Modern history




Foaled, not born, Virginia planters were said to be. They would go five miles to catch a horse in order to ride one mile afterward.

As one scholar put it, “In a country without large settlements and where plantation seats were far apart, riding was not a matter of occasional diversion but daily necessity, and good horsemanship was taken for granted among the gentry.”1 They had to be experts in the judging, feeding, breeding, and care of horses.

From the time he was able to sit astride a horse, Meriwether Lewis was a fine, fearless rider. He became an excellent judge of horses and an expert in their care. Jefferson, believing that the taming of the horse had resulted in the degeneracy of the human body, urged the young to walk for exercise. Lewis took his advice and became a great hiker, with feet as tough as his butt. As a boy and young man, he went barefoot, in the Virginia manner. Jefferson’s grandson claimed not to have worn shoes until he was ten. According to Jefferson, the young Lewis hunted barefoot in the snow.2

Like riding and hiking, dancing was taken for granted. Indeed, dancing was little short of a social necessity. “Virginians are of genuine blood,” said one traveler. “They will dance or die.” Like Jefferson, Lewis learned to dance the minuet, reels, and country dances at Reverend Maury’s school. One diarist wrote in the year of Lewis’s birth, “Any young gentleman, travelling through the Colony . . . is presumed to be acquainted with dancing, boxing, playing the fiddle, and small sword, and cards.”3 There is no evidence that Lewis learned to fiddle, but he knew the rest of the list.

By no means were all Virginia planters or their sons paragons of virtue. If there was high-minded and learned political talk around the table, and much idealism and protestation of devotion to the common good, there also were temptations often too strong for healthy, wealthy young men to resist.

Jefferson’s father died when he was a boy. Decades later, in a letter to his grandson, Jefferson wrote in a famous passage:

When I recollect that at 14 years of age the whole care and direction of myself was thrown on my self entirely, without a relative or friend qualified to advise or guide me, and recollect the various sorts of bad company with which I associated from time to time, I am astonished I did not turn off with some of them, and become as worthless to society as they were. . . .

From the circumstances of my position I was often thrown into the society of horseracers, cardplayers, Foxhunters, scientific and professional men, and of dignified men; and many a time I asked myself, in the enthusiastic moment of the death of a fox, the victory of a favorite horse, the issue of a question eloquently argued at the bar or in the great Council of the nation, well, which of these kinds of reputation should I prefer? That of a horse jockey? A foxhunter? An Orator? Or the honest advocate of my country’s rights?4

Quite possibly Jefferson talked to Lewis in the same Polonius-like style in which he wrote his grandson. Certainly Lewis had thoughts similar to those expressed by Jefferson. On his thirty-first birthday, Lewis wrote, in a famous passage, “This day I completed my thirty first year. . . . I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little indeed, to further the hapiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation. I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and now soarly feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended.” He resolved: “In future, to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself.”5

Such high-blown, idealized language—and the sentiments it reflected, along with that heartfelt resolve to do better—was characteristic of the Virginia gentry. It was almost a convention, a part of the social standard, like good manners.

A Virginia gentleman was expected to be hospitable and generous, courteous in his relations with his peers, chivalrous toward women, and kind to his inferiors. There was a high standard of politeness; Jefferson once remarked that politeness was artificial good humor, a valuable preservative of peace and tranquillity. Wenching and other debauchery, heavy drinking, and similar personal vices were common enough, but as long as they did not interfere with relations between members of the gentry they were condoned. The unpardonable sins were lying and meanness of spirit.6

Along with his perseverance, all his life Lewis prided himself on his honesty. These qualities were important for his self-esteem. His word, written and spoken, was his bond.

A less admirable part of the code of the Virginia gentleman was the drinking, which could be excessive. One English traveler just after the revolution described his perception of the typical Albemarle planter. “He rises about eight o’clock, drinks what he calls a julep, which is a large glass of rum sweetened with sugar, then walks, or more generally rides, round his plantation, views his stock, inspects his crops, and returns about ten o’clock to breakfast on cold meat or ham, fried hominy, toast and cider. . . . About twelve or one he drinks a toddy to create him an appetite for dinner, which he sits down to at two o’clock. [He] commonly drinks toddy till bed time; during all this time he is neither drunk nor sober, but in a state of stupefaction. . . . [When] he attends the Court House or some horse race or cock fight he gets so egregiously drunk that his wife sends a couple of negroes to conduct him safe home.”7

One may doubt that this planter was as typical as the Englishman asserted but still regret that such men were among the contemporaries of the teen-aged master of Locust Hill.

Plantation management required attention to detail and sharp observation. In these areas, Lewis excelled. Jefferson described him as “an assiduous and attentive farmer, observing with minute attention all plants and insects he met with.”8

Lewis did not plant or harvest with his own hands. No member of the Virginia gentry did. When Jefferson or Lewis or any other slaveowner said he had planted such-and-so, or that he had built this fence or that building, he did not mean to imply that he had done it with his own hands. His slaves did the work. “It is the poor negroes who alone work hard,” one traveler commented, “and I am sorry to say, fare hard. Incredible is the fatigue which the poor wretches undergo, and it is wonderful that nature should be able to support it.”9

Lewis was successful at adding land to his holdings, something also critical to a Virginia planter. He ran Locust Hill and in addition acquired an eight-hundred-acre tract on the Red River in Montgomery County, took title to 180 acres of land that had belonged to Captain Marks, and secured another parcel in Clarke County.

Such constant expansion was critical, because the Virginia plantation of the day was incredibly wasteful. The low ground or inferior bottomland was planted to corn, to provide food for slaves and animals. Fertile land—identified by hardwood growth—was saved for tobacco. The planters had their slaves gird large trees and leave the trees to die while plowing lightly around them. Slaves created hills for tobacco with a hoe, without bothering to remove the trees. After three annual crops of tobacco, these “fields” grew wheat for a year or so before being abandoned and allowed to revert to pine forest. The planters let their stock roam wild, made no use of animal manure, and practiced only the most rudimentary crop rotation. Meanwhile, the planters moved their slaves to virgin lands and repeated the process. The system allowed the planters to use to the maximum the two things in which they were really rich, land and slaves. Tobacco, their only cash crop, was dependent on an all-but-unlimited quantity of each.

The Virginians’ lust for land and their resulting rage for speculation can only be marveled at. Before the revolution, George Washington owned tens of thousands of acres in the Tidewater and Piedmont and over sixty-three thousand acres of trans-Appalachia. He wanted more.10 Jefferson inherited more than five thousand acres in the Piedmont from his father. He wanted more. From his wife he got another eleven thousand acres. And though he was a substantial landowner, he was not a great one by Virginia standards.11

Tobacco wore out land so fast there could never be enough, but tobacco never brought in enough money to allow planters to get ahead. Their speculation in land was done on credit and promises and warrants, not cash, so they were always land-rich and cash-poor. Small wonder Jefferson was obsessed with securing an empire for the United States.

Tobacco culture represented an all-out assault on the environment for the sake of a crop that did no good and much harm to people’s health as well as to the land, not to mention the political and moral effects of relying on slavery for a labor force. But to Virginia’s planters, even to so inventive a man as Jefferson, there appeared to be no alternative. In fact, an alternative existed right under their noses.

German immigrants, farming in the Shenandoah Valley, had a much different relationship with the land from that of the planters of English stock. The Germans had not received huge grants of land from the English king or the royal governor; they had bought their land, in relatively small holdings. Coming from a country with a tradition of keeping the farm in the same family for generations, even centuries, they were in it for the long haul, not for quick profit. They cleared their fields of all trees and stumps, plowed deep to arrest erosion, housed their cattle in great barns, used manure as fertilizer, and practiced a precise scheme of crop rotation. They worked with their own hands, and their help came from their sons and relatives. No overseer, indentured servant, or slave—men with little interest in the precious undertaking of making a family farm—was allowed near their fields.12

Although Jefferson did not comment on the German farmers in Virginia, he did compare the planters’ practices to those of European farmers and explained that the Europeans were much superior in agriculture for a simple reason: “It [results] from our having such quantities of land to waste as we please. In Europe the object is to make the most of their land, labour being abundant: here it is to make the most of our labour, land being abundant.”13

In the years following the revolution, life on the Virginia plantation had much to recommend it. There was the reality of political independence. There were the balls and dinners, the entertainment. There was freedom of religion. The political talk, about the nature of man and the role of government, has not been surpassed at any time or any place since, and at its best the talk could stand to be compared to the level in ancient Athens.

