, a statesman (stuck in an institution he despised) who had the right core values on this subject. This probably gives Jefferson more credit than he deserves, but rhetorically speaking, he could be quoted as an abolitionist.

Jefferson would have preferred that money be stamped on precious metals, which have intrinsic value anywhere in the world. He feared that paper certificates could be manipulated by the "Hamiltonians," since the value of any bill ($1, $2, $100) is only what the government and the economy ascribe to it; otherwise, it is mere printed paper. 

But if we must have paper currency, Jefferson would surely have preferred that we remove all visages of historical figures from our bills, to be replaced by such things as celebrate the beauty and sublimity of America, the new Garden of Eden. Perhaps the Natural Bridge in Virginia; the Confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac at Harper's Ferry; the Great Falls of the Missouri River (discovered by Jefferson's protege Meriwether Lewis); the Source of the Mississippi; the Grand Canyon; etc.

In my own view, we should follow Britain and Europe's lead in placing cultural giants on our currency. Britain's decision in 2013 to place Jane Austen on the 10 pound note seems just right. What about Emily Dickinson, John Muir, Aaron Copland, Louis Armstrong; Mark Twain, Zora Neale Hurston, Henry David Thoreau, William Faulkner, or for that matter Harriet Tubman?

People often ask me what Jefferson would think about being on the seldom-used $2 bill. I doubt that he would care much, but he would not feel honored. The Library of Congress—now that's a proper tribute to Thomas Jefferson.

Further Reading:

More from the Thomas Jefferson Hour

How Would Jefferson Respond to the Baltimore Riots?

“The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the Atmosphere."

— Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams was not amused. But Jefferson was quite serious. He was writing about Shays' Rebellion in western Massachusetts in 1786. While most of the Founders, including George Washington, regarded the rebellion as an outbreak of lawlessness, anarchy, and fundamental disrespect for authority, Jefferson defended the rebels. 

Jefferson believed that people do not rebel for no purpose. In other words, he believed that most people want to live quietly, go about their business, and steer clear of trouble, but that when conditions became intolerable, when they perceived "a long train of abuses and usurpations," as he put it in the Declaration of Independence, they had a right (even a duty) to raise the temperature of their discontentment until it got the attention of their public representatives. Jefferson believed that almost everyone would prefer to use peaceful means to achieve reforms, but that such tools as petition, remonstrance, letters to members of Congress, broadsides, pamphlets, protest parades, and sermons did not always, or even often, achieve their ends. 

Then--when all peaceful means had been exhausted--Jefferson believed that it was permissible for the people to rebel.

He wrote similar letters about Shays' Rebellion to James Madison and others, and he later defended the French Revolution's moments of violence, including the Reign of Terror.

Fair enough. That is part of the historical record. Even Jefferson's friends were shocked by his defense of blood as the manure of the "Tree of Liberty." But he seems to have been in earnest.

But would Jefferson argue that the African-American community in Baltimore in 2015 has a right to engage in rioting and looting in the face of what it regards as structural racism, overt racism, profiling, and excessive use of force among police officers and the judicial system?

Hard to know. 

He was not a "law and order man." He would certainly acknowledge that the first duty of authorities in Baltimore and elsewhere is to to maintain order and restore peace--as gently as possible but as forcibly as necessary. That is why they have been elected and appointed by the people of Baltimore and Maryland. But he routinely called for treating rebellious citizens with mildness and even with a kind of admiration.

Easy for him to say from his lunar perspective; he is not one of the property owners whose shops and merchandise have been destroyed by looting. 

The black citizens of Baltimore have gotten the attention of not only city and state authorities, but of the nation and world. Once order has been restored and tempers slip a little below the flash point, there will now certainly be a serious public conversation, even a national conversation, about race and the law, the protocols of the nation's police forces, appropriate uses of force, the deep frustrations of the African-American community, and the lingering race prejudices in American life.

And I'm guessing the events in Ferguson and Baltimore (and elsewhere) will lead to reforms. 

If so, the riots (which Jefferson would regard as the spontaneous outpouring of public rage when no other tool any longer seemed to be efficacious) will have served their Jeffersonian purpose. Those who renounce violence altogether, Jefferson believed, will not remain free very long.

On the other hand, Jefferson's serenity with respect to rebellion broke down entirely when it involved African-Americans and slavery. Like most other southern planters and slave holders, Jefferson lived in a kind of morbid fear of a widespread race revolt, acknowledged that the justice would be on the side of the slaves, but nevertheless insisted that his own white culture had no choice but to crush even the merest hint of slave rebellion.

When slave Gabriel Prosser led a slave revolt near Richmond, Virginia, in the late summer of 1800, Jefferson supported his protege James Monroe in what became a ruthless and vengeful response to the revolt. Altogether 26 slaves were publicly hanged, including Gabriel and his two brothers.

It's hard to think of Jefferson looking mildly on any rebellion led by African-Americans, even 200 years after his own time.

As usual, Jefferson provides an inconsistent lens on the key fissures of the American experience. One thing is certain: no other Founding Father would have been capable of writing the letter TJ wrote to Abigail Adams, liking "a little rebellion now and then," but for all of that Jefferson was never able successfully to transcend his race prejudices.

Read Jefferson’s letter to the Abigail Adams on February 22, 1787.

Further Reading: 

The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800
by Conor Cruise O'Brien

The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson
by Richard K. Matthews

Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves
by Henry Wiencek

With Lewis and Clark at the Cross Ranch as Spring Returns

March 15, 2015

The weather last weekend was so lovely—sixty degrees and light wind in early March—that I forced myself away from several projects and went in search of the open air. I've been walking the city trail in my neighborhood, but that seemed too wimpy for a day of such perfect spring weather. So I grabbed a camera and a bar of chocolate and drove up ND 1804 on the west side of the Missouri River. 

I like the west river road (1804) better than the eastern version (1806) because it is mostly unpaved, it goes through rougher terrain, and someone it feels more like western North Dakota. The great John Steinbeck, crossing the Missouri River on October 12, 1960, said, "Here is the boundary between east and west. On the Bismarck side it is eastern landscape, eastern grass, with the look and smell of eastern America. Across the Missouri on the Mandan side it is pure west, with brown grass and water scorings and small outcrops. The two sides of the river might well be a thousand miles apart." That's precisely how ND 1804 feels after you pass through the last of the settlements north of Mandan.

I climbed a butte in hopes of watching the orange full moon rise over the Missouri River, but I soon thought better of it for a range of reasons, and drove up instead to Cross Ranch State Park. The grand old stand of cottonwood trees there is magnificent even in the winter. The walking trails are excellent. I like to gaze at the Art Link cabin in silent reverence to one of the great men of North Dakota history. The mighty Missouri eases right in to the edge of the giant cottonwoods.
If I couldn't have these experiences, wandering aimlessly through North Dakota, drinking in the beauty and the subtlety of the great emptiness and the great silence, I wouldn't want to live here anymore. When I was growing up in western North Dakota you could wander just about anywhere with impunity. The sense back then was that if you were dumb enough to venture off the grid, you were probably a harmless pilgrim who knew enough not to leave gates open or light a fire in the grass or spook the cattle. In some interesting ways the state was a kind of "commons." That kind of innocent hospitality has been slipping slowly away for many years, but the sudden industrialization of our landscape has greatly accelerated it. There is a landowner uptightness now that is as sad as it is surely justified. 

Last Sunday was one of those gray spring days at the end of the winter just before the lifeforce begins to poke new life through the dead leaves, and to extrude fragile pale green feeder leaves through the seemingly dead twigs of the massive cottonwoods. The ground cover was drab and brittle—on the color spectrum from charcoal to an anemic looking yellow. The sky was mostly gray-black. A front was moving through from west to southeast—low menacing lenticular clouds that appeared to be only a few feet above the canopy of the trees. I could see the western edge of the front as if it had been cut with a breadknife, and the sky beyond it was blue with the purity of a Biblical painting. The river was wide, sullen, silent, making a big sweep past Cross Ranch. 

