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jefferson the traveler

As a youth, Jefferson only left Virginia once (going as far north as New York), but he did travel all over the colony. As a delegate to the Continental Congress, he shuttled back and forth between Monticello and Philadelphia and made observations along the way.


But his greatest travels came during a time in his life that’s not as well-known as his Revolutionary or Presidential years, from the back catalogue of his biography. In 1784, Jefferson headed north for Boston, where he sailed to Paris. He would be gone for five years. As minister to France, he took every opportunity to explore that country. Trips for both business and pleasure took him to England, the Netherlands and what is now Germany and Italy.

These journeys wrenched him out of the darkest period of his life. He had sailed to France as an ambassador a broken man, stricken by migraines and full of grief for his late wife and humiliation from a political scandal. His European travel taught him to observe the world more closely and rediscover both its hidden beauty and eternal truths. He traveled with an odometer and made constant notes: on the temperature, on the crops in the fields, on the wines he tasted, on technology he saw and inventions he dreamed up. 


But he also found cautionary tales on the road: corruption, entrenched aristocracy, extreme poverty, and a lack of will to fix problems. His travels allowed him to appreciate the democracy, republican virtues, and energy of his country even more. Back from his travels, he became the Jefferson we know today.


He also came back with a lot of stuff: 88 crates worth when he sailed back, and that was just the first shipment. There were books, furniture, paintings, sheet music, piano and guitar, a new carriage, marble fixtures, new rice and figs to plant, and much more. He stuffed Monticello full of these tangible reminders of his travels. Some are still there today.

After a month-long sojourn in New York and New England with James Madison in 1791, Jefferson’s greatest trips were behind him. But he would spend the rest of his life reading books on travel, corresponding with friends abroad, and retelling his favorite stories of the road. And, of course, he had preserved his best travel advice in Hints to Americans Traveling in Europe.

To find out everything you want to know about Thomas Jefferson, except what it’s like to retrace his travels across Europe today, go to

D and J 2018 275th anniversary.png

Checking out some carriages in Provence and communing with Jefferson in Paris on his 275th birthday. Always writing.

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