Life at Monticello in the years after the revolution was delightful to the eye, ear, taste, and intellect. Just imagine an evening as Thomas Jefferson’s guest, following a day of riding magnificent horses over hedges, fields, and rivers, chasing fox or deer or bear. The entertainment would begin with toasts to the successful hunters. The table would be groaning under the weight of sweet potatoes, peas, corn, various breads, nuts, quail, ham, venison, bear, ducks, milk, and beer, all produced locally. The wines would come from France and be the best available in America, personally selected by Jefferson. If it was a large party, there would be conversations in French, Italian, and German as well as English. Jefferson would play the violin for the Virginia reel and other dances—when he wasn’t talking.

Most guests found Jefferson to be the most delightful companion they ever met. He charmed and delighted his political enemies as well as his friends. “Spent the evening with Mr. Jefferson,” John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary in Paris in 1785, “whom I love to be with.” He later added, “You can never be an hour in this man’s company without something of the marvellous.” Before the election of 1800, Abigail Adams wrote of Jefferson, “He is one of the choice ones of the earth.”14

Jefferson’s guests were also choice. Whether from Europe or America, they were men of the Enlightenment, well educated, intensely curious, avid readers, and pursuers of new knowledge of all kinds but especially about natural history and geography. They were politically active, thoughtful about matters of government, full of insight into the human condition, and also witty conversationalists, quick with a quip, full of hearty laughter even when the joke was on them.

Life on the Albemarle plantations after the revolution had something of a Garden of Eden quality to it, but there was a snake in the garden. The glittering social, intellectual, economic, and political life of Virginia rested on the backs of slaves. Those backs were crisscrossed with scars, because slavery relied on the lash. Not every master whipped his slaves—Jefferson almost surely never did; there is no evidence one way or another with Lewis—but every master had to allow his overseers to use the lash whenever the overseer saw fit, or felt like it. Slavery worked through terror and violence—there was no other way to force men to work without compensation.

This was the other side of the coin of one of the proudest boasts of the Virginia gentry. They claimed that they knew how to lead, that command came naturally to them. Edmund Burke spoke to this point. Although he disapproved of slavery, he observed that slaveowners were among the foremost in asserting the rights of man precisely because they were slaveowners. “Where there is a vast multitude of slaves as in Virginia,” he observed, “those who are free, are by far the most proud and jealous of their freedom. . . . To the masters of slaves, the haughtiness of domination combines with the spirit of freedom, fortified it, and renders it invincible.”15 Thus the sting in Dr. Samuel Johnson’s embarrassing question: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?”16

No man did more for human liberty than Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and of Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom, among other gifts to mankind. Few men profited more from human slavery than Jefferson.

No man knew better than Jefferson the price Virginia paid for slavery, most of all in what the system did to young men. In Notes on the State of Virginia, he wrote: “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it. . . . If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self-love, for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave, it should always be a sufficient one that his children is present. But generally it is not sufficient. The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.”17

Jefferson knew whereof he wrote, and he knew no prodigies in this matter.

Slavery was critical to tobacco planters because their agricultural practices were so wasteful and labor-intensive. Slavery prospered in the American South in the decades after the revolution because of technological progress. By the time Jefferson became president, the steam engines of James Watt had been applied in England to spinning, weaving, and printing cotton, which led to an immense demand for that staple. Simultaneously, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin had made it practical to separate short upland cotton from its seeds. Slaves and land were necessary to grow cotton; the land was available in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi; the slaves were available from the excess on the Virginia plantations. These were the central economic facts in the life of the Virginia gentry, whose principal export soon became slaves.

Profitable as it was to him, Jefferson hated slavery. He regarded it as a curse to Virginia and wished to see it abolished throughout the United States. Not, however, in his lifetime. He said that his generation was not ready for such a step. He would leave that reform to the next generation of Virginians, and was sure they would make Virginia the first southern state to abolish slavery. He thought the young men coming of age in postwar Virginia were superbly qualified to bring the American Revolution to this triumphant conclusion because, as he said, these young men had “sucked in the principles of liberty as if it were their mother’s milk.”18

Of all the contradictions in Jefferson’s contradictory life, none exceeded this one. He hoped and expected that the Virginians from the generation of Lewis and Clark would abolish slavery—even while recognizing that anyone brought up as a master of slaves would have to be a prodigy to be undepraved by the experience. And it should be noted that, as far as can be told, he said not a word about his dream that young Virginians would lead the way to emancipation to precisely those young Virginians he knew best, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

Jefferson did not marry until one year short of his thirtieth birthday; Lewis never married. In this they were unusual. As Jefferson noted, very few of the gentry pursued their studies to their twentieth year, for they commonly married very young and were soon encumbered with families. They had to give constant attention to the management of their plantations.

Attitudes toward and relations with women are central to every man’s personality and character, but seldom discussed, especially among eighteenth-century Virginia gentry. Jefferson, who wrote about almost everything, wrote little about women in general and almost nothing about his mother or his wife. Lewis never wrote about his mother.

An exception in Jefferson’s case was his remarks about the contrast between American and Parisian women. In America, Jefferson rejoiced, women knew their place, which was in the home and, more specifically, in the nursery. Instead of gadding frivolously about town as Frenchwomen did, chasing fashion or meddling in politics, American women were content with “the tender and tranquil amusements of domestic life” and never troubled their pretty heads about politics.19

Foreign travelers tended to agree, at least to the extent that they found Virginia women dull and insipid. Denied any role in politics or the management of the plantation, surrounded by a small circle of household slaves, the women of the Virginia plantation tended to become indolent, self-indulgent, frustrated, and unhappy. The great ornithologist Alexander Wilson, in an 1809 letter describing a southern trip, commented: “Nothing has surprised me more than the cold, melancholy reserve of the females, of the best families. . . . Old and young, single and married, all have that dull frigid insipidity, and reserve, which is attributed to solitary old maids. Even in their own houses they scarce utter anything to a stranger, but yes or no.”

There were obvious exceptions: Jefferson’s daughters, for example, and Lewis’s mother. In general, however, it seems the men who ran Virginia plantations in the years after the revolution missed an essential part of the human experience by denying themselves, or by having denied to them, a full, open, mutually respecting relationship with women.

By contrast with the white women on the plantations, Wilson observed, “The negro wenches are all sprightliness and gayety.” Winthrop Jordan, in his masterful study White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, speculates that the dull frigidness of the white plantation women “was hardened by the utter necessity of avoiding any resemblance to women of the other race.”20

Jordan further points out that, on the plantation, “The traditional European double standard for the sexes was subject to caricatural polarization. More sexual freedom for white men meant less for white women.”21 Whether Lewis indulged himself sexually with his female slaves or not is a subject on which no evidence of any kind exists. That many masters did so indulge themselves is a commonplace, with evidence aplenty in the form of mulattoes. Whether Jefferson so indulged himself is the subject of much speculation, argument, and controversy, all of it based on very little evidence. The most the scholar can say with confidence two centuries later is that the nature of Jefferson’s and Lewis’s relationships with women is almost unknown, and unknowable.

Jefferson wrote that, had Lewis stayed with it, “his talent for observation which had led him to an accurate knolege of the plants & animals of his own country, would have distinguished him as a farmer.”22 But, although he was good at it, Lewis ran Locust Hill only out of necessity, not desire. What he wanted to do was roam and explore.

On May 11, 1792, the American sea captain Robert Gray sailed into the estuary of a river he named for his ship Columbia and fixed its latitude and longitude. Jefferson, who had twice since the winning of independence tried to sponsor an American exploration across the continent, proposed to the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia that a subscription be taken to engage a daring traveler to undertake an expedition to the Pacific. George Washington subscribed, as did Robert Morris and Alexander Hamilton.

On hearing of the project, Lewis approached Jefferson and, in Jefferson’s words, “warmly sollicited me to obtain for him the execution of that object. I told him it was proposed that the person engaged should be attended by a single companion only, to avoid exciting alarm among the Indians. This did not deter him.”23

Jefferson’s high opinion of Lewis apparently did not extend that high. In any event, he passed over the teen-age Lewis and chose instead a French botanist, André Michaux, who got started in June 1793. But he had scarcely reached Kentucky when Jefferson discovered that Michaux was a secret agent of the French Republic, whose chief aim was not to explore or collect natural-history specimens but to raise an army of American militia to attack the Spanish possessions beyond the Mississippi. At Jefferson’s insistence, the French government recalled Michaux.

Lewis, meanwhile, continued to toil on Locust Hill. But he was increasingly unhappy with the sedentary life of a planter. His mother was now well re-established in the family home, and she was fully capable of running the plantation. His desire to see new lands, to explore, to experience, to roam was insatiable. So, as Jefferson wrote, “At the age of 20, yielding to the ardor of youth and a passion for more dazzling pursuits, he engaged as a volunteer in the body of militia which were called out by Genl. Washington” to quell the Whiskey Rebellion.24

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