Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Botany - 1791 Thomas Jefferson & James Madison embark on a "Botanizing Excursion"

"The year was 1791, Jefferson, then Secretary of State under George Washington, was embroiled in various political & personal matters. His ideological vision for America, in conflict with the governmental system espoused by Alexander Hamilton, was causing political relationships to crumble & his already strained friendship with John Adams to deteriorate further. Consequently, Jefferson’s month-long “botanizing excursion” through New England with James Madison in June was the subject of much speculation that summer. 

"Hamilton & other political adversaries were convinced that this lengthy vacation of two Republican Virginians through Federalist strongholds in the North had secret, ulterior motives. It would seem likely that, as Jefferson historian Merrill Peterson surmised, while the 2 future presidents “bounced along in leisurely fashion, their conversation must have turned occasionally to politics.” Yet, apparently the trip was innocent of intrigue & intended exclusively for, in Madison’s words, “health recreation & curiosity.” This goal was successfully achieved, for both Jefferson’s “periodical” migraines & Madison’s “bilious attacks” vanished in the nearly 4 weeks they spent walking over historic battlefields, studying botanical curiosities, wildlife & insects (including “musketoes” & the Hessian fly), recording observations on climate, the seasons & the appearance of birds, & even boating & fishing in Lake George & Lake Champlain. 

"Their journey did, nevertheless, incorporate elements of a working vacation, for Jefferson was seeking ways to advance the new nation through alternative domestic industries. He believed his most recent idea—the addition “to the products of the U. S. of three such articles as oil, sugar, & upland rice”—would lessen America’s reliance on foreign trade, improve the lot of farmers, & ultimately result in the abolition of slavery itself. At that time a Quaker activist & philanthropist Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, himself an ardent opponent of slavery, was seeking ways to convince political leaders & slave owners to create a sugar maple industry in America, convinced it would “lessen or destroy the consumption of West Indian sugar, & thus indirectly to destroy negro slavery.” Jefferson took up the cause of Benjamin Rush, becoming a conscientious consumer of maple sugar... In a letter to a friend in England, Jefferson expressed the political & humanitarian benefits of commercial independence when he wrote, “What a blessing to substitute a sugar which requires only the labour of children, for that which it is said renders the slavery of the blacks necessary.” 

What drew this unlikely vacation getaway pair together?  Jefferson & Madison were both born into well-established Virginia families, attended prestigious schools, & earned high marks. They shared an interest in industry & government, & each eventually became President Of The United States. They were energetic & ambitious.  Both Madison & Jefferson were generally respected by their contemporaries in 1791. They both owned slaves, yet each spoke against the concept of slavery.  Madison was realistic & pragmatic. Jefferson was imaginative & creative, he even proposed that the constitution be changed every 19 years.  Madison generally did not give his slaves grueling or tedious tasks, reflecting his practical management approach. Jefferson, on the other hand, micro-managed his slaves to do very specific things such as clean his horse so well there was not a spot of dirt on it.  Jefferson was very serious, while Madison would often tell jokes. And both seemed to find discovering botanical "curiosities" a relaxing project.

Excerpt from this 2004 Twinleaf article by Peggy Cornett, Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants