Randall: Jefferson and Madison in Vt.

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(HOST) Commentator and Champlain College Professor of History Willard Sterne Randall, author of Thomas Jefferson a Life, notes that the third President was the first to visit Vermont.

(RANDALL) By the end of the First Congress in 1791, Thomas Jefferson needed a vacation. The first Secretary of State hated the noise and dirt of the temporary capital at Philadelphia. He sorely needed to get away from a job he’d never wanted. But President Washington had insisted that without Jefferson the new government would be in trouble. Jefferson had long wanted to visit Vermont. He was the frontier farmer’s champion, and he thought of the new state as the frontier ideal – without slavery, an unspoiled Virginia. Only months before, he had personally written the papers admitting Vermont to the Union. When his friend James Madison proposed that they go north for a month, Jefferson jumped at the chance.

Jefferson and Madison rendezvoused in New York City.  Jefferson gave his servant, James Hemings, cash to buy fresh produce.  He would soon free Hemings, convinced, he wrote, that "…nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men." Jefferson and Madison sailed on a fast sloop up the Hudson and met up with James at Poughkeepsie. In a diary Jefferson kept of the trip, he rated each tavern where they stopped and described plants he had never seen before.  When Jefferson reached what he called the Lake Country, his journal burst into bloom with honeysuckle, wild cherry, velvet aspen. The two went fishing on Lake George. They swatted mosquitoes, gnats, black flies. It was as "…sultry hot as Georgia," Jefferson wrote. "Spring and autumn, which make a paradise of Virginia, are rigorous winter here, and a tropical summer breaks on them all at once."

They sailed into a sudden, fierce storm on Lake Champlain and took refuge at Chimney Point’s tavern.  They turned back at Split Rock and retraced their route to Saratoga. Jefferson noted champagne-colored wheat fields stretching up to the Green Mountains. On a bone-jarring carriage ride to Bennington, Madison recorded "…eight miles of a fine fertile valley…" – the Walloomsac. Close-packed were prosperous farms of from fifty to 200 acres. Vermonters were "…mostly emigrants from New England. Their living is extremely plain and economical, particularly in the table and ordinary dress. Their expense is chiefly on their houses, which are of wood and make a good figure but are very scantily furnished."

The weary travelers spent the night at Elijah Dewey’s tavern in Bennington. The next day they went up to Senator Moses Robinson’s and a lavish dinner.  In his low, slow voice, Jefferson urged Vermonters to consider seriously a new cash crop – maple sugar. David Fay was head of the wealthy Fay clan of farmers and merchants. He promised he’d launch a major experiment the next year. Before slipping out of town and riding back to the nation’s business, Jefferson breathlessly catalogued all the natural wonders he had seen in his all-too-brief vacation in Vermont – on strips of birch bark carefully preserved for scholars in the Morgan Library in New York City.

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