I wondered for a few minutes whether it would be possible to walk across the river. It was still covered with ice. I could not see any open water. Lewis and Clark's men used to walk across the river routinely during their five-month stay with the Mandan. Fort Mandan was on the eastern side of the river. The principal Mandan village Mitutanka was just over on the west side of the river, less than four miles away. Occasionally the captains and with great frequency the enlisted men ventured over to Mitutanka for off-duty entertainment. It's common to assume that what the men wanted was sex with native women—and surely some of that occurred—but my sense from the journals is as often as not they just wanted some social variety, a meal other than the now-standard roast buffalo of their military diet, a glimpse of domesticity in an earthlodge, a few hours in a community that was rooted here for the duration, not merely passing through on a heroic mission. I think many of the men were lonely for back home in Ken-tuck and Pennsylvania and they sought comfort in the stable family life of their Mandan hosts. 

I did not walk across the river. Glug glug.

By this time in 1805 (mid-March), Lewis was all hepped up to get back on the road. He was a naturally impulsive, impatient, self-punishing man with a deep fixation on mission. The expedition was supposed to have reached the Rock Mountains in the first year of travel. The Corps of Discovery stopped for the winter in North Dakota for one simple reason. The Missouri River froze up. Their highway was closed. That Lewis and Clark wintered with the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians was more or less a wonderful coincidence. The Missouri froze shut a few days after they started building their winter quarters in early November and the ice broke up on the river on March 25, 1806, just two weeks before they pushed on into the great unknown. In other words, they traveled in 1804 as long as the road conditions let them, and resumed their journey more or less the minute the road re-opened the following spring. In the journals I can feel Lewis's impatience and urgency.

As I stood on the edge of the river looking as far in both directions as I could, I realized that if you plopped Captain Lewis back down next to me in the spring of 2015 he would recognize the landscape as essentially unchanged. That's one of the greatest things about North Dakota. Far off to the north I could just see the water tower of Washburn and a few yard lights. To the south, nothing but primeval Missouri River country all the way to the vanishing point. Across the river, a few sad looking wooden buildings not much larger than shacks. 

Had Lewis been there with me, he would have wondered where all the 4,500 Mandan and Hidatsa folks had gone (and might presume the worst, given the evidences of smallpox he saw in 1804-06). He would have noticed that the river is wider, clearer, and more channelized than when he slipped through. But the honking of the geese would have brought back waves of memories of his long winter at the Great Bend of the Missouri. The marvelous muted shades of tan and drab and ice blue and sky blue would have been just what he remembered. And the great silence of the north.

He'd be fretting that he had promised President Jefferson a significant report—and such scattered notes as he had in his possession were not going to make that possible.

The Whole Man Theory and Human Foibles

I've been checking in with my friends scattered around the country lately, reflecting on what each of them has taught me or brought me in friendship. I consider friendship the highest form of human relationship: the steadiest, the most reliable, the most harmonious. My daughter and I have reached the point, now that she is a young adult, where we are close friends in addition to everything else. That gives me a joy I never expected from life.

My old friend Bill Chrystal lives now in Virginia, but when I knew him best he was a Congregational preacher in Reno, Nevada. One of his parishioners was involved in a sad public scandal of the domestic sort. Bill wrote a sermon to help the community make sense of the lurid thing that was getting plenty of press. About two thirds of his way through the sermon, Bill uttered some of the most insightful words I have ever heard. "Which of us," he asked, "would wish to be judged by his worst day?"

Every human being (at least every one I have known) has done stupid things that have endangered all that they have dreamed of achieving in life. Everyone has weaknesses, vulnerabilities, susceptibilities, and temporary lapses that accompany periods of stress, fatigue, or depression. There are perhaps a few people who are immune to the human condition, but those who speak most righteously along these lines are usually not telling the full truth. A character in Shakespeare's play Henry VIII says it perfectly: "We are all men in our own natures frail, and capable of frailty."

It's easy and even fun to fixate on the most sensational stories of self-destruction that flash through a community, especially when prominent people do really dumb things. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell said, "No one gossips about other people's secret virtues." When otherwise good people get themselves into trouble, I always feel immediate waves of sympathy, partly because I recognize that nobody likes to endure the leer of public humiliation, partly because I always feel, "There but for the grace of God, go I." If there were a celestial TSA, with magnetometers stationed at every public doorway in Bismarck, that displayed the secrets and the discreditable information about everyone who walked through them, it would be quite a spectacle. Ask yourself this: what incident of your life, what dark spot in your soul, would you least like to see reported on the front page of the New York Times? Which of us would want to be judged by our worst day?

Sometimes in the evening I walk around a new subdivision up near my neighborhood with a book in hand, reading and taking in the fresh air. The houses are all attractive and unblemished, with gleaming new SUVs in the driveways, fronted by well-groomed yards, sometimes perfectly groomed yards. There are costly basketball hoops in about a quarter of the driveways. You never see an oil stain on the concrete or an old battered up Toyota or Impala. Everything is fastidious. The overall look is one of complacent prosperity. I find myself wondering, sometimes, as I wander aimlessly from block to block, what really goes on behind those splendid facades. What hidden dramas unfold behind closed doors? I know what we see, but I sometimes wonder what we don't see.

Maybe this is a precinct of harmony and domestic bliss, but I'm guessing that the usual struggles of human existence, the chaotic trials of close human relationships, the agony of parenthood, and the sheer angst of adolescence, unfold here as frequently as anywhere else. The seven deadly sins hover about our neighborhoods looking for a warm moist place to set up shop. The first two families that lived in a new house across the street from mine suddenly scattered in divorce. Until that time I had envied them as I observed their seemingly harmonious domestic rhythms.

When Thomas Jefferson's daughter Martha expressed severe embarrassment and a sense of horror after her cousin Nancy Randolph became involved in a tragic sex scandal (possibly involving infanticide), Jefferson wrote one of his most beautiful letters in response. Never distance yourself from a dear friend in her hour of greatest need, he said, no matter how terrible the offense and profound your sense of embarrassment. That's precisely the moment when our friends need us most. We lose nothing of our own standing in the community in being seen visibly offering our support. "I shall be made very happy," he wrote, "if you are the instrument not only of supporting the spirits of your afflicted friend under the weight bearing on them, but of preserving her in the peace and love of her friends." That quality in Jefferson—an exquisite gracefulness and generosity of spirit—is what makes him the most civilized of the Founding Fathers.

My rule as a humanities scholar is that "all bets are off below the belt." In other words, whatever we might think we know about others, or for that matter ourselves, breaks down over the issue of human sexual urges and expression. If some terrorist put truth serum in our water supply and everybody began to blather out the secret history of their libidos, we'd probably have a collective nervous breakdown. Some things are better left in the dark. Our romantic lives are sometimes messy. The world below the belt, indeed the world of the heart, is extremely intense, private, impossible to explain to others, and nobody's business but our own. George Washington, the wisest of our presidents, and a man of great personal restraint, understood this. In a letter to his high-spirited niece Nelly Custis, the grave president wrote, "The passions of your sex are easier raised than allayed. In the composition of the human frame there is a good deal of inflammable matter, however dormant it may life for a time."

In the face of another scandal, Jefferson wrote, "Every human being must be viewed according to what it is good for. For not one of us, no, not one, is perfect. And were we to love none who had imperfection, this world would be a desert for our love." When I think about history or about the people around me, I always try to apply the "whole man theory." We all have vanities, and foibles, and sins that trip us up and seem gigantic at the moment of their exposure, but when you step back and look at the complete life—the accumulated achievement, the whole set of principles and values, the whole character, the larger purpose of another person's existence—then what do you include? Martin Luther King was a shameless womanizer, but any fair examination of his whole life and achievement must conclude that he was a benefactor of the human project, one of the greatest human rights advocates in our history. Jefferson had slaves, and apparently had sexual congress with one of them, but on the whole we are all fortunate that such a man lived at so critical a moment in America's history.

