When Thomas Jefferson left the United States in 1784 to serve as his fledgling country’s ambassador to France, he was still reeling from the death of his wife, Martha, and the remnants of political scandal in Virginia. Looking for a new beginning, Jefferson traveled in and beyond France whenever his job allowed, collecting items and ideas he would bring home to America. Near the end of his five-year stay, Jefferson summarized these experiences in “Hints to Americans Traveling in Europe.”
Fast forward some two hundred years, Derek Baxter, a Virginia attorney, is approaching 40 and at a crossroads in his life. Baxter comes across Jefferson’s obscure guide and decides to find out how well Jefferson’s 18th-century hints hold up. That launched Baxter and his family on an adventure where they spend parts of the next eight years tracing Jefferson’s footsteps, visiting the places Jefferson saw and reported. Inspired by Jefferson, Baxter learned much about Europe and himself. He also wrestled with his hero’s flawed life and widened his own historical lens. With his new book, “In Pursuit of Jefferson: Traveling through Europe with the Most Perplexing Founding Father,” Baxter tells his own story as he retells Jefferson’s and explores how looking to the past can better prepare us for the future. Baxter recently spoke with GoverningEditor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Governing: What possessed you to take this madcap journey?
Derek Baxter: I have always loved travel, and I wanted to reconnect with history. I’ve always admired Jefferson, for many reasons, and coming across his guide was revelatory. Jefferson was encouraging people back then to do things you can still do today. I was putting myself out there, but I thought this could be a great challenge. I did the majority of the trips with my family, but I did a couple of side trips by myself. Traveling alone makes it easier to meet people, but traveling with people you are close to is also interesting. People in my family saw things in very different ways. It was rewarding to be there altogether, but those side trips made it easier to talk to people one-on-one.
Governing: You visited all 19 of the English gardens that Jefferson saw. How did that experience help you think about Jefferson as he returned to America in 1789?
Derek Baxter: Jefferson was very practical. He wrote very lyrical descriptions of what he saw, but mostly he just made notes about how he might re-create these gardens, about who might want to do this kind of landscaping back home. He couldn’t even wait to get back home. He started behind the Hôtel de Langeac, sketching out plans to redesign his garden there. He had just three-quarters of an acre, but he wanted to do as much as he could with whatever he had. He wrote in his guide that gardening was an art that Americans could quickly achieve. He wanted the aesthetic of the English gardens. They looked wild, but it was all very composed. He took back these ideas. Margaret Bayard Smith noted that when you drove up the roundabout to Monticello in a carriage, it was like going through the wild, but then you emerged on the mountaintop to see ordered fields and meadows. That was part of Jefferson’s message, that we should be proud of our wilderness in America, but that we could also tame the West.
Governing: It’s difficult to understand why Jefferson didn’t continue on to Rome and Naples, or why he didn’t go see the Palladian villas that were just a day or two away.
Derek Baxter: It must have been frustrating for Jefferson. To give the context, he was ambassador to France. He had a job to do. He took leave to go to Aix-en-Provence, ostensibly to take the hot waters there because he had broken his wrist, but that was a bit of a pretext. He had always wanted to go to the south of France, but he did think there could be some public benefit to his trip. He was going to investigate the different seaports in France, like Marseille and Bordeaux, in terms of helping American commerce, which was his job. He was obviously dying to go to Italy. He had grown up reading the classics, and the founders idolized the Romans, much like we idolize the founders today. Jefferson read Latin. He knew the stories. He even named his house with an Italian word. He grew vegetables and gave them Italian names. We can only imagine Thomas Jefferson walking through the Roman Forum. He would’ve thrived there, but he didn’t go. Nor did he go to Vicenza, where Palladio had all those villas. My theory there is that he no longer had the same burning need to see Palladio because, though he was still Palladian, he was starting to look more to 18th-century French Neoclassical architecture. That was his real model at that point. But at the end of the day, I think he just didn’t have the time.
Governing: There’s a moment in your book where you grapple with slavery. How did you, as a lover of liberty, as a lover of Jefferson, negotiate the disillusionment that comes when you realize how pathetic his final responses were to slavery?
Derek Baxter: At first I thought, “That’s a disappointment, but my journey is about his travels in Europe.” But as I kept learning about all of these subjects, from architecture to landscaping to farming, everything kept coming back to slavery. Jefferson kept inspiring me — he invented a plow while in France, he was finding new foods and new crops that he could bring back to the U.S., he was developing a new architectural style — and all this stuff was making the trip so enjoyable. But I finally realized that all of that was dependent on slave labor. His moneymaker wasn’t his government salary. It was his role as a plantation owner. And then I did become disillusioned.
We expect more from Jefferson. He was in the vanguard of America in terms of freedom of religion, promoting science, expanding people’s minds and ideas. He wrote passionately as a younger man about how evil the institution of slavery was. But while he was in France, he retreated. The more I thought about it, the more I felt that I was spending too much time raising Jefferson up. He wouldn’t be in this exalted place if it hadn’t been for the 600 people he enslaved over his lifetime. I wound up spending a lot more time trying to learn the stories of the enslaved people, not just in how they related to Jefferson, but how they lived in their own right. I wanted to understand their stories for their own value. It’s a painful chapter, really more than a chapter because it’s part of the entire story of Jefferson’s life, but it’s one that we as Americans all have to grapple with.
