Founding Trip Advisor

Armed with Jefferson’s travel tips, writer Derek Baxter hits the road in his new book.

(Engraving by Jane Braddick Peticolas, 1825)

In Pursuit of Jefferson by Derek Baxter. Sourcebooks. pp.416. $27.99.

When two of Jefferson’s compatriots asked his advice on traveling through Europe, he responded by pouring the insights gained from his years living abroad as the United States’ chief ambassador into a 5,000-word letter. The resulting missive, “Hints to Americans Travelling in Europe,” serves as his unofficial manifesto on meaningful tourism. In fact, our third president may have been the country’s first—and most thoughtful—travel blogger.

Jefferson wanted Americans traveling abroad to “find things that would help our country, like a useful new crop or building technique, or even a decent wine suitable for importing,” author Derek Baxter writes. He worried they might spend too much time attending aristocratic parties, indulging in spas, or chasing after European women.  

Dated 1778 and reprinted on Jefferson’s own press, the letter is now housed in the Library of Congress. When Baxter, a Fairfax-based lawyer, stumbled upon it more than 230 years later, it reignited his passion for travel and history. Over the next decade, Baxter traced Jefferson’s suggested itinerary through nine trips abroad and many more along the Eastern Seaboard.

In the resulting book, In Pursuit of Jefferson: Traveling Through Europe With The Most Perplexing Founding Father (Sourcebooks, 2022), Baxter follows in Jefferson’s footsteps, interlacing the past and the present. He visits the Italian rice farms where Jefferