Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1 May 1791

To George Washington

Philadelphia May. 1. 1791.


I had the honour of addressing you on the 24th. Ult. which I presume you will have recieved at Cambden. The present is ordered to go from Petersburg to Taylor’s ferry. I think it better my letters should be even some days ahead of you, knowing that if they ever get into your rear they will never overtake you.—I write to day indeed merely as the watchman cries, to prove himself awake, and that all is well, for the last week has scarcely furnished any thing foreign or domestic worthy your notice. Truxton is arrived from the E. Indies and confirms the check by Tippoo-Saib on the detachment of Colo. Floyd, which consisted of between 3. and 4000 men. The latter lost most of his baggage and artillery, and retreated under the pursuit of the enemy. The loss of men is pretended by their own papers to have been 2, or 300 only. But the loss and character of the officers killed, makes one suspect that the situation has been such as to force the best officers to expose themselves the most, and consequently that more men must have fallen. The main body with General Meadows at their head are pretended to be going on boldly. Yet Ld. Cornwallis is going to take the field in person. This shews that affairs are in such a situation as to give anxiety. Upon the whole the account recieved thro’ Paris proves true notwithstanding the minister had declared to the house of Commons, in his place, that the public accounts were without foundation, and that nothing amiss had happened.

Our loan in Amsterdam for 2½ million of florins filled in two hours and a half after it was opened. The Vice-president leaves us tomorrow. We are told that Mr. Morris gets £70,000. sterl. for the lands he has sold.

A Mr. Noble has been here, from the country where they are busied with the Sugar-maple tree. He thinks Mr. Cooper will bring 3000£’s worth to market this season, and gives the most flattering calculations of what may be done in that way. He informs me of another very satisfactory fact, that less profit is made by converting the juice into spirit than into sugar. He gave me specimens of the spirit, which is exactly whiskey.

I have arrived at Baltimore from Marseilles 40. olive trees of the best kind from Marseilles, and a box of the seed. The latter to raise stocks, and the former cuttings to engraft on the stocks. I am ordering them on instantly to Charleston, where if they arrive in the course of this month they will be in time. Another cargo is on it’s way from Bordeaux, so that I hope to secure the commencement of this culture and from the best species. Sugar and oil will be no mean addition to the articles of our culture.—I have the honour to be with the greatest respect and esteem, Sir, your most obedt. & most humble servt.,

Th: Jefferson

RC (DNA: RG 59, MLR); addressed: “The President of the United States. To be lodged at Taylor’s ferry on the Roanoke. To which place the post-master at Petersburg is desired to forward it by the first private conveyance.—For the Petersburg mail”; postmarked: “Free” and “2 Ma”; endorsed by Washington. PrC (DLC). FC (DNA: RG 59, SDC).

Mr. Noble and Mr. Cooper: Arthur Noble was an associate of William Cooper, founder of Cooperstown and ardent promoter of what has aptly been called the “Maple Sugar Bubble” of the late 18th century (Butterfield, Rush description begins Letters of Benjamin Rush, ed. L. H. Butterfield, Princeton, 1951, 2 vols. description ends , i, 597n.; see also Butterfield, “Judge William Cooper (1754–1809): A Sketch of his Character and Accomplishment,” New York History, xxx [Oct. 1949], 385–408; and Alfred Young, The Democratic Republicans of New York [1967], p. 262–7). As his letters of this date to Drayton, Randolph, and Washington make clear, TJ was one of the most optimistic advocates of the manufacture and use of maple sugar, not even excluding Tench Coxe and Benjamin Rush. TJ was familiar with Coxe’s estimate in 1790, based on the unrealistic figures of Cooper, that the sugar consumption of the United States could be met by families engaged in home manufacture on only 263,000 acres-an estimate which Coxe conceded had “a wild and visionary appearance” (reprinted in Coxe’s View of the United States [Philadelphia, 1794], p. 78–82). In the same year “a society of gentlemen” in Philadelphia published Remarks on the manufacture of maple sugar: with directions for its further improvement (Philadelphia, 1790). TJ obtained a copy and would surely have agreed with the authors’ opening sentence: “He who enables another to obtain any necessary of life, either cheaper or more independently than heretofore, adds a new source of happiness to man; and becomes more or less useful, in proportion to the number of those who participate in the benefits of his discovery” (for description of TJ’s copy, see Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–1959, 5 vols. description ends No. 1224).

But, while joining in the sanguine belief that a new and extensive field had been opened in what the authors declared to be the cause of humanity, TJ went further and saw in this favored product a useful instrument of policy. Hence his indirect allusion to it in a private letter to Benjamin Vaughan which was clearly intended as a warning that the maple tree might enable the United States to be no longer dependent on the British West Indies for sugar (TJ to Vaughan, 27 June 1790). The British consul in Philadelphia, less optimistic than TJ about the possibility that enough sugar could be produced to meet the American demand and also to provide an article of export, nevertheless was as concerned about the potential threat as Vaughan had been. He sent a copy of Remarks on the manufacture of maple sugar to the British ministry, with the result that the subject was discussed in Hawkesbury’s Report to the Privy Council early in 1791 (Bond to Leeds, PRO, FO 4/8, f. 263–71).

Benjamin Rush sought to bolster TJ’s hopes with the hope of still further benefits to be derived from maple sugar. In what purported to be a letter to TJ written at his request, Rush claimed that liquors he had prepared in tests for its strength in tea—samples of which were consumed by Alexander Hamilton, Henry Drinker, and several ladies—would even prevent worm diseases in children. He also pointed to the relief from pain Franklin had experienced after ingesting large quantities of blackberry jam. He suggested that maple trees should be protected by law and that the manufacture of sugar should be encouraged by government bounties. Looking upon this new spectacle in light of “the present opening prospects in human affairs,” Rush thought it would be the means of making the slave trade unnecessary. He closed his eloquent plea by declaring that TJ used “no other sugar in his family than that which is obtained from the sugar Maple tree.” He added, with some exaggeration, that TJ had already “planted an orchard of maple trees on his farm in Virginia” (Rush to TJ, 19 Aug. 1791; Am. Phil. Soc., Trans., iii [1793], 64–79). This production was in fact an essay, addressed less to TJ than to members of the American Philosophical Society. It cannot therefore be regarded as being a part of the Jefferson canon except in the form of address. No manuscript copy of it has been found, it was never acknowledged by TJ, and there is no record of it in SJL.

Three months after the above letter was written, Cooper and Noble sent Washington samples of maple sugar and expressed the belief that “a sufficient quantity of this sugar may be made in a few years to supply the United States” (Cooper and Noble to Washington, 7 Aug. 1791, DLC: Washington Papers). Washington planted maples at Mount Vernon in 1792 but he evidently did not share the optimistic belief of TJ, Coxe, Rush, Cooper, and others that sugar from the maple would displace that from cane.

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