Governing: You took a clever approach to this part of the story by reflecting on three ships that were inextricably bound up with Jefferson and slavery.
Derek Baxter: Slavery was part of Jefferson’s entire life, but I was looking at key moments that showed his evolving stance, what I called his retreat, on slavery. First was the Prince of Wales, a slave ship that John Wayles, Jefferson’s father-in-law, was involved with. Many of the slaves died, and Wayles incurred great debts that were eventually passed on to Jefferson. In my mind, that ship symbolized Jefferson’s debts, which represented one of the reasons he retreated from a gradual abolitionist stance. He was in debt, and he needed enslaved people to generate money. The second ship was the Robert, the one that brought Sally Hemings to Paris. Her son, Madison, said that it was in Paris that she effectively became Jefferson’s concubine, so that ship served for me as an entrée into that whole story. The third ship, the Thomas Jefferson, is one that I found while researching the database of transatlantic slave voyages. A member of the Democratic Republican Party in Rhode Island, a believer in liberty and a Jeffersonian, had named his slave ship the Thomas Jefferson. These were white Americans who believed that Jefferson was championing for their liberty, yet they found it appropriate to name a slave ship after him.
Governing: Can we hold Jefferson accountable without letting him be engulfed by the issue of slavery?
Derek Baxter: Some Jefferson statues have come down, and some districts have changed the name of schools, but there is so much commemoration of Jefferson. He needs to be remembered, but he needs to be put in context. There are many things to admire about him, things he did to set our nation on its path. But when you’re honoring someone, you need to look at the whole balance of their life. That’s the approach that UVA and others are taking now, putting statues in context, remembering Jefferson, but also remembering the enslaved people who worked on his plantations, remembering all of our history. It’s a past that we all share and that we should all fully remember.
Governing: What were some of the great moments for you in traveling in Jefferson’s footsteps?
Derek Baxter: He loved the tiny town of Saorge. It’s in the Alps, so I never would’ve gone there otherwise. It was magical. Everything there is built out of stone. The houses, which are from the Middle Ages, extend for several stories. We hiked, and we swam in a mountain stream so cold that it hurt. Jefferson described all this, but he was also practical. He wanted to bring back the olive trees he saw in Saorge. They didn’t require much water, so he thought they could help poor farmers. Amsterdam was another cool moment. Here, again, Jefferson was at the top of his game as a traveler. He heard a church bell playing music and wrote down the notes. He observed the canal bridges and other innovations of the Dutch, tried foods, bought things. Also, for me, going back to Provence was very meaningful. I had studied there my junior year abroad. Going into the vineyards there is such a direct connection to the past. Jefferson rated these wines. I had always thought wine tasting was kind of pretentious, but I fell in love with it in Provence.
Governing: Jefferson’s travel journals have a wonderful quality to them where he’s always asking if the people look happy.
Derek Baxter: He really did care about the common people in France. And again, you have to ask why was he so concerned about French peasants, yet unconcerned about the people he owned back home? But Jefferson genuinely cared about equality and how the French people lived. He was an ambassador, so he was not supposed to influence internal French policy, but at one point he was advising Lafayette, one of the richest people in France, to go into the homes of peasants and eat their bread, ask for a glass of water, sit on their bed. It was a genuine attempt to see how the real people lived. You don’t see John Adams or George Washington or Alexander Hamilton going into the houses of the poor and striking up a conversation. Jefferson was trying to see where France was going and how he could help. He pushed Lafayette toward a more democratic system in France. He worked behind the scenes on the French Declaration of Rights, which was a precursor to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. That’s something I found admirable in his travels. It wasn’t all wine and architecture.
Governing: After your experiences following Jefferson through Europe, what would you now include in your own guide for travelers?
Derek Baxter: I would crib off Jefferson’s hints, because he did a lot of my thinking for me. Wherever you travel, you have to remember that you only live life once and you may never be in that place again. But don’t go too far in the other direction. Don’t go to a museum and try to see every last object there. You get fatigued, and it all runs together. There’s a “do it yourself” line that runs through all of Jefferson’s advice. He wasn’t on a package tour. He was saying, “Get a guidebook, get a map, get out there. Go to the highest place in the city. Walk around.” He was encouraging people to go out and explore and meet people and make contacts. Jefferson always had a practical side. He was making contacts with wine producers and booksellers so he could order directly from them. It’s always good to make connections. My travel advice — it’s so much easier today than in Jefferson’s time — is to get a flight to Europe, or wherever you want to go, get the maps, get the guidebooks, and create your own journey. Find a purpose, and realize that it’s doable. The pandemic has reminded us all of the joys that going out on the road can bring.
You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the new Governing podcast, “Listening to America.” Clay’s new book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing firstname.lastname@example.org or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.