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JEFFERSON in His Own Time
A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates
University of Iowa Press
Copyright © 2012 University of Iowa Press
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Chapter One [A Conversation Always Varied and Interesting] (1782)
François Jean, Marquis de Chastellux
A professional soldier, polished author, and brilliant conversationalist, the Marquis de Chastellux was equally at home on the battlefield, at his desk, or in the Paris salons. He was an accomplished author, having already written a number of works including, most importantly, De la félicité publique (1772), a groundbreaking study of social history and the history of social institutions. Chastellux first came to America as a major general in the French Expeditionary Forces, third in command under General Rochambeau. During the American Revolution, Chastellux occasionally obtained leave from the service to travel through the United States and witness democracy in its genesis. In one trip, he traveled from Newport, Rhode Island, to Philadelphia. Since the French navy sailed with a printing press, Chastellux had a small edition of his travel journal printed to distribute to friends. Voyage de Newport à Philadelphie, as he titled this volume of travels, shows his powers of observation and his keen understanding of the American way of life. During another trip, he took a tour of Virginia. He combined the text of the Newport edition with his Virginia journal and published them together as Voyages ... dans l'Amérique Septentrionale or, as the English translation was titled, Travels in North-America. A delightfully picaresque account of his American experiences, Chastellux's Voyages is the finest travel narrative to emerge from the era of the Revolutionary War.
On his tour through Virginia, Chastellux and his sizeable entourage approached Monticello on Saturday, 13 April 1782. Unsure of the precise route, they encountered an Irish emigrant and horsetrader, who led them to the foot of the Southwest Mountains. What Chastellux wrote about Jefferson's home constitutes the most detailed account of Monticello as it stood in the early 1780s. His description indicates what Jefferson had finished up to this point as well as what he had yet to complete when he remodeled it during the 1790s. Furthermore, Chastellux's account verifies that Jefferson not only designed the building, but he was also helping to build it. His description indicates how Monticello looked before Jefferson remodeled it during the 1790s. Chastellux's characterization of Jefferson's manner jibes with what many others would say. He seemed cold at first but, among kindred spirits, he quickly warmed up. During the four days Chastellux spent at Monticello the conversation embraced many subjects and took many different directions. Chastellux's digressions are included in the following extract because, as he admits, they closely resemble his conversation with Jefferson. Not all the time the two spent together at Monticello was filled with conversation, however. They also played chess, as their subsequent correspondence confirms. Whether talking about literature, playing games of skill, or walking through the woods, Chastellux came to know Jefferson well enough during his time at Monticello to write a flattering character sketch of him, which Jefferson, as he told its author, "read with a continued blush from beginning to end, as it presented me a lively picture of what I wish to be, but am not. No, my dear Sir," he continued, "the thousand millionth part of what you there say, is more than I deserve" (Jefferson, Papers 8: 467).
ON THE SUMMIT [...] we discovered the house of Mr. Jefferson, which stands pre-eminent in these retirements; it was himself who built it and preferred this situation; for although he possessed considerable property in the neighbourhood, there was nothing to prevent him from fixing his residence wherever he thought proper. But it was a debt nature owed to a philosopher and a man of taste, that in his own possessions he should find a spot where he might best study and enjoy her. He calls his house Monticello, (in Italian, Little Mountain,) a very modest title, for it is situated upon a very lofty one, but which announces the owner's attachment to the language of Italy; and above all to the fine arts, of which that country was the cradle, and is still the asylum. As I had no farther occasion for a guide, I separated from the Irishman; and after ascending by a tolerably commodious road, for more than half an hour, we arrived at Monticello. This house, of which Mr. Jefferson was the architect, and often one of the workmen, is rather elegant, and in the Italian taste, though not without fault; it consists of one large square pavilion, the entrance of which is by two porticos ornamented with pillars. The ground floor consists chiefly of a very large lofty saloon, which is to be decorated entirely in the antique style: above it is a library of the same form, two small wings, with only a ground floor, and attic story, are joined to this pavillion, and communicate with the kitchen, offices, etc. which will form a kind of basement story over which runs a terrace. My object in this short description is only to show the difference between this, and the other houses of the country; for we may safely aver, that Mr. Jefferson is the first American who has consulted the fine arts to know how he should shelter himself from the weather. But it is on himself alone I ought to bestow my time. Let me describe to you a man, not yet forty, tall, and with a mild and pleasing countenance, but whose mind and understanding are ample substitutes for every exterior grace. An American, who without ever having quitted