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Jefferson’s New York City… and its surprising role in his European travels

Updated: Apr 12

If you’ve seen Hamilton, you know that Jefferson arrived in New York City from France to join a government-in-progress (“What did I miss?”). He’d live there for nearly six months.

Less well known is the role that New York played in Jefferson’s travels in Europe, both before he left and while he was there. Here are some spots in the Big Apple that made an impact on Jefferson—which you can still see today.

Pit Stop

Jefferson had visited NYC briefly as a young man, but really got to know the city for the first time while on his way to Europe. He spent about a week there in 1784 before he caught his ship.

New York was America’s greatest port, and Jefferson wanted to learn about its maritime commerce to better do his job as an ambassador, taking extensive notes on everything from the whaling ships that left from the city to what duties were placed on hats and beer. Today you can visit South Street Seaport—which recreates a later period (several decades after TJ’s visit), but still evokes New York’s early seafaring past.

New York Harbor.

Also wanting to get a sense of the Revolutionary War’s impact on New York, Jefferson tramped around the site of the Battle of Fort Washington, commemorated in today’s Bennett Park in Washington Heights. It also happened to be the highest point in the city—and when discovering a new place, Jefferson always loved to find the loftiest vantage point he could to “have a view of the town and its environs.”

Before he left the city, Jefferson did what every tourist in New York loves to do: he went shopping. He stocked up whatever he thought he’d need for his trip to Europe, including maps, a chess set, and even a Spanish dictionary. The ultimate overachiever, Jefferson planned to teach himself Spanish on the ocean crossing.

Marching orders

While in Paris, Jefferson sent well over a hundred diplomatic updates to the Department of Foreign Affairs, which was based in New York, then the U.S. capital. One of those letters, to his boss John Jay, asked for forgiveness, not permission. Ambassador Jefferson had set out on a personal trip into the north of Italy—and only told Jay about it after he had already left.

Surprisingly, Jay and the Foreign Affairs office worked out of leased offices in Fraunces Tavern. Today you can visit their museum, then stop in for a drink in their restaurant and bar while pondering how much work the bureaucrats got done out of a tavern.  After a pint or two, Jay probably didn’t mind so much that America’s ambassador to France was AWOL.

Fraunces Tavern, the best site for a government office ever.

TJ returned home to Virginia at the end of 1789, intending to only sort out some affairs and then go right back to Paris. But after he learned that he had been named Secretary of State, he never made that return voyage. Today, you can visit Federal Hall, the seat of the government (later rebuilt), where the Senate confirmed Jefferson in office.

End of the Line

Jefferson’s time in New York was tumultuous; he and Hamilton fought over nearly everything. President Washington tried to bring his cabinet together, even going on a sort of team-building exercise up to the Morris-Jumel house, his headquarters during the Revolution.

A few weeks later, the two adversaries broke bread together. In June, 1790, at his house on Maiden Lane (in today’s Financial District), TJ made what some later called the dinner table bargain, cutting a deal which included moving the capital to the new city of Washington, D.C.

The plaque where it happened.

But even though Jefferson deprived New York of its status as the capital, there were no hard feelings. In 1800, NYC voters overwhelmingly supported the Virginian—helping him win the presidency.


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