Book: Thomas Jefferson’s Travels in Europe, 1784-1789 by George Green Shackelford
If you think of our founding fathers as a bunch of old guys in wigs who had their noses stuck in books and their travels limited to the Eastern Seaboard, think again. Well, the wig part is right.
Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams took advantage of their ambassadorial positions in Europe to see the (civilized) world on adventurous road trips. As a matter of fact, John Adams son, John Quincy Adams even went as far as St. Petersburg, Russia when he was only 14 years old–but that is a story for another day. Today we are tracing the footsteps of Thomas Jefferson’s Travels in Europe, 1784-1789, a continental grand tour that any post grad backpacker traveling in Europe would envy today.
All things considered, the conditions of travel probably did not always rise to the luxury of staying in hostels and traveling third class on the train. And that is one of the things that I liked about this book, it manages to recreate for you, not just the route that Jefferson took, but the conditions of travel of the day. Having to change horses every 10 to 12 miles and changing wheels on the carriage every couple of days meant slow progress, indeed.
At least he did not have to wash his own socks, since he had servants with him to ease the way. Shackelford says, “Jefferson traveled so light that one small trunk held all his clothes, even though he did have a lot of washing done on the way and bought occasional extra clothes, such as canes, gloves, hats, and stockings.”
In between overnights at inns which were of questionable character, Jefferson visited the great houses of Europe, and not because he wanted to be wined and dined in high style. No, always a farmer at heart, he took copious notes about the plant life, the growing season and conditions. He also lugged along with him some books on architecture, another fascination, and studied the new styles of building that he later copied in designing Monticello, the University of Virginia and the State Capitol of Virginia.
Following in this scholarly vein, Shackelford reports, Jefferson purchased guidebooks and maps at each important stop along the way, to help him navigate in foreign lands. The impressive map of his journeys that fronts this book describes three large loops around England, France and the Netherlands into what is now Germany. A smaller loop leads from southern France, along the Mediterranean and up into what is now Italy.
In February 1787 he set out from Paris on a twelve-hundred-mile trip that lasted until early summer.Quite a road trip. Thanks to his journals and letters and strict accounting for expenses–which always seemed to outrun his budget–we have a pretty detailed record of his travels. In a letter to his secretary, William Short, he said, “architecture, painting, sculpture, antiquities, agriculture and and condition of the labouring poor fill all my moments.”
This book, itself scholarly, is crammed with footnotes and a lengthy bibliography. How enticing, though, to think of following Jefferson’s route. Someone needs to make an everyday guidebook of Jefferson’s travels through Europe that we can all follow, but until then, Shakelford’s book can be our travel guide for our own road trip around Europe.
Photo of Jefferson Portrait by “Cliff1066,” Flickr, through Creative Commons. Photo of Map by “histoirepostale,” Flickr, through Creative Commons.