Following in Jefferson's Footsteps

The author, playing Jefferson in his fourth grade play, and playing Jefferson as an (allegedly) grown man.

I am currently writing In Pursuit of Jefferson: Traveling through Europe with the Most Confounding Founder. In it, I travel through six countries armed with an obscure guide, written by the very unobscure Thomas Jefferson in 1788. He penned his Hints for Americans Traveling in Europe for the sons of two of his wealthy friends embarking on a continental tour. Along with an ambitious itinerary based on his own journeys, he set out subjects to investigate and challenges to accept to turn these carousing proto-frat boys into Renaissance Supermen.

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Travel wrenched Jefferson out of the darkest period of his life. He had sailed to France as an ambassador in 1784 a broken man, stricken by migraines and full of grief for his late wife and humiliation from a political scandal. Jefferson’s European journeys taught him to observe the world more closely and rediscover its hidden beauty and eternal truths. On the road, he smuggled the best rice out of Italy, found his favorite wine, and hit upon inspiration for building Monticello.

 

His advice speaks to me. Like Jefferson when he wrote it, I’m 40-something, from Virginia, and searching for meaning in a life that’s stalled. I check the Hints: they have no expiration date.

Taking notes among the falling leaves at the Palais Royale in Paris.

And so, two centuries later, I become a third American traveling in Europe, on a quest to bring Jefferson’s words back to life while learning more about my guide, his world, and even myself. I find adventure piloting a Dutch canal boat, hiking across the French Alps, making cheese in Italy, and catching codfish in the Atlantic. Come share the journey with me as I follow in Jefferson's footsteps.

The Author

Derek Baxter graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in history. He is writing a book about his experience following the route through Europe that Jefferson set out in Hints to Americans. After years of research, Derek made nine separate trips abroad on Jefferson's trail. 

 

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