Although it was just another day in the office here in Frankfurt, today is Independence Day in the Unied States, the day the United States formally declared Independence from the British Crown. I will not be home to enjoy outdoor grilling and fireworks this year, but I thought today would be as good as any to get to know one of the most respected Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, a little better.
Jefferson was an interesting character–oft misunderstood–and this simply is not the time or place to discuss the many facets of the third President of the United States, but he did have a few things to say about travel. Check out this 1787 he wrote to his nephew Peter Carr from Paris:
Traveling makes men wiser, but less happy. When men of sober age travel, they gather knowledge, which they may apply usefully for their country, but they are subject ever after to recollections mixed with regret—their affections are weakened by being extended over more objects, and they learn new habits which cannot be gratified when they return home. Young men who travel are exposed to all these inconveniences in a higher degree, to others still more serious, and do not acquire that wisdom for which a previous foundation is requisite, by repeated and just observations at home. The glare of pomp and pleasure is analogous to the motion of the blood—it absorbs all their affection and attention, they are torn from it as from the only good in this world, and return to their home as to a place of exile and condemnation. Their eyes are forever turned back to the object they have lost, and its recollection poisons the residue of their lives. Their first and most delicate passions are hackneyed on unworthy objects here, and they carry home the dregs, insufficient to make themselves or anybody else happy. Add to this that a habit of idleness—an inability to apply themselves to business—is acquired and renders them useless to themselves and their country. These observations are founded in experience. There is no place where your pursuit of knowledge will be so little obstructed by foreign objects, as in your own country, nor any, wherein the virtues of the heart will be less exposed to be weakened. Be good, be learned, and be industrious, and you will not want the aid of traveling, to render you precious to your country, dear to your friends, happy within yourself. I repeat my advice to take a great deal of exercise, and on foot. Health is the first requisite after morality. Write to me often, and be assured of the interest I take in your success, as well as the warmth of those sentiments of attachment with which I am, dear Peter, your affectionate friend.
Let’s beak that down a little.
Jefferson argues that travel is so eye-opening, so moving, so riveting that you will never be able to return to a life of hard work in a single place, particularly if you are young (Peter, 17 at the time, had written to his uncle begging him to come to Europe). Instead, you will simply be unhappy as you reminisce on the richness of travel but are unable to indulge further. Essentially, travel is a forbidden fruit that is so invigorating that is should be avoided at all costs.
Two years earlier in a letter to his friend John Bannister, Jr. Jefferson had written:
Let us view the disadvantages of sending a youth to Europe. To enumerate them all, would require a volume. I will select a few.
If he goes to England, he learns drinking, horse racing and boxing. These are the peculiarities of English education. The following circumstances are common to education in that, and the other countries of Europe. He acquires a fondness for European luxury and dissipation, and a contempt for the simplicity of his own country; he is fascinated with the privileges of the European aristocrats, and sees, with abhorrence, the lovely equality which the poor enjoy with the rich, in his own country; he contracts a partiality for aristocracy or monarchy; he forms foreign friendships which will never be useful to him, and loses the season of life for forming in his own country, those friendships, which, of all others, are the most faithful and permanent; he is led by the strongest of all the human passions, into a spirit for female intrigue, destructive of his own and others’ happiness, or a passion for whores, destructive of his health, and, in both cases, learns to consider fidelity to the marriage bed as an ungentlemanly practice, and inconsistent with happiness; he recollects the voluptuary dress and arts of the European women, and pities and despises the chaste affections and simplicity of those of his own country; he retains, through life, a fond recollection, and a hankering after those places, which were the scenes of his first pleasures and of his first connections; he returns to his own country, a foreigner, unacquainted with the practices of domestic economy, necessary to preserve him from ruin, speaking and writing his native tongue as a foreigner, and therefore unqualified to obtain those distinctions, which eloquence of the pen and tongue ensures in a free country; for I would observe to you, that what is called style in writing or speaking, is formed very early in life, while the imagination is warm, and impressions are permanent.
I am of opinion, that there never was an instance of a man’s writing or speaking his native tongue with elegance, who passed from fifteen to twenty years of age, out of the country where it was spoken. Thus, no instance exists of a person’s writing two languages perfectly. That will always appear to be his native language, which was most familiar to him in his youth. It appears to me then, that an American coming to Europe for education, loses in his knowledge, in his morals, in his health, in his habits, and in his happiness.
As a frequent traveler to Paris, was Jefferson speaking from experience? Is Jefferson’s advice something that young Peter should have taken to heart or quickly rejected?
Traveling in the 1780’s was certainly not the same as traveling today, but I find it a tad disheartening that Jefferson had so little faith in youth. And it’s always easy for someone to tell others not to travel as he sits in his penthouse in Paris. But I will say this: the more I travel, the more I want to travel. I am addicted to it–though not for the reasons Jefferson articulates above–and can’t see an end in sight. Maybe Jefferson had a good point…
As it turned out, young Peter took Uncle Tom’s advice. The only time he left Virginia was to travel to New York in 1789 to watch George Washington be sworn in as the first President of the Untied States. He returned to Virgina and became a successful lawyer (and was also rumored–like Uncle Tom–to have a fondness for Sally Hemmings), dying at the age of 45 in 1815.
Jefferson would live on till 1826–July 4, 1826 to be exact–and I bet he often asked himself what would have happened had he allowed good ol’ Pete to join him in Europe.