We owe it to each other to be charitable. And understanding. And sympathetic. And forgiving. And humble in the face of our own weaknesses. And to mind our own business. When the scribes and the Pharisees thrust an adulteress in front of Jesus and reminded him that according to the Law she must be stoned to death, Jesus put it perfectly, in a timeless warning to the judgmental and the righteous. "He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone."

Jefferson, Encryption, and The Imitation Game

A favorable and a confidential opportunity offering by Mr. Dupont de Nemours, who is revisiting his native country gives me an opportunity of sending you a cipher to be used between us, which will give you some trouble to understand, but, once understood, is the easiest to use, the most indecipherable, and varied by a new key with the greatest facility of any one I have ever known.

Thomas Jefferson to Robert Livingstone
April 18, 1802

The success of the recent film, The Imitation Game, reminds me of Thomas Jefferson's efforts to encrypt his official and personal correspondence. Jefferson was a Renaissance man, America's Leonardo Da Vinci, and there was almost no subject to which he did not turn his genius in the course of a long and amazingly productive life.

Jefferson was an exceedingly private man, sometimes a secretive one. He was well aware that the fledgling U.S. Postal System was inefficient and seldom secure. It was not uncommon for postmasters to open the mail that passed through their offices, especially letters written by political figures or famous men and women. Jefferson rightly understood that his Federalist enemies would very gladly open his correspondence, read it out loud to those gathered in the nation's post offices, and take hand written extracts from his correspondence to use against him in the political arena.

Jefferson experimented with several cyphers. His famous "Cypher Wheel" was developed sometime between 1790-1800. His Enlightenment friend Dr. Robert Patterson, a mathematician at the University of Pennsylvania, and vice president of the American Philosophical Society, may have had a hand in the project.  The Cypher Wheel was a set of 26 cylindrical disks, each with all of the letters of the alphabet etched randomly on its circumference. Each wooden disk had a small hole at its center, and they were assembled on a stiff wire and bound at either end. Jefferson would turn the wheels to spell out the words he had in mind to encrypt, and then choose another random line of letters to reproduce on the page of his letter. The recipient, with an identical set of disks, would align his device to reproduce the encrypted gibberish on the baseline, and then turn the cypher wheel until an intelligible line of English words appeared. 

According to historian David Kahn, "Jefferson's wheel cypher was far and away the most advanced devised in its day. It seems to have come out of the blue rather than as a result of mature reflection upon cryptology." Kahn's second sentence almost certainly fails to do Jefferson justice. Jefferson had a genius for this sort of creative thinking. He puzzled over systems, ways of ordering (and disordering) knowledge, and what he called "gimcracks" all of his life. He had a rage for order that enabled him to see into the heart of machines and taxonomical systems, and to discover possible improvements. 

Jefferson seems to have abandoned the cypher wheel in 1802. The device was forgotten, therefore, and not rediscovered among his papers in the Library of Congress until 1922.

Meanwhile, Jefferson's system was discovered independently, twice, by other individuals. In 1817 a man named Colonel Decius Wadsworth created a similar cypher wheel His cylinders were made of brass. He added the numerical digits 2 through 8 to the system. Wadsworth was probably assisted in this invention by his friend Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin and a pioneer in the use of interchangeable parts.

A second re-invention occurred just before World War I. The device, known as M-94, was used by American military personnel from 1922 until just before World War II.

Jefferson's Cypher Wheel bears no resemblance to the Enigma Machine devised by German engineer Arthur Scherbius at the end of World War I.

Jefferson also developed a two-dimensional encryption device, though it was not an original creation. It was based on the European Vigenere cypher. It was a 28-column alphanumerical grid. Jefferson made that version available to Meriwether Lewis when he ascended the Missouri River in 1804. Jefferson believed that Lewis may need to send messages of a sensitive geopolitical nature to Washington, D.C., and the president did not wish such communiques to fall into the hands of America's rivals for the West, Britain, France, or Spain. In his letter of instructions to Lewis, Jefferson showed his protege how to encrypt the sentence, "I am at the head of the Missouri. All is well, and the Indians so far friendly." This quintessentially optimistic and Jeffersonian sentence would be encrypted as "jsfjwawpmfsxxiawprjjlxxzpwqxweudusdmf&gmlibexpxu&izxpsecr." 

Lewis never employed encryption in the course of his transcontinental journey. 

A children's version of Jefferson's Cypher Wheel is available in some bookstores and online. 

Further Reading:

The Capacity of Material Prosperity to Undermine Prairie Radicalism

Over the past couple of weeks I have been reading books about the Nonpartisan League, including the standard history of the NPL, Robert Morlan's Political Prairie Fire. The League will achieve its centennial moment during the 2015 legislative session in North Dakota. It was during the infamous 1915 session that Cass County legislator Treadwell Twitchell (who appears to have received his name out of a Charles Dickens novel), allegedly told the desperate, crusading farmers who had assembled at the North Dakota capitol to "Go home and slop the hogs!" Twitchell later claimed that he had not made the incendiary remark, but he's stuck with it one way or the other. It's an essential part of the NPL legend, and whatever he said in February 1915 touched off one of the most remarkable episodes in American history.

In 1915 nine out of ten North Dakotans lived on family farms. The great majority of them were struggling against almost impossible odds to put food on the table for their families and buy seed for next year's crops. Out-of-state banks controlled the credit supply. The interest rates they charged were steep, even usurious. Out-of-state milling and elevator corporations controlled the price of wheat. Their grain grading systems were self-serving, often corrupt, and their scales were sometimes rigged to their own advantage. Out-of-state railroads monopolized the transport of grain at a time when automobiles and trucks were rare in North Dakota. The whole "system" was designed to benefit what the NPL called "Big Biz." North Dakota was essentially a grain-production colony controlled by powerful individuals and entities located in Minneapolis, Chicago, and beyond. One historian has called that North Dakota "a tributary province of Minneapolis-St. Paul."

The farmer-citizens of North Dakota had attempted to improve their conditions in a range of ways, beginning with the Populist Movement, but without measurable success. By 1915 they had come to realize that until they took control of the means of production—until they broke the out-of-state monopolies that controlled the economic destiny of North Dakota—they would never know even moderate prosperity. They were, in short, driven to a revolution—not at the end of a pitchfork or musket, but at the polling booth.

The Nonpartisan League was the brainchild of Arthur C. Townley, Fred Wood, and Arthur LeSueur. Townley was the organizational genius. He was a gifted political strategist, a brilliant stump orator, and a born rabble rouser. His goal was to sign up enough farmers to take control of North Dakota before the opposition realized what was happening. In this he succeeded, thanks to the newfangled Model T Fords he rattled over the dirt roads of the state, and his willingness to accept postdated checks from financially strapped farmers. In 1916 the League (technically nonpartisan but in fact mostly an insurgency within the dominant Republican Party), elected a majority in the ND House of Representatives and Lynn J. Frazier of Hoople as ND Governor. Frazier got 79% of the vote. Two years later, Frazier was re-elected, and both the House and the Senate were now solidly controlled by NPL legislators. That made the legislative session of 1919 one of the most interesting in North Dakota history. Virtually the entire League program was enacted: our three-member Industrial Commission was created, with a broad mandate to "engage in the business of manufacturing and marketing farm products" and to "establish a system of warehouses, elevators, flour mills, factories, plants, machinery and equipments, owned, controlled and operated by it."

This was a breathtaking mandate. If the League program had been fully implemented, we might have established a bunch of state-owned banks, state-owned elevators in many locations, state slaughter houses and cold-storage warehouses, and a range of value-added agricultural processing factories (all socialist) scattered across the North Dakota landscape. What we wound up with was a single state-owned bank (Bismarck) and a single state-owned elevator (Grand Forks). Even so, by 1920 North Dakota was "the most socialist place in America."

Well, my, how things change.

