About the Trip
In 1788, Thomas Jefferson wrote a long letter to two young Americans who had just set out on a tour of the Old World. Being Jefferson, he wasn’t content with giving them just a list of names of places to see. Instead he gave them practical advice on how to travel. And he set out eight Objects of Attention that a traveling American should investigate: agriculture, mechanical arts, lighter mechanical arts and manufactures, gardens, architecture, painting and statuary, politics, and courts (perfidious royal courts that is).
Jefferson must have seen his advice as transcending the trip of the two Americans, because he didn’t just write it in the form of a letter. He called his guide Hints to Americans Traveling in Europe.
Read the travel advice Jefferson wrote for the two young
Americans who had embarked on a continental tour.
Over two centuries later, I became an American Traveling in Europe. Not being blessed with a suitcase full of cash or a job that didn’t mind me vanishing for months on end, I instead broke down the itinerary into manageable segments. I’ve been completing it over a series of years. And I’ve found out plenty about the places and subjects Jefferson wanted us to learn about—just not always the lessons Jefferson intended to give.
Maps depicting our route following Jefferson's Hints to Americans Traveling in Europe.
And who were the Original Americans Traveling in Europe? The sons of prominent friends of Jefferson, Thomas Shippen Jr. and John Rutledge were setting out on the Grand Tour, the famous route taken by aristocratic youth of the time. They had a taste of the good life, spending more times in the spas of Europe than investigating agricultural pests as Jefferson would have preferred. But they nonetheless dutifully followed his Hints and learned a few things on the way.
John Rutledge, Jr.
The son of a fabulously wealthy planter from South Carolina, John Rutledge, Jr., was only 23 when he took the trip. He later went on to become a Federalist congressman and Jefferson foe. He apparently didn’t absorb Jefferson’s lessons in Hints to stay clear of the trappings of aristocracy, because he sported a wicked coat-of-arms and also later killed his wife’s lover in a duel.
Thomas Lee Shippen
Thomas Lee Shippen, also 23, jumped at the chance to take a break from his law studies in England, such as they were, to join Rutledge on the road trip. (He allegedly was spending more time chasing women than legal precedents anyway.) In Europe, Good Time Tommy ran through his money too quickly and had to abandon the trip in Italy. He later married into the fabulously wealthy Byrd family but contracted a series of ailments, dying of tuberculosis at the age of 33.
*Not an actual picture of Thomas Shippen. If you can get your hands on one (in the public domain), please let me know. No questions asked.
They were joined en route by a third Traveler, Jefferson’s 28 year-old private secretary in Paris, William Short. Used to bossing him around, Jefferson gave Short some specific commissions during the trip. Short bought him wine, a pasta maker, and marble chimney pieces. If nothing else, the trip got Short out of Paris, where he was having a torrid affair with the daughter of a French nobleman. Short later went on to serve as an ambassador in Europe and make a killing in New York state real estate upon his return to America. And unlike the other slaveowners in this story, he freed his slaves and advocated for abolition.