his own country, is at once a musician, skilled in drawing, a geometrician, an astronomer, a natural philosopher, legislator, and statesman. A senator of America, who sat for two years in that famous Congress which brought about the revolution; and which is never mentioned without respect, though unhappily not without regret: a governor of Virginia, who filled this difficult station during the invasions of [Benedict] Arnold, of [William] Phillips, and of [Lord] Cornwallis; a philosopher, in voluntary retirement from the world, and public business, because he loves the world, inasmuch only as he can flatter himself with being useful to mankind; and the minds of his countrymen are not yet in a condition either to bear the light, or to suffer contradiction. A mild and amiable wife, charming children, of whose education he himself takes charge, a house to embellish, great provisions to improve, and the arts and sciences to cultivate; these are what remain to Mr. Jefferson, after having played a principal character on the theatre of the new world, and which he preferred to the honourable commission of Minister Plenipotentiary in Europe. The visit which I made him was not unexpected, for he had long since invited me to come and pass a few days with him, in the centre of the mountains; notwithstanding which I found his first appearance serious, nay even cold; but before I had been two hours with him we were as intimate as if we had passed our whole lives together; walking, books, but above all, a conversation always varied and interesting, always supported by that sweet satisfaction experienced by two persons, who in communicating their sentiments and opinions, are invariably in unison, and who understand each other at the first hint, made four days pass away like so many minutes.
This conformity of sentiments and opinions on which I insist, because it constitutes my own eulogium, (and self-love must somewhere show itself,) this conformity, I say, was so perfect, that not only our taste was similar, but our predilections also, those partialities which cold methodical minds ridicule as enthusiastic, whilst sensible and animated ones cherish and adopt the glorious appellation. I recollect with pleasure that as we were conversing one evening over a bowl of punch, after Mrs. Jefferson had retired, our conversation turned on the poems of Ossian. It was a spark of electricity which passed rapidly from one to the other; we recollected the passages in those sublime poems, which particularly struck us, and entertained my fellow travellers, who fortunately knew English well, and were qualified to judge of their merit, though they had never read the poems. In our enthusiasm the book was sent for, and placed near the bowl, where, by their mutual aid, the night far advanced imperceptibly upon us. Sometimes natural philosophy, at others politics or the arts, were the topics of our conversation, for no object had escaped Mr. Jefferson; and it seemed as if from his youth he had placed his mind, as he has done his house, on an elevated situation, from which he might contemplate the universe.
The only stranger who visited us during our stay at Monticello, was Colonel Armand [Charles-Armand Tuffin, marquis de La Rouërie], whom I have mentioned in the first part of my Journal; he had been in France the preceding year with Colonel [John] Laurens, but returned soon enough to be present at the siege of York, where he marched as a volunteer at the attack of the redoubts. His object in going to France, was to purchase clothing and accoutrements complete for a regiment he had already commanded, but which had been so roughly handled in the campaigns to the southward, that it was necessary to form it anew: he made the advance of the necessaries to Congress, who engaged to provide men and horses. Charlotteville, a rising little town, situated in a valley two leagues from Monticello, being the quarter assigned for assembling this legion, Colonel Armand invited me to dine with him the next day, where Mr. Jefferson and I went, and found the legion under arms. It is to be composed of 200 horse and 150 foot. The horse was almost complete and very well mounted; the infantry was still feeble, but the whole were well clothed, well armed, and made a very good appearance. We dined with Colonel Armand, all the officers of his regiment, and a wolf he amuses himself in bringing up, which is now ten months old, and is as familiar, mild, and gay as a young dog; he never quits his master, and has constantly the privilege of sharing his bed. It is to be wished that he may always answer so good an education, and not resume his natural character as he advances to maturity. He is not quite of the same kind with ours, his skin is almost black, and very glossy; he has nothing fierce about the head, so that were it not for his upright ears and pendent tail, one might readily take him for a dog. Perhaps he owes the singular advantage of not exhaling a bad smell, to the care which is taken of his toilet; for I remarked that the dogs were not in the least afraid of him, and that when they crossed his trace, they paid no attention to it. But it appears improbable, that all the neatness in the world can deceive the instinct of those animals, which have such a dread of wolves, that they have been observed, in the King's garden at Paris, to raise their coats and howl at the smell only of two mongrels, engendered by a dog and a she-wolf. I am inclined therefore to believe, that this peculiarity belongs to the species of black wolf, for they have our species also in America; and in Europe we may possibly have the black kind, for so it may be conjectured at least from the old proverb: "He is as much afraid of me as of a grey wolf," which implies that there are also black ones.