The question that puzzles all historians is how the little conservative backwater of North Dakota found itself in the midst of a socialist revolution. We were then, as we are now, a very conservative people. Some historians say those pesky Norwegian immigrants carried a reformist sensibility with them to Ellis Island. Others point to the worldwide workers movement of that era. It is true that the period between 1900 and 1945 represents the high-water mark of international socialism. In thinking about the meteoric rise of the Nonpartisan League it is worth remembering that all the major European countries, including Great Britain, were teetering on the brink of socialist revolutions in the years before World War I. North Dakota's radicalized farmers took power in 1916-1918, just at the moment of the Russian Revolution (1917).

My answer is simple. I believe there are two types of radicals—ideological radicals and reactive radicals. The first category includes people like Lenin and Trotsky or—in the American context—Thomas Paine and even Thomas Jefferson. These are men (and women) who possess what might be called "the revolutionary temperament." It's amazing to me that Jefferson could have been elected to the American Presidency. His writings are full of surprisingly radical pronouncements like, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure." Such radicals are comparatively rare—and they almost never taste power.

The other brand of "radicals" are essentially reactionaries. They have no instinct for revolution. They are, by habit, non-political. They just want to live their lives with economic sufficiency and something like a "square deal," to use Theodore Roosevelt's favorite formulation. They have no particular ideology. They are certainly not averse to the profit motive. They do not wish to redistribute wealth or level the social order. But when the existing social, political or economic systems are rigged to exploit them to the point of peonage, when they cannot make ends meet no matter how hard they work, otherwise conservative people can be driven into temporary radicalism. One of my oldest friends once gave me perfect advice: "never drive anyone into a corner they cannot get out of except by going over the top of you."

This is what happened in North Dakota in 1915. The actual winning of power in 1916 and 1918 was such an ecstasy that it siphoned off much of the revolutionary anger. It was a stunning and largely unexpected political catharsis, but it perhaps had the unintended effect of returning many of the "radicals" who pulled it off back to a kind of complacency. Meanwhile, World War I broke the trajectory of the farmers' movement. Prices rose. There was a worldwide demand for maximum production. The Wilson administration passed repressive crisis legislation that crushed dissent: the Espionage Act of 1917 (still in effect, though often amended), the Sedition Act of 1918, etc. Townley was jailed in Jackson, Minnesota, for impeding recruitment of the farm boys he rightly recognized as "cannon fodder" for the plutocratic munitions industries fattening on war profits (and profiteering).

Once the Great War had changed everything, and a few of the League's goals had been met with largely symbolic reforms, North Dakotans returned to their normal, largely apolitical, and traditionally conservative ways.

And today, the great-grandchildren of that radical episode are having a mushy love affair with Big Biz. This would have killed Townley; it would sadden Jefferson; and probably it would hurl TR right back into The Arena.

Happy Birthday North Dakota: You Are Now 125!

Today is North Dakota's 125th birthday. On this day in 1989, at 3:40 EST, President Benjamin Harrison shuffled the statehood papers for North and South Dakota, signed them, and shuffled them again, so that it would be impossible to know whether we were the 39th or 40th state. Today North Dakota is giving itself a fabulous 125th birthday gift. The magnificent $52 million expansion of the North Dakota Heritage Center is celebrating its grand opening today. Our state museum has always been great. Now it is world class.

After a 125-year struggle to forge a viable rural civilization in an exceptionally challenging environment at the heart of North America (Eric Sevareid's "blank rectangle"), about as far from the centers of power, money, culture, and access as it is possible to be, suddenly everything seems possible for North Dakota. Many of the bedeviling historic problems of North Dakota life have suddenly been "solved" or at least addressed in a way we could not have expected back in 1989, when we "celebrated" our state Centennial in a somewhat muted and anxious manner. Those historic challenges--outmigration, rural decline, the slow death of small towns, underfunded public institutions, including K-12 schools and higher education, economic marginality, over-dependence on agriculture and federal aid—all seem less dramatic today.

For most of North Dakota history we have been a quiet agrarian people. As late as 1975 it would not have been inappropriate for us to erected winter-welded signs at the portals leading into North Dakota, saying, "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people." That's Thomas Jefferson speaking, the man who bought North Dakota but never visited it, a man who never had to feed calves at 47 below or shovel out the fermented grain at the bottom of the bin.

As long as food matters—and what matters more in life?—North Dakota will be primarily a farm state. Oil may bring in greater revenues, but I agree with the Jeffersonians, including former ND Governor Arthur A. Link, that the highest and best use of our land is family farms. In fact, I believe a new agrarian movement (even revolution) is taking root in America, and that the number of farms in North Dakota will start to grow, though they will not be the industrial giants of the late twentieth century.

We have never been a glamorous people and the great majority of us could never be accused of being fashionable. For most of our history we have found it possible to live here only through hard work, gumption and grim perseverance, frugality, stoicism, thrift, and extremely modest expectations. Almost every one of us has kin who were cash poor all of their lives, conservative in every purchase and every life decision, dressed usually in patched and hand-me-down clothing, humble to the point of self-effacement, but who managed somehow to put one or more of their children through college, and died in genuine prosperity. I remember watching my grandmother Rhoda pay an old hired man at the end of the wheat harvest. She carefully put a few dollars into his gnarled hands, and then pressed a handful of coins into his palm. She paid him to the penny, and there was no possibility that she would round up his wages to the next dollar. Things were that tight.

That set of dynamics made us who we are. There is something magnificent about it.

It was said of Thomas Jefferson that he could "tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet." For that he is regarded as America's Renaissance man. But the farmers and ranchers of North Dakota, and their sons and daughters, can—even now--strip an engine, cultivate a field, judge a rodeo, weld a chassis, build a barn or fence, wire a house, pull a calf, roof a shed, dig a drain field, drive a school bus, milk a cow, eviscerate an antelope, can cucumbers and tomatoes, back a horse trailer into a crowded space, chair a meeting, or lead a capital campaign to build a new church. This massive, marvelous competence and pragmatism has allowed us to survive in the semi-arid, windswept, and sub-arctic place we call North Dakota. We Dakotans are outstanding at the basics, and—in the end—the basics matter most of all. When the national or world collapse comes, where do you want to be, midtown Manhattan or Mott, Los Angeles or Linton?

We have been through some very tough times in the history of North Dakota. In 1933, for example, the average North Dakotan earned $145 per year, compared to the national average, in that terrible time, of $375. More North Dakotans abandoned farms and left the state during the 1930s than at any other time during our history. Steinbeck could more accurately have written The Grapes of Wrath about North Dakota than Oklahoma and Arkansas. Say what you want about FDR and the New Deal, but his rural stabilization programs saved North Dakota, and rural electrification was one of the most significant things that ever happened on the Great Plains. At one point, in 1935, 175,000 North Dakotans were on direct federal assistance. The federal government has played an essential role in North Dakota's survival.

Historically, we have exported wheat and cattle, coal, and oil, but also topsoil, water, and our young people. Things are changing now, thanks mostly to new technologies. The Bakken boom is convincing many of our children to stay in North Dakota, rather than fulfill their early adult dreams elsewhere, and the new amenities that come with economic success make North Dakota more attractive in cuisine and culture than ever before. Genetic modification has brought us drought-resistant strains of wheat and corn that enable us to harvest abundance much more often than in the first 100 years of North Dakota history. North Dakota was one of the pioneers of no-till agriculture. Soil erosion—one of the most significant problems of North Dakota history—is now largely a forgotten issue.

From an economic point of view (jobs, prosperity, lowered taxes, state budget surpluses, opportunity for new businesses, adequate funding of our basic institutions), this is the very best time in our 125-year history. It seems to me that no rational being, surveying the long, sometimes grim, struggle of North Dakota history, can wish the Bakken boom had never happened or would go away. (Managing it wisely, at a sustainable pace, with the fewest growing pains, is another matter altogether). If we had to choose birthday messages for North Dakota on November 2, 2014, we'd want to quote Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who told the people of Great Britain in 1957, "You've never had it so good."

Life is easier now. There is far less heavy lifting.

