CLAY JENKINSON: The Future In Context — Thomas Jefferson As An American In Paris, Revisited

I flew to Paris a few days ago from Bismarck. A distance of 4,397 miles. I left my house at 11 a.m. CDT and arrived at my hotel in the center of Paris, with layovers, just 18 hours later.

Clay Jenkinson retracing Thomas Jefferson's travels in France. (Clay Jenkinson)
Clay Jenkinson retracing Thomas Jefferson’s travels in France. (Clay Jenkinson)

On the plane (I was in steerage) I was given two pretty good meals, an unlimited supply of alcohol, five bottles of water, a blanket and a headset, with which I watched three full-length Hollywood films to pass the time. I used the bathroom several times during the journey but never had to wait even a minute for access. Nevertheless, by the time I got into my room at the hotel in Paris, I felt clammy and would have liked to have burned my clothes, and yet the white Oxford cloth shirt I wore showed no signs of soilage. I was inside one temperature-controlled space or another for 99.9 percent of the journey. My only physical exertion was to stand up and walk 20 steps to the lavatory and to fetch a couple of things from the overhead bin.

The total cost of the transportation was about a thousand dollars, round trip.

Time and Travel, Then and Now

I’m always amazed (especially when returning from Europe) that I can wake up in a great foreign city and go to bed that same day in the American heartland. According to realistic futurists, we will soon be able to do all of this even more quickly than now. Today’s global mobility systems bring the whole planet into one’s personal orbit, at an affordable price.

As, of course ,you know, it has not always been this way. Here’s a useful and typical reminder of what it was like until very recently.

The U.S. Congress appointed Thomas Jefferson minister to France and other European countries in 1784. He wound up spending five years in France, among the happiest years of his life. He was able to witness the beginnings of the great and cataclysmic French Revolution while in Paris. He regarded the French Revolution as the logical next step after the successful American Revolution of 1774-1783.

In France he fell in love with European high culture — music, dance, architecture, painting, landscape gardening and the art of conversation. He was politically radicalized by observing the “failed state” of France, where a tiny handful of families lived like gods on earth and 20 million could barely put a loaf of dark bread on the table. Accordingly, he wrote a series of amazing and provocative letters to his closest friend, James Madison, about the need to make sure that the United States never reached the state of corruption, inefficiency and decadence of the regime in France. And he fell in love in France with a gifted musician, painter and infamous beauty, Maria Cosway. This was perhaps the last true romance of his life.

It was a period of great satisfaction and creativity for Jefferson, who had grown up on the frontier of western Virginia, and was observing high culture for the first time. Not incidentally, his travels in France made Jefferson the greatest wine aficionado of the New World. France deepened Jefferson’s cultural and political persona. Even now, more than 200 years later, and after considerable souring of the U.S.-France relationship (think of “freedom fries” after 9/11 and France’s opposition to America’s proposed invasion of Iraq), Jefferson is still beloved throughout France.

France Left a Mark on Jefferson, and America

Jefferson’s life was changed by his France sojourn. When he returned home in November 1789, he transformed the life of America by way of ideas and innovations he absorbed in Europe, among which were neoclassical state capitol architecture, the dome at Monticello and his idea — stubbornly adhered to through the rest of his life, that “the world belongs to the living not the dead.”

But here’s what it took for Jefferson to get to Paris in 1784. He was traveling with his 11-year-old daughter, Martha (Patsy), and a 19-year-old enslaved man named James Hemings. The famous Sally Hemings and his daughter Maria (Polly) would join Jefferson in 1787.

The journey from Monticello in Virginia to Boston took two weeks. They were traveling in a vehicle called a phaeton (a type of wheeled carriage), which meant horses and someone to drive them. The distance was approximately 553 miles, a hard series of days on the road, at a speed of approximately two miles per hour. Nights would have to be spent at miserable hostelries or private homes where people were willing to take in weary travelers. The food would be basic (Jefferson’s term would be “indifferent”) and the sleeping arrangements were not for the faint of heart. Frequently, at the time, complete strangers wound up in the same bed together for lack of space.

All that just to get to Boston! Once there, Jefferson had to make inquiries about ships leaving for northern Europe. There was no regular schedule for this transatlantic traffic. Booking in advance was virtually impossible in a world without an Internet or reliable postal service. All Jefferson could do was hope a ship was departing for somewhere in Europe “soon” and that he could obtain passage. “Soon” could mean a couple of days. It could mean a couple of months. It could mean “next spring.”

Setting Sail for the Old World

Having found a ship called the Ceres, soon to depart for England, Jefferson booked passage for himself, his daughter and James Hemings. Hemings would have had to sleep in some squalid corner of the boat, well away from his white owners. This would have been true if he were a white servant, too.

The Ceres embarked July 5, 1784, one day after America’s 12th birthday. It was, Martha Jefferson reported, a remarkably easy and smooth passage. The Ceres crossed the northern Atlantic and reached the Isle of Wight in just 19 days, just about as fast a transatlantic passage as was possible in the age of wind. Jefferson later reported at a dinner party that he had learned Spanish during those 2½ weeks with a dictionary and a copy of Cervantes’ Don Quixote.” John Quincy Adams, who heard this big claim, and who was not a particular fan of Jefferson, just rolled his eyes. The Ceres was scarcely larger than a modern yacht and infinitely less comfortable. The Jeffersons brought their own food and wine.

When the Jefferson party reached the Old World, they made an unscheduled stop in Portsmouth, the home of the British Navy, because Martha was ill. She was attended to by a British naval doctor. A few days later, they made the perilous crossing of the English Channel — in about nine hours. Father and daughter both had green stomachs.

When they arrived in Le Havre on July 31, 1784, they were cheated by local longshoremen and porters. Jefferson said it cost as much to get their baggage from the ferry to the port as it had cost to carry it all the way from Boston to England.

Concierge Is the Polite French Name …

It took the Jefferson party six days to travel from Le Havre to Paris. To make things easier, if you can imagine this, Jefferson sent his slave James Hemings on ahead to make arrangements for hotels, horses and food. Just how a bewildered 19-year-old Black man who spoke no French and had never been out of the enslaved frontier of Virginia and the colonies was expected to accomplish this is altogether unclear, but the world of slavery was filled with such exhibitions of arrogance and indifference by white “masters.”

They arrived in Paris on Aug. 6. They had been “on the road” for five weeks. (Where would I be willing to travel if it took five weeks? Where would you?) Jefferson had been advised to begin his stay at the Hôtel d’Orléans. This he dutifully did, only to discover that Paris hosted two Hôtels d’Orléans and this was the wrong one! After a few days they moved to the better hôtel by the same name. The first thing Jefferson did was call in tailors to measure himself, his daughter and his enslaved valet for clothes appropriate for life in the culture and fashion capital of the world, Paris.

Soon Jefferson would write to his friend, Charles Bellini, back home, “Behold me at length on the vaunted scene of Europe. … You are perhaps curious to know how this new scene has struck a savage of the mountains of America.” Short answer: Life might be more basic in America, but it was happier and more virtuous. European sophistication was magnetic, but did it comport with the small-r republican virtues Jefferson regarded as essential to American happiness?

Which of us would travel today under such circumstances? On the longest leg of my recent journey, just over seven hours, I was annoyed when the person in the next seat snored and leaned into my seat. If the in-flight entertainment package had failed, there would have been trouble on board, “mutiny on the Boeing.” We are spoiled these days, or perhaps the miracles of modern technology have just brought us to take smooth sailing for granted.

Jefferson and his traveling companions were lucky. They did not strike a reef, get attacked by Mediterranean pirates or British cruisers or survive heart-stomping storms. In his usual serene and fastidious way, Jefferson ascertained the ship’s latitude and longitude each day, reported on whales and dolphins and recorded the temperature.

Come by Plane, Come by Train, We’re in the Same Boat Now

I write this little review of travel history while soaring along at more than 200 km per hour on one of France’s fast (TGV) trains.

Before the train whistled us aboard, I used my American ATM card to get a couple of hundred euros in the railroad terminal. The era of American Express Travelers Cheques is over. Almost all the borders in Europe are open. I remember entering the former Yugoslavia at Trieste once long ago when Marshal Tito was still alive. The train stopped for more than an hour as we entered the Communist country, and I was made to walk about 200 yards through the dark to present my passport and visa in a tiny cinderblock building illuminated by a single hanging lightbulb. Today, we whisk across national boundaries with nonchalance.

You can perhaps imagine border crossings in Jefferson’s time, when a passport was a unique document specially drawn up for a traveling party. Getting local currency, exchanging money, opening a line of credit at a hotel were all a comparative nightmare. And yet Jefferson never complained. No matter what era we inhabit, we accept the protocols of the world as they are offered to us. You didn’t visit Europe for a week or two back then, but once or twice in a lifetime and for extended periods.

Now we approach Nice on the south coast of France, “the land of corn, oil and sunshine,” as Jefferson put it. The Cote d’Azur is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. In Nimes, we visited the fabulous Maison Carrée, the first-century Greek temple built by the nephews of the first Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar. Jefferson chose it as the model for the new state capitol in Richmond, Va. He told people it was worth a trip across the Atlantic to gaze on its serene classical beauty. He was right, but “trip across the Atlantic” turns out to be a relative term.

You can also 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 Governing podcast, Listening to America.” Clay’s most recent book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through AmazonBarnes 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 cjenkinson@governing.com or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.

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