Derek Baxter says Thomas Jefferson has long been his hero, and he has proof: he started visiting the home of founding father Monticello as a child; starred as Jefferson in a fourth-grade play; took her prom date at the Jefferson Memorial; and majored in history at the University of Virginia founded by Jefferson.
So it only makes sense that when Baxter was in the throes of a midlife crisis — dissatisfied with his predictable job as a government agency lawyer, exhausted by the demands of parenting two young children — he turned to his idol for get advice. His discovery of “Hints to Americans Traveling in Europe,” an obscure, unpublished travel guide that Jefferson wrote in 1788 for two young men planning their grand tour of the continent, captured his imagination. In his first book, “Chasing Jefferson: Traveling Through Europe with the Most Perplexing Founding Father,” Baxter winningly details his experiences following Jefferson’s route while tackling his complicated legacy. .
Jefferson’s “Hints” begins in Amsterdam and ends in Paris, with stops in Germany, Switzerland and Italy. Because Baxter is not financially fit for a major tour himself, he plans shorter trips over a period of years, accompanied at various times by his extremely supportive wife, children and parents, who all come to life with his warm and witty anecdotes.
Baxter describes the guidebook Jefferson wrote for his young proteges as “a sober travel regimen with themes to explore and questions to answer, designed to keep them on the right track.” Jefferson asked them to focus on eight “objects of attention for an American”, and Baxter, naturally, does the same. Among these are agriculture, manufacturing, architecture, landscaping, and government policies.
The author’s admiration for Jefferson had always been tempered by the fact that he owned slaves. Baxter, who is white, is then relieved to avoid the issue of slavery while following Jefferson’s travels in Europe, which he says is a world away from the Virginia plantation where men and women reduced enslaved cultivated the tobacco fields of Jefferson. Although he avoids her for a time, however, Baxter slowly realizes that virtually everything Jefferson did was slavery-related.
Take the architecture: With Jefferson, a self-taught architect, as their guide, Baxter and his family tour the ancient Roman amphitheatres and temples of Provence, France. They learn that Jefferson favored classical and neoclassical designs over ornate Gothic and Rococo structures. “He believed buildings should express the core values of a nation,” Baxter notes. Jefferson wanted Monticello, the Virginia State Capitol, and the University of Virginia—all of which he designed—to evoke Roman architecture, with simple white-columned buildings reflecting pure, honest Republican virtues.
Back home in Virginia, however, Baxter learns that the architectural plans Jefferson made for the University of Virginia conspicuously omitted the cottage which housed enslaved laborers. The author begins to learn about the enslaved men and women who not only built Jefferson’s structures, but made them work. While the Founder opposed the institution of slavery in theory, he always relied on and benefited from it, contradicting the “core values” he wanted his buildings to express.
‘In Pursuit of Jefferson’ has a lot going for it – the book blends travel writing, memoir, and American and French history with mini-lessons on topics ranging from wine and horticulture to political protests in 2018 in France. Although the structure is sometimes difficult to master, the serious Baxter will probably appeal to readers.
“The more I am able to learn about the slaves essential to Jefferson’s projects … the more uneasy I feel about this journey – which I had intended, perhaps naively, to be joyful, uplifting , filled with personal growth”, testifies the author. Disillusioned with his hero, he abandons the project for a while. We’re lucky he picked it up, working toward an understanding of Jefferson’s profound failures as well as his towering achievements.
Baxter also offers personal growth. As travel and research broaden her perspective, her view of her own history and privilege changes. He spent his early years in a trailer in Arkansas and considered his family “self-made” for rising to the middle class. He rethinks this assessment by considering, for example, that black men would have been excluded from the union jobs his grandfathers held in the Jim Crow South. “Only now… do I see how my family has benefited from a thumbs up on the scale,” he wrote. The progression of his thought is moving and heartfelt – and relevant. At a time when cultural battles over everything from monuments to school curricula often go awry, Baxter provides a hopeful model for an honest account with history.