Piece by Piece
Our confederacy must be viewed as the nest from which all America, North and South is to be peopled. We should take care to not . . . press too soon on the Spaniards. Those countries cannot be in better hands. My fear is that they are too feeble to hold them till our population can be sufficiently advanced to gain it from them peice by peice. The navigation of the Mississippi we must have. This is all we are as yet ready to receive.
-Thomas Jefferson to Archibald Stuart, January 25, 1786
Mortar never becomes so hard and adhesive to the bricks in a few months but that it may easily be chipped off.
-Thomas Jefferson to William Buchanan and James Hay,
January 25, 1786
The skies over Paris were cloudy on Wednesday, January 25, 1786, and the early morning temperature was 42 degrees in the courtyard of the elegant new mansion, the Hôtel de Langeac, at the corner of the Champs-Elysées and rue de Berri just inside the western wall of the city. Designed by Jean F. T. Chalgrin, who later built the Arc de Triomphe, the neoclassical townhouse served from 1785 through 1789 as the office and residence of the forty-two-year-old United States minister to the court of Louis XVI, Thomas Jefferson.
A decade earlier, on July 1, 1776, Jefferson had started a lifelong practice of recording the temperature every day when he rose and again at midafternoon. At first he sometimes checked the temperature four times a day-as he did in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, perhaps to test the new thermometer he had purchased on that historic day for three pounds, fifteen shillings from John Sparhawk. Soon he had established a routine: "My method," he explained,
is to make two observations a day, the one as early as possible in the morning, the other from 3. to 4. aclock, because I have found 4. aclock the hottest and day light the coldest point of the 24. hours. I state them in an ivory pocket book . . . and copy them out once a week.
Jefferson cluttered his pockets with gadgets. The ivory notebooks in which he recorded meteorological data looked like small fans-their pages were wafers the size of business cards joined at one end by a brass rivet. Jefferson jotted his daily notes in pencil on the ivory, and after copying the information into the leather-bound memorandum book at his desk, he wiped the ivory clean for the week ahead.
Eighteenth-century thermometers were large, and Jefferson bought at least twenty of them during his lifetime-along with nearly every other scientific gizmo that caught his eye in Paris or London. He recorded the temperature every morning, with rare exceptions, from the dawn of American independence until shortly before his death at Monticello on July 4, 1826. In the afternoon, other activities occasionally interrupted his daily routine. Nevertheless, over the course of fifty years Thomas Jefferson recorded the morning temperature virtually every day between 5:30 and 8:00 a.m. and the midafternoon temperature, on average, about six days out of seven. He would have loved the Weather Channel.
While in Paris, Jefferson also acquired two kinds of hygrometers to measure relative humidity. Their appeal was irresistible, but if he had felt any hesitation about buying these instruments, the perfect excuse was at hand. He needed them to refute a theory advanced by his new acquaintance, the great French naturalist George-Louis Leclerc de Buffon. America, the naturalist contended, was more humid than Europe. Moreover, Buffon maintained that high humidity contributed to a universal degeneracy that he ascribed to all the plants, animals, and people of the New World. Jefferson knew better. Paris itself was damp, and Jefferson had felt its ill effects for months after his arrival. But the question was a scientific one, and the patriotic spokesman for the Western Hemisphere needed proof. The new hygrometers were weapons in Jefferson's battle against Buffon's theory.
At 42 degrees, the courtyard at Langeac was chilly. On a warmer morning, after recording the temperature Jefferson might have wandered the curving paths of the garden, planted in the fashionable and informal "English" style, in Romantic contrast to the classical symmetry of the great French gardens such as Versailles. In the "hot house" at the far corner of the property, he might have inquired about seeds or seedlings imported from America and entrusted to the care of his gardener, a Frenchman whose identity has been lost to history. Or, crossing the courtyard to the porter's lodge, Jefferson might have said bonjour! to his coachman, Anselen, and glanced into the stables, carriage house, and harness room.
Save for the papers in his office, nothing in the mansion demanded Jefferson's attention that morning. His twenty-six-year-old secretary and protégé, William Short, had rooms at Langeac, but Short and his manservant, Boullié, were away. The kitchen had been without a scullery maid since December, but the Monticello slave James Hemings, who had come to France with Jefferson and his eldest daughter, Martha, was in the kitchen with his culinary mentor, a female chef whose name we do not know. Hemings had come to Paris for the express purpose of learning to cook, and Jefferson, who was almost a vegetarian, attached unusual significance to his gastronomical training. Abigail Adams, wife of his diplomatic counterpart at the Court of St. James's in London, gleefully recounted Jefferson's opinion of meat-eating Englishmen to her sister. "Says he," Abigail reported,
it must be the quantity of Animal food eaten by the English which renders their Character unsusceptible of civilisation. I suspect that it is in their kitchens and not in their Churches, that their reformation must be worked.
Parisian chefs, Jefferson felt certain, could do more good for the English than missionaries "endeavor[ing] to tame them by precepts of religion or philosophy."
Marc, the butler in the main house, had responsibility for five large rooms on the first floor as well as Jefferson's office suite, three main bedrooms, and secondary rooms upstairs. His stewardship was assisted by Sanson, a valet de chambre filling in for Adrienne Petit, and the frotteur Saget. Painted floors were the fashion of the day, and they required constant attention. Before John and Abigail Adams left Paris for London, Abigail had watched in amazement as her floors had been painted first with pigment and glue and "afterward with melted wax, and then rubbed with a hard Brush; upon which a Man sets his foot and with his Arms a kimbow strip[p]ed to his Shirt, goes driving round your room. This Man is called a Frotteurer, and is a Servant kept on purpose for the Business."
While Saget skated around the Hôtel de Langeac on footbrushes and five or six French employees and James Hemings looked after the house and garden, the labor of the consulate fell entirely to Jefferson himself. Although Jefferson had invited Short to Paris as his personal secretary, Short often traveled on diplomatic business or stayed at the small house in the village of Saint Germain where he had perfected his French. The charming young Virginia bachelor, who now spoke fluent French and moved gracefully in polite society, had become more useful to the nation as an apprentice diplomat than as Jefferson's clerk. And if truth be told, Jefferson really preferred the immediacy, intimacy, and confidentiality of his own pen, even if, when he broke his wrist later that year, it meant learning to scrawl with the quill in his left hand.
In the months since his arrival to succeed Benjamin Franklin as minister to France, the charms of Paris had not yet enthralled the Virginian. He found the climate cold and damp-at least at first. Injury makes us vulnerable, we feel the cold more intensely, and Jefferson had come to Paris profoundly wounded by personal tragedy and the ingratitude of political life. In truth, Thomas Jefferson had fled to Paris and found refuge there in his study and his work.
A chilly morning was no time to dawdle out of doors, and on this particular Wednesday there was much to be done. At long last, Jefferson's final architectural drawings for the new Capitol of Virginia were ready for shipment to Richmond, and a reliable courier was leaving for America the next day. Ezra Bates could be entrusted with all the correspondence that Thomas Jefferson's one-man office could prepare for his Thursday departure. Then the minister could relax with his thirteen-year-old daughter, Martha, a student in residence at the Abbaye Royale de Panthémont, a convent school favored by English families. Panthémont was regarded as the most genteel school in Paris, and Patsy, as she was known to her father-she was "Jeffy" to her schoolmates-had been admitted on the recommendation of a friend of the marquis de Lafayette. She spent Thursdays and Sundays with her father, and they indulged a shared passion for music by playing together on the violin and harpsichord.
Patsy's visits were the bright moments of Jefferson's early years in Paris. As governor of Virginia near the end of the American Revolution, Jefferson and his government had been embarrassed when British cavalry led by Benedict Arnold and Banistre Tarleton raided Richmond, Charlottesville, and Monticello. Like chess players quickly moving their pieces to avoid capture or checkmate, Governor Jefferson had scrambled south to his Bedford County retreat, Poplar Forest, while his councillors and the legislature had scurried over the Blue Ridge Mountains to Staunton. When the danger was long gone-after the American army and French navy engineered the siege and surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown-a legislative inquiry formally exonerated Jefferson of any hint of misconduct during the emergency. But the inquiry itself still rankled him.
Tall and lanky, Jefferson had the fair and sometimes freckled complexion of a redheaded Englishman. After retiring from the presidency in 1809 he cultivated an air of philosophic serenity, high above the rough and tumble of politics, but as a younger man Governor Jefferson was thin-skinned and easily stung by criticism. By the 1780s he had devoted a dozen years to public service, and the legislative inquest seemed an ungrateful insult. Enough was enough. On the day the legislature of Virginia unanimously voted its gratitude for "his impartial, upright, and attentive administration whilst in office"-on the day the senators and representatives of the Old Dominion voiced their "high opinion . . . of Mr. Jefferson's ability, rectitude, and integrity, as Chief Magistrate of this Commonwealth"-on that very day Jefferson declined election as a delegate to Congress.
"I am fond of quiet," Jefferson confided later to his friend Abigail Adams, "willing to do my duty, but irritable by slander and apt to be forced by it to abandon my post." He was more specific in a letter to James Monroe. "I might have comforted myself under the disapprobation of the well-meaning but uninformed people," he wrote,
yet that of their representatives was a shock. . . . And I felt that these injuries, for such they have been since acknowledged, had inflicted a wound on my spirit which will only be cured by the all-healing grave.
Bruised by the public indignities of politics, Jefferson set aside his bitterness to tell Abigail that "Mrs. Jefferson has added another daughter to our family," but "has been ever since and still continues very dangerously ill."
Martha Wayles Jefferson languished in her bed after the birth of Lucy Elizabeth. Jefferson nursed her through the summer, "never out of Calling. When not at her bed side he was writing in a small room at the head of her bed." Ten months after the legislature's clumsy effort "to obviate and remove all unmerited censure" about his actions during Tarleton's raid, private grief compounded Jefferson's public embarrassment.
When Martha Wayles Jefferson died on September 6, 1782, her husband "was led from the room almost in a state of insensibility . . . into his library where he fainted and remained so long insensible that they feared he never would revive." He kept to his room for three weeks, pacing the floor night and day, ignoring the beauty of Monticello in early autumn, as buttery maple leaves floated above the morning fog or gleamed in the afternoon sun.
The legislature convened in Richmond, and his friends dispatched one of their number to Monticello. Jefferson was "inconsolable," cloistered away on his mountain, stricken with a grief "so violent as to justify the circulating report of his swooning away whenever he sees his children."
Outside, on the hills around Monticello in the middle of October, tawny oak leaves diffuse the midday sun until it drifts to the ground without casting a shadow, and the horizontal rays of the setting sun silhouette the trees and light up the ruby foliage of dogwoods and sumac like candlelight through a glass of vintage claret. The beauty of autumn in Virginia escaped his notice. "When at last he left his room," Jefferson "was incessantly on horseback rambling about the mountain."
As the trees went bare, their bony fingers warned of the approaching winter, a landscape suitably bleak for his "melancholy rambles." Young Martha was "a solitary witness to many a violent burst of grief"-until the 25th of October, when a courier arrived at Monticello with a letter from Philadelphia. Congress wanted to send Jefferson to Paris as a peace commissioner to help negotiate the treaty that would end the American Revolution. Perhaps, his friends hoped, the appointment might lure him back into public life and assuage his private grief.
Their ploy worked. Under the cover of duty, he could flee to France. After eleven weeks of virtual silence since Martha's death, Jefferson began "emerging from that stupor of mind which had rendered me as dead to the world as was she whose loss occasioned it." When he had left office at the end of his term as governor, Jefferson had told the marquis d'Chastellux that he had "folded [him]self in the arms of retirement, and rested all prospects of future happiness on domestic and literary objects"-including the composition of his Notes on the State of Virginia-but a single event wiped away all my plans and left me a blank which I had not the spirits to fill up. In this state of mind an appointment from Congress found [them] requiring me to cross the Atlantic.
He would escape his grief by traveling to France and immersing himself in work.
Jefferson's morning ritual of jotting the temperature into his ivory notebooks had therapeutic as well as scientific value, for his heart was "a blank" and "dead to the world." The pain of Martha's death was still with him, and of their six children, only two survived. Two daughters had died at five months. A son had lived only seventeen days. Most recently, word had come from Virginia to Paris that whooping cough, "most horrible of all disorders," had claimed his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Lucy Elizabeth. Jefferson had left Lucy and her sister Mary in the care of his relatives, Elizabeth and Francis Eppes, at Eppington, in Chesterfield County. Arrangements were soon under way to retrieve Mary from the plantation south of Richmond and reunite her in Paris with her father and only surviving sister-a feat that took nearly two years to accomplish.
Excerpted from A Wilderness So Immense by Jon Kukla. Copyright © 2004 by Jon Kukla. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.