My concern is whether the "new North Dakota" will be as successful in shaping human character, resourcefulness, and integrity as the old one that is so undeniably and perhaps inevitably passing into ancient myth. There is no turning back. Most North Dakotans frankly do not wish to go back to or even romanticize that more strenuous, marginal, hardscrabble life. But all of us, I believe, recognize that something that has been essential to our identity as a people is being lost, and that in some important way we will be less even as we are more. That's the paradox of modernity.

I love this place.

Happy birthday North Dakota.

If We Were Still a Republic, Heavy Security Would Not Be Necessary

"When I hear another express an opinion, which is not mine, I say to myself, He has a right to his opinion, as I to mine; why should I question it? His error does me no injury, and shall I become a Don Quixote to bring all men by force of argument, to one opinion?"

TJ letter to his favorite grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph
November 28, 1808
Thomas Jefferson had no Secret Service protection. He walked to his inauguration. He rode his horse alone around Washington, D.C., during his eight years as President. No attempts were made on his life.

The recent breakdown in Secret Service protection of President Barack Obama has alarmed the American people. Several individuals have gotten over the White House fence and even into the building itself. On one recent occasion, the President rode in an elevator with a man who had a gun on his person. We are fortunate that there has not been a serious assassination attempt on President Obama. The head of the Secret Service, Julia Pierson, resigned in early October in the face of these disturbing incidents.

The U.S. Secret Service was created in July 1865 to combat an epidemic of counterfeit currency. It was not until the 20th century that it began to protect national officers, including the President.

The first Presidential assassination attempt occurred on January 30, 1835, nine years after the death of Jefferson. An unemployed house painter named Richard Lawrence approached President Jackson after he left a funeral held in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol. His gun misfired. Jackson, 67, who was a soldier and a serial duelist, clubbed his attacker several times with his cane. Lawrence managed to pull out a second pistol. Fortunately it misfired when he pulled the trigger.

The first President to be assassinated was Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865. After that James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy were assassinated in office, though many more attempts were made on sitting Presidents.

Jefferson never feared assassination, and he passed his entire, sometimes controversial life, without a security detail. He did, however, receive his share of hate mail. During his second term, when he chose to respond to British and French hostilities on the high seas with a total economic embargo, his popularity was seriously damaged. One citizen wrote, "You have sat aside and trampled on our most dearest rights bought by the blood of our ancestors." Another exploded with, "You red-headed son of a bitch." Jefferson's response was more bemused than alarmed. "They are almost universally the productions of the most ill-tempered & rascally part of the country," he wrote to his closest friend James Madison, "often evidently written from tavern scenes of drunkenness."

There may be several reasons why no attempts were made on Jefferson's life. First, as the Andrew Jackson incident proves, guns were relatively primitive in Jefferson's day. Each gun fired a single bullet only, and then took a considerable time to reload. Second, the President was not as well known then as he is now, in the age of hypermedia. Most citizens of Jefferson's time had no idea what the President looked like, and they would have had a very hard time picking him out of a crowd. Most Americans lived their entire lives then without any contact with the national government of the United States. Not only was all politics local then, but life was profoundly local in every way.

Most important, perhaps, is the fact that we were a republic then and we are a quasi-monarchical nation now. We are closer to Rome in the age of Augustus than we are to the illusory republic of the Founding Fathers. Augustus pretended that the Roman republic still existed, paying a kind of sentimental-cynical lip service to old republic forms, while ruling the emerging Roman Empire as an uncrowned monarch. So little was at stake in Jefferson's time that it would have been unlikely for a citizen to fixate on any national figure. Jefferson defined his role in the most restrictive and unambitious way. His goal was to reduce the national debt, reduce the size of the army and navy, eliminate internal federal taxes, and return as much sovereignty as possible to the individual states. Not much to decry in terms of Presidential authority.

Thomas Jefferson was a cheerful stoic, who didn't take himself too seriously, and who had a confident, serene, and undramatic view of his life statesman. It would have been uncharacteristic of him to think about personal security. His daughter Maria was more concerned about the loneliness and craftiness of the White House than she was about security issues.

Read the full text of Jefferson's superb letter to his grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph.

Further Reading:

Autumnal Setbacks in the Serenity of the Garden

Autumn is definitely here now, unmistakably. The sun now glares directly in my face as I drive to work at 7:45 a.m. It gets dark so early in the evening now that it feels as if the endless summer light just collapsed overnight sometime in the last three weeks.

The cottonwood leaves are starting to turn. There is nothing quite so lovely as the cottonwoods along the sacred Little Missouri River when they burst into fiery yellow-gold sometime in September. They define the term "achingly beautiful." Hiking the badlands on a crisp autumn morning when a jacket is required but soon becomes a burden, when the light is so clean that it clarifies the beauty of every object in nature, and the blue of the autumn sky makes you weak in the knees, that's reason enough to live in North Dakota. Hunters hunt as much for this as for the birds and venison. Hunting allows strong rural men to be poets for a few days per year without losing face. I love listening to farmers talk about the pure satisfaction of the first day of the wheat harvest without self-censorship, and hunters are positively romantic when they talk about the quality of the light and the sense of oneness with nature as they move through the grassland or stubble.

On the morning I wrote this I woke up three times before dawn—first, of course, to pee, which can be done on autopilot without really waking up at all. Then to pull a blanket off the floor below the bed and drag it up to my chin. Finally to go pheasant hunting in the back yard. But the blanket first.

One of the purest delights of autumn is those mornings when you wake up sometime before first light realizing that you are cold, because you fell asleep under a single sheet, and the temperature has dropped ten or fifteen degrees in the course of the night. You are still very tired and groggy, a little grumpy that this mere meteorological circumstance has disturbed your sleep, and for quite a while you pretend that you can maybe gut it out till your regular waking time without searching for the errant blanket at the foot of the bed. I don't know why we all try to resist just fetching the blanket and getting it over with—a simple motion, after which we know things are going to be much better--but we all procrastinate, losing good sleep meanwhile, until the discomfort finally becomes painful enough to tip us into action and force us to do what we should have done half an hour sooner.

I spent that much time, or more, doing a variety of heat and convection experiments under my bed sheet. I tucked the sheet right up to my chin. I got into the fetal position. Then I got into the fetal fetal position, until I looked like John Lennon on honeymoon. Then I pulled the sheet over my head. I thrashed in place a little to generate some internal fire. After all of that, I cursed under my breath and reached over the end of the bed to get the blanket, a lovely Pendleton of rich chocolate brown with wide rust and charcoal stripes. A perfect autumn blanket.

I love the process of warming up. Of course you want to be warm instantly, but if you are patient and just let the experience unfold, you can actually learn to enjoy the thermodynamics. The acute chill disappears almost immediately with the advent of a blanket, and then the gradual "toasting" process actually creates an exquisite joy. The continuing slight chill makes you glad to be alive. With any luck I can at this point fall asleep again for some really satisfying "top up" sleep.


Sometime in late August, a little terrorist cluster of pheasants began to ravage my garden. I ran after them with a baseball bat. I sprinkled commercial varmint repellants along the perimeter. I begged my friend Jim to turn his faithful hunting dog Lizzie loose in the district. I bought live traps. I wired the sheaths of my sweet corn shut with rubber bands. I threw netting over my tomatoes. But these were pampered suburban welfare pheasants, who knew no decency and did not respect the rule of law. Eventually I bought a paint ball gun—actually a paint ball assault rifle—and began to obsess about revenge. Those pesky pheasants transformed me overnight from a serene Jeffersonian gardener to an enraged and pathetic Elmer Fudd.

Last weekend I gleaned most of the last produce from my garden, ate a couple of perfect minimalist garden meals, and began the autumn cleanup and shutdown. I pulled the tomato cages and stacked them as carefully as such unwieldy contraptions can be stacked. I pulled up all the gallon-sized tomato cans and put them in a neat pile. I mowed the whole garden and prepped it for a thorough fall tilling. The only produce still on the vine is in my raised Monticello garden: a few Hidatsa squashes, an ear or two of Mandan corn, a few Jefferson Costoluto Genovese tomatoes that are still worrisomely green, and two butternut squashes.

My point is that I had, by now, largely stopped fixating about the pheasants. Whenever I walked past my paint ball rifle near the back door, I had begun to feel faintly ridiculous. Maybe I had over-reacted. One must share the abundance, after all, and the fine dynamics of evolution have made plants such as corn and tomatoes desirable to a variety of critters so that their seeds can be distributed across the land. Maybe the pheasants were not perpetual entitlement bums, but just troubled birds going through a rough patch. Surely they had some melancholy sense that they would not be alive much longer. Perhaps they quote Ecclesiastes in the evenings as they hunker in the prairie just west of my yard.

So when I woke for the third and final time this morning to the sound of "kuk… kukk.. kuck" in the vicinity of the garden, I slipped out onto the deck in a mostly light-hearted mood. I was clad in suburban camouflage--t-shirt, boxer shorts, and slippers, holding a faux Rambo and Full Metal Jacket assault rifle stocked with orange paint ball ammunition. Nothing ridiculous there!

The pheasant saw me coming and slipped between two rows of corn stalks. I approached as silently as Natty Bumpo, then fired a burst of ten paint balls into the corn. The appalled pheasant flushed and squawked at me menacingly as it flew off. Point made. Time to shower.\

But when I looked into my raised Jefferson garden, my heart fell on the ground. I was light-hearted no longer. My last acorn squash had been violated by those very pheasants. I do not exaggerate. The entire interior had been consumed, after a gaping hole had been pecked through its many hard rinds. I would not have thought it even possible for a bird to hack its way into such a well-protected vegetable. My last garden dinner was now entirely despoiled.

I fell into a towering, drooling, helpless rage, and swore that I would eat the culprit(s) for spite, with a commercial squash on the side, even if their breast meat was stained with orange pigment! I rushed into the house and reloaded my magazine.

O the humanity. This ain't over.

Jefferson Doused Within Boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase

I have been more fortunate than my friend in the article of health. So free from catarrhs [serious colds] that I have not had one, (in the breast, I mean) on an average of eight or ten years through life. I ascribe this exemption partly to the habit of bathing my feet in cold water every morning, for sixty years past. A fever of more than twenty-four hours I have not had above two or three times in my life.

Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Vine Utley
March 21, 1819

Thomas Jefferson was a dignified man of enormous self-control and self-restraint. He was essentially a character in a Jane Austen novel. His personal space was never invaded by others. He was only angry two or three times in the whole course of his life. It is doubtful that he ever really raised his voice. 

The period in which Jefferson lived (1743-1826) was almost infinitely more formal and civil than our time. The social revolutions since 1826--in music, art, conversation, clothing, entertainment, and all other forms of social intercourse--would probably shock even Andrew Jackson, whom Jefferson believed too vulgar for higher office in the United States.

Surely nobody ever dumped a tub of ice water on the Third President's head. 

On the other hand, Jefferson was a lifelong advocate of cold foot water baths. He owned a copy of Floyer and Baynard's The History of Cold Bathing: Both Ancient and Modern in Two Parts (1706). Jefferson was so much a creature of habit, so addicted to orderliness in his personal life, that the impression of his bath pail can be seen on the wooden floor next to his alcove bed at Monticello.

Here are the facts. On Monday August 25, 2014, the Lieutenant Governor of North Dakota, one Drew Wrigley, unceremoniously dumped a trashcan of ice water on the Third President's head, on the capitol steps of the North Dakota State Capital in Bismarck, North Dakota.

Mr. Jefferson received the water assault with his usual stoic imperturbability.

The incident was part of a national phenomenon in which citizens doused themselves and each other to help raise money to study and eradicate a disease known as ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). Although Jefferson would surely have resisted such antics, he was a lifelong advocate of public health, an early and steadfast supporter of the new smallpox vaccine (invented by Dr. Edward Jenner of Britain), and a lover of science and technology. He wrote a fan letter to Dr. Jenner that is one of the great encomiums in the English language.

Here is Mr. Jefferson's initial response:

1. Daily footpaths in cold water were efficacious. Perhaps a full body ice shower would serve as a blanket immunity to all disease and discomfort.

2. This "affair of honor" was certainly less lethal than most such events: notably the duel that ended the life of Alexander Hamilton and the career of Aaron Burr in July 1804.

3. Perhaps the Lt. Governor would like to remember that it was Mr. Jefferson who purchased most of North Dakota from Napoleon Bonaparte in July 1803. One would think that gratitude would be more appropriate than a sneak attack on an 18th century gentleman.

4. The ND state Capitol is one of just three that violate Mr. Jefferson's neoclassical preferences, first seen in his design for the Virginia Capitol at Richmond. That design, submitted by Jefferson from France, created a neoclassical, Palladian template that has been employed in virtually every state. North Dakota's 18-story capitol tower has its own beauty, but it would not be approved by Jefferson's aesthetics. It is just the sort of place where a water assault might be expected. 

5. All's fair for a good cause. ALS was not diagnosed and certainly not named in Jefferson's time. It is at least possible that John Adams was suffering from a form of ALS in his later years.

6. Lt. Governor Wrigley and Mr. Jefferson were seen to shake hands after the incident.

Further Reading:

Jefferson Was Not Opposed to the Death Penalty—But He Was Humane

And whereas the reformation of offenders, tho' an object worthy the attention of the laws, is not effected at all by capital punishments, which exterminate instead of reforming, and should be the last melancholy resource against those whose existence is become inconsistent with the safety of their fellow citizens, which also weaken the state by cutting off so many who, if reformed, might be restored sound members to society, who, even under a course of correction, might be rendered useful in various labors for the public, and would be living and long continued spectacles to deter others from committing the like offences.

Thomas Jefferson
Bill for Apportioning Crimes and Punishments, 1778

Thomas Jefferson was not opposed to the death penalty. He believed that a citizen used up his "social contract" rights to life under two conditions: heinous, aggravated murder, and treason against one's country. After writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson returned to Virginia, where he was named to a committee to revise the entire law code of the former British colony to bring it into accord with the principles of a Republic, and to harmonize Virginia law with the best practices of the Enlightenment. Jefferson later said it was the single hardest labor of his life.

When he began, there were 39 capital crimes in Virginia, including the stealing of a cabbage. By the time he finished, the number of capital crimes had been reduced to two: heinous, aggravated murder, and treason against the state. Unfortunately, the Virginia House of Delegates did not share Jefferson’s enlightened views. They refused to pass any reform law that did not retain horse stealing as a death-penalty crime.

Jefferson, who was one of the best-read men of his time, was a student of the Italian humanist Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794), who proposed a range of penal reforms. Beccaria argued that it is not in the interest of the state to seek vengeance on behalf of the victims of crime and that the administration of cruel and unusual punishments put the state at a moral disadvantage. The state’s only true interest, he argued, was maintaining the social order.The just state should seek only to restore order, sequester dangerous individuals, and--if possible--rehabilitate them.

Jefferson was naturally a gentle and pacific man. He was clearly influenced (as his prose above indicates) by the humane principles of Beccaria. In the name of humanity and efficient law enforcement, he removed virtually all of the capital crimes from the Virginia code, keeping only the residual two--for crimes he believed so grave that they extinguished a perpetrator's right to life itself.

The botched execution of Joseph Wood in Arizona this week would almost certainly trouble Jefferson. He believed that whatever the state does should be done as humanely and quietly as possible. Still, the method of capital punishment in his time was hanging, by which standard the event in Arizona was arguably humane. Public hangings were still a spectator sport throughout much of the "enlightened" world in Jefferson's time (1743-1826).

To read the full text of Jefferson's proposed penal code for Virginia, click here.

Further Reading:

Those Who Whack Weeds Are the Chosen People of God

The summer solstice has come and gone. Though I am continually amazed towards dusk that it is still light at ten o'clock p.m. (where did the evening go?), I have begun to feel that low-level uneasiness that comes immediately after the solstice. Summer as we know it in North Dakota is just getting started (it was 62 degrees on July 1), but something deep in my diaphragm groans that it is all down hill from here until late December, when the forces of darkness overwhelm the earth, and we are plunged again into sub-arctic night.

Make hay while the sun shines. No evening passes now in my neighborhood without kids clattering by my house on skateboards and scooters, adults (usually women) processing their days together while engaged in the slow-mo North Dakota version of the power walk. After supper, as we sit out on our decks listening to the breeze in the trees, we can almost forget, for an instant, that most of the North Dakota calendar must be spent indoors. What would human life be if we did not have a magical ability to forget pain?

Up near Horizon Middle School, under the blue water tower, there is a grass clippings collection plaza with eight or ten huge white steel containers. In the evenings, men congregate there, delivering a few bags of clippings in gleaming giant pickup trucks that could haul barrels of lead just as easily. They leave their engines running and frisk the clippings into the appropriate bins. Frequently they linger and lean on the back fenders and talk with men they don't know about optimal sprinkler cycles or whether Roundup is really the answer. A visitor from Jupiter might surmise that this civilization is required to bring grass sacrifices to propitiate some pastoral god. Perhaps the Jovians would initially conclude that the water tower must be that god, for on any summer evening, dozens of huge pickups appear ritually at its base with pure grass tributes. The great god Mulch. Sometimes there are little traffic jams at the clippings site. Ah, summer.

All of my adult life I have read Jefferson's prose poems about the glories of agrarian life—"Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God," and "I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural." The great Jefferson's pastoral idealism has always appealed deeply to me—perhaps because I have never actually farmed!—but it has felt a little like an abstraction, like an English major's pastoralism. But now that I have an actual vegetable garden it is much more real.

Several nights this last week, I ventured out at about six p.m. to tackle the weeds that have eaten my garden. I don't quite understand the biology (or perhaps it is the karma) of weeds, but I can tell you two things that have the certainty of natural law. First, in the cool, rainy, even chilly June just past, my corn and tomatoes barely clung to life (five inches high by the Fourth of July!), but all the weeds proliferated as if they were on an invisible Miracle Grow drip. I was gone five days last week. When I came back the Canada thistle were the size of large pumpkins. I don't understand why weeds grow like, well, weeds, and spread maniacally and thrive, while onions and potatoes droop around in stunted form, looking anemic, and waiting for the July heat.

Second, these weeds are like the killers in horror films—they never really die. I go out with stiff gloves and a little hand hoe, and work three hours among the tomatoes and corn to uproot those weeds I can, and clip the rest as close to the ground as possible. It's unpleasant work. The Canada thistle have really highly evolved defense systems. When I am not wincing from sticker pain, I mostly muse about the genius of farmers markets, where for a fraction of what it costs me to grow a bushel of vegetables, I can buy oodles of beautiful organic produce grown by someone with a real talent for it. Still, at some point in the evening I have cleared the tomato patch to perfection, and—with a feeling of satisfaction bordering on smugness--I go into the house and pour myself a tumbler of whiskey.

But two days later—the minute you turn your back--there are scores of new weeds, as tenacious as the first wave, creeping in at the wan little defenseless corn stalks.

Last night, in a rage, I went out with my weed whacker and attacked the Canada thistle. It was like a scene out of the Iliad. I should have worn protective goggles. I waded boldly into a sea of thistle and began to fell it. I had carefully adjusted the plastic string so that I could take out weeds without damaging those few remaining plants I wish to protect. It was a scene of pure garden carnage. The weeds were so tall and thick, and so full of all the moisture that should be nurturing my tomatoes, that the whacker threw up a green slurry, and sometimes gobs of green sludge, into my face. I had to refill the whacker tank twice.

Finally, dusk arrived mercifully at my little patch of ground. It was a perfect sunset, with charcoal and tangerine skies to the west, and a magnificent crescent moon setting about the same time as the sun. The temperature was exquisite—shirtsleeve weather just edging towards the evening chill. I hand watered my tomatoes, filling each venerable rusted coffee can to the brim, twice. The glugging sound of the water filling the tomato cans took me magically across space and time to my grandmother's garden near Fergus Falls, MN, and there she was, in a faded-flower cotton apron, with her thick pure white hair and her gold-tipped front tooth, puttering about her flawless, weedless garden, stooping to pluck some lonely stray sprig of a weed from the pea patch.

I was a real mess. My whole front looked as if I had stood too close to the painting bay of an autobody shop when they were rehabilitating a John Deere tractor.

But I had brought order to my garden. I had got down on my hands and knees and out of my head, and I had pressed my fingers into the soil. I had given all of my attention to the careful nurture of a few plants that were domesticated in the Middle East or South America tens of thousands of years ago. I was doing something that really mattered in some very basic way, and my whole body was involved. I could not do it without stooping to the earth in prayer.

As I slumped into my chair, after stripping down to my shorts and a tshirt, I felt better about the world. I felt better about myself. I felt more whole. I felt more alive. I was happy. And I could almost taste that tomato that is still only a yellow bud on a rangy little plant in my back yard.

Thomas Jefferson was right, as usual. An American garden is as much the meaning of the Fourth of July as those glorious abstractions in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence.

The Medicine that Jefferson Knew and Saw in Paris

On October 15, 1785, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to John Banister (who, I presume, was the Virginia Banister, a member of the Continental Congress.) Banister had, it seems, written to Jefferson to solicit his advice "respecting the best seminary for the education of youth, in Europe." In his response, Jefferson stressed the dangers of exposing young men to the temptations of European life and to the degeneracy of the European aristocracy. He strongly praised the education provided by American institutions like the College of William and Mary. The only exception he made was for a man who intended to study medicine. Jefferson wrote, "For [this], he must come to Europe: the medical class of students, therefore, is the only one which need come to Europe."

Jefferson's time in Paris, 1784-1789, fell at the very beginning of what would become a French revolution in the understanding of illness and the practice of medicine. As early as the 1860s American physicians were journeying to Paris to experience its superior medical education. France had formal medical schools that were allied with hospitals and universities. The American colonies had a system of apprenticeship for aspiring doctors. And the French were doing three things that their American counterparts were not, all of which revealed the French fascination with learning through observation. First, they examined their patients. Second, they took advantage of their easy access to cadavers to study the body and, through observation, to better understand disease. Finally, they expected medical students and doctors to examine women, something that was thought unseemly for doctors in the American colonies and early United States.

One of the earliest American physicians to study medicine in Paris was John Morgan. Between 1760 and 1765 he studied at Edinburgh in Scotland and at the Royal Academy of Surgery in Paris. He returned to the United States in 1765 to found America's first university- and hospital-affiliated medical school at what is today the University of Pennsylvania. After Morgan, the list of American doctors who studied medicine in Paris became long and distinguished. 
Benjamin Rush studied in Paris in 1768 and 1769. In later years Jefferson thought Rush to be America's pre-eminent physician. The early 19th Century saw a virtual exodus of American medical students to Paris, among them Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Jefferson is reported to have been skeptical about the medicine practiced in his time. He subscribed to the theory that the body possessed naturally curative tendencies that needed to be exploited and supported during times of illness. Despite this belief, Jefferson turned to doctors and to medications when confronted with the specific ailments that afflicted him: headaches, rheumatism, and diarrhea. He reported in his letters that his headaches responded better to travel and relaxation than to quinine and other drugs, and that his rheumatism was alleviated by hot springs in western Virginia (although he got skin boils from the experience). Chronic diarrhea is reported to have been his most incapacitating ailment. For a while he found that riding his horse at a trot for 2-3 hours daily was helpful in that it strengthened the muscles surrounding the rectum. In time, however, he resorted to a doctor's prescription of laudanum. He depended on this drug for many years. Laudanum is a tincture of opium comprised of 10% pure opium powder suspended in a 100+ proof alcoholic extract of bark.

Jefferson's thoughts about medicine may be inferred from his expectation that Lewis and Clark take with them on their Expedition, if not a physician, at least the best that American medicine had to offer. He sent Meriwether Lewis to Philadelphia to study with Dr. Benjamin Rush for three months at what is now the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Rush was a firm believer in expunging from the body whatever ill humors had accumulated there, by whatever exit route might be most advantageous – laxatives, emetics, bleedings, and purgatives of all types. Lewis thus left Philadelphia equipped with new skills in phlebotomy and surgery and $90.69 worth of equipment and drugs. The equipment included lancets, forceps, gonorrhea syringes, and scissors. Among the 30 or so drugs were laudanum, opium, calomel, and mercury (for syphilis – the adage at the time being, "One night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury.") Finally, Rush equipped Lewis with 50 dozen of his patented "Rush Pills." Rush believed his violently potent laxative to be effective in treating numerous ailments. The members of the Expedition used them liberally and called them "Thunder clappers."

When Jefferson arrived in France in 1784, the application of science to the practice of medicine was a novel idea, understood by few and practiced by still fewer. And the science of the time was not the experimental science that we know today. It was based largely on qualitative observation alone – a big step forward, but not the more objective quantitative testing of nature that we take for granted today.

Some French philosophers (as scientists were then called) were, however, dabbling in quantitative experimental science, and Jefferson was interested. Antoine Lavoisier, later known as "The Father of Modern Chemistry," had taken the understanding of elements and compounds from the realm of qualitative observation and into a new world of quantitative predictability. He discovered the role of oxygen in combustion, named oxygen and hydrogen, constructed an early list of elements, and helped develop a metric system that could measure all things. Like so many of his fellow nobles of the time, Corvoisier was guillotined in 1794.

In a letter to the "the Rev. James Madison" from Paris on July 19, 1788, Jefferson wrote,

Speaking one day with Monsieur de Buffon [the great French naturalist who piqued Jefferson by contending that the animal species of the Americas were inferior to, and smaller than, those of Europe], on the present ardor of chemical inquiry, he affected to consider chemistry as cookery, and to place the toils of the laboratory on a footing with those of the kitchen. I think it, on the contrary, among the most useful of sciences, and big with future discoveries for the utility and safety of the human race. It is yet, indeed, a mere embryon. Its principles are contested; experiments seem contradictory; their subjects are so minute as to escape our senses; and their result too fallacious to satisfy the mind. It is probably an age too soon, to propose the establishment of a system. The attempt, therefore, of Lavoisier to reform the chemical nomenclature, is premature.

This being medicine and science at the time of Jefferson's appearance in Paris – two separate and nearly unrelated endeavors – what would the new minister from the United States have seen of French medicine in his time there?

He would have known the Hotel Dieu adjacent to Notre Dame on Ile de la Cite (The House of God), and he would have known the Hopital Salpetriere in the southeastern outskirts of town. Images of "then" and "now" are shown below.

It is no wonder that Jefferson was a skeptic about the medicine and doctors of his time. He was witnessing only the first traces of science in medicine. It is impossible to know if he even recognized them as such. In his time the Hotel Dieu was a place where the poor died in wretched squalor. The Hopital Salpetriere was where undesirables of many sorts were housed in their misery. When Jefferson was in Paris, the great men of French scientific medicine were just beginning to change the way that doctors understood and cared for "patients." For example, Dr. Philippe Pinel, chief physician of Hopital Salpetriere from 1895-1826, had not yet identified what we know today as schizophrenia and epilepsy as medical conditions, and to treat them as such. In the meantime, while Jefferson was in Paris, these unfortunate people were separated from civil society as morally flawed, demonically possessed, dangerous, or simply hard to have around. The greatest French contributions to patient care – and to American medicine - would follow Jefferson's departure from France. How I would love to talk with him about all of this!


Bruce Pitts grew up in Rhode Island, attended Yale and then attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and completed his residency in internal medicine at Temple University. In 1982, he joined the Fargo Clinic where he has practiced for the past 30 years. He is married and has two children.

His lifelong interest in American history comes from two sources: growing up near Plymouth Colony and the seven years he spent in where he became fascinated by American revolutionary history and the found of the nation.

Read Bruce Pitts' blog, Pitts in Paris.

Jefferson's Homes in Paris

Thomas Jefferson lived in four different residences after locating in Paris in 1784. The last and the most enduring was the Hotel de Langeac, where he moved in October 1785 and remained until his departure from Paris in September 1789. The French use the word “hotel” to refer to a variety of large buildings, from mansions to hospitals to city halls. They also use it to refer to “hotels” in the way that the English and Americans do.

A minister to Louix XV, Louis-Phélypeaux de La Vrillère, Comte de Saint-Florentin, later the Duc de La Vrillière (how’s that for a mouthful?) began construction of the mansion in 1768 for his mistress, the Marquise de Langeoc. The house was designed by Jean Francois-Therese Chalgrin. When Louis XVI ascended the throne in 1774 the Marquise’s husband was exiled from the royal court for reasons that are unclear and Vrillere halted construction on the house. In 1777 the Marquise’s son, the Compte de Langeac (full name, Comte Auguste Louis Joseph Fidèle Armand de Lespinasse Langeac) took possession of the house and resumed its construction. In 1785 he rented the place to the Ministre Plenipotentiaire des Etats-Unis, Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson’s new address was 92 Champs-Elysses, at the corner of today’s Rue de Berri. It had two large oval rooms and, quite unusual for the time, two indoor bathrooms. When Jefferson moved in to Hotel de Langeac it sat on the very outskirts of Paris, just inside the Grille de Chaillot toll gate (Paris at that time was much smaller than it is today, and surrounded by city gates made of iron at which city officials collected tolls from those bringing in products for sale at market. These gates are remembered in the names of many of today’s subway stops – Porte Dauphine, Quai d’Issy, Porte de Passy).

While living at Langeac Jefferson had a 15 minute walk to the Seine, a 30 minute walk to the Tuilleries from where he could watch the Hotel de Salm being built, and a 40 minute walk to the royal palaces of the Louvre where he would sometimes have official meetings. The walk to the Abbaye Royale de Panthemont, where Patsy was enrolled in school and where she lived, would have taken Jefferson about an hour.

Jefferson’s home served as both a personal refuge and a public meeting place. The artist John Trumbell lived there while in Paris. Most famous perhaps is the impromptu visit in August, 1789 by General LaFayette and seven of his distressed colleagues from the National Assembly’s Committee on the New Constitution. Things were heating up on the eve of the French Revolution, and these men looked to Jefferson for counsel. They also looked to him for dinner. Jefferson’s appointment as minister to France required that he interact with the government of King Louis XVI and not with those seeking to alter that government. Despite the discomfort inherent in the circumstances, Jefferson later referred to the conversation that evening as one of the most enlightened of his lifetime.

When Jefferson left the Hotel de Langeac on September 26, 1789, he fully expected to return. It was during his trip to the United States that the new president, George Washington, asked him to serve as the nation’s first Secretary of State. Jefferson never went back to Paris. His furniture and possessions were packed up in forty-six crates and shipped to Monticello.

The Hotel de Langeac was demolished in 1842. The building that replaced it houses, among other things, a Monoprix store – a combination department store and grocery store chain.

As one walks along the front of this building toward Place de la Concorde, past ritzy shops, the Arc de Triomphe at your back, dodging dense throngs of focused Parisians and wandering tourists, one passes an iron-gated doorway. To its left is a marble plaque with gold letters.

When translated it reads:

In this place resided Thomas Jefferson
Minister of the United States to France 1785–1789
President of the United States 1801–1809
Author of the American Declaration of Independence
Founder of the University of Virginia

This plaque was affixed on the 13th of April 1919, by the care of former students of the University of Virginia, soldiers of the World War, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the university.


Bruce Pitts grew up in Rhode Island, attended Yale and then attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and completed his residency in internal medicine at Temple University. In 1982, he joined the Fargo Clinic where he has practiced for the past 30 years. He is married and has two children.

His lifelong interest in American history comes from two sources: growing up near Plymouth Colony and the seven years he spent in where he became fascinated by American revolutionary history and the found of the nation.

Read Bruce Pitts' blog, Pitts in Paris.