Since I am on the subject of animals, I shall mention here some observations which Mr. Jefferson enabled me to make upon the wild beasts which are common in this country. I have been a long time in doubt whether to call them roebucks, stags, or deer, for in Canada they are known by the first name, in the eastern provinces by the second, and in the southern by the third. Besides, in America, their nomenclatures are so inaccurate, and their observations so slight, that no information can be acquired by examining the people of the country. Mr. Jefferson amused himself by raising a score of these animals in his park; they are become very familiar, which happens to all the animals of America; for they are in general much easier to tame than those of Europe. He amuses himself by feeding them with Indian corn, of which they are very fond, and which they eat out of his hand. I followed him one evening into a deep valley, where they are accustomed to assemble towards the close of the day, and saw them walk, run, and bound: but the more I examined their paces, the less I was inclined to annex them to any particular species in Europe; they are absolutely of the same colour as the roebuck, and never change even when they are tamed, which often happens to deer. Their horns, which are never more than a foot and a half long, and have more than four branches on each side, are more open and broader than those of the roebuck; they take an oblique direction in front; their tails are from eight to ten inches long, and when they leap they carry them almost vertical like the deer; resembling those animals not only in their proportions, but in the form of their heads which are longer and less frizzled than those of the roebuck. They differ also from that species, as they are never found in pairs. From my own observations, in short, and from all I have been able to collect on the subject, I am convinced that this kind is peculiar to America, and that it may be considered something betwixt the deer and roebuck. Mr. Jefferson being no sportsman, and not having crossed the seas, could have no decided opinion on this part of natural history; but he has not neglected the other branches. I saw with pleasure that he had applied himself particularly to meteorological observation, which, in fact, of all the branches of philosophy, is the most proper for the Americans to cultivate, from the extent of their country, and the variety of their situations, which give them in this point a great advantage over us, who in other respects have so many over them. Mr. Jefferson has made, with Mr. [James] Madison, a well informed professor of mathematics, some correspondent observations on the reigning winds at Williamsburgh, and Monticello; and although these two places are at the distance only of fifty leagues, and not separated by any chain of mountains, the difference of their results was, that for 127 observations on the northeast wind at Williamsburgh, there were only 32 at Monticello, where the northwest wind in general supplies the place of the northeast. This latter appears to be a sea-wind, easily counteracted by the slightest obstacle, insomuch that twenty years since it was scarcely ever felt beyond West-Point; that is to say beyond the conflux of the Pawmunkey and the Matapony, which unite and form York river, near thirty-five miles from its mouth. Since the progress of population and agriculture has considerably cleared the woods, it penetrates so far as Richmond, which is thirty miles farther. It may hence be observed, first, that the winds vary infinitely in their obliquity, and in the height of their region. Secondly, that nothing is more essential than the manner in which we proceed in the clearing of a country, for the salubrity of the air, nay even the order of the seasons, may depend on the access which we allow the winds, and the direction we may give them. It is a generally received opinion at Rome, that the air is less healthy since the felling of a large forest situated between that city and Ostia, which defended it from the winds known in Italy by the names of the Scirocco and the Libico. It is believed in Spain also, that the excessive droughts, of which the Castilians complain more and more, are occasioned by the cutting down of the woods, which used to attract and break the clouds in their passage. There is yet a very important consideration upon which I thought it my duty to fix the attention of the learned in this country, whatever diffidence I may have of my own knowledge in philosophy, as well as on every other subject. The greatest part of Virginia is very low and flat, and so divided by creeks and great rivers, that it appears absolutely redeemed from the sea, and an entire new creation; it is consequently very swampy, and can be dried only by the cutting down a great quantity of wood; but as on the other hand it can never be so drained as not still to abound with mephitical exhalations; and of whatever nature these exhalations may be, whether partaking of fixed or inflammable air, it is certain that vegetation absorbs them equally, and that trees are the most proper to accomplish this object. It appears equally dangerous either to cut down or to preserve a great quantity of wood; so that the best manner of proceeding to clear the country, would be to disperse the settlements as much as possible, and to leave some groves of trees standing between them. In this manner the ground inhabited would be always healthy; and as there yet remain considerable marshes which they cannot drain, there is no risk of admitting the winds too easily, as they would serve to carry off the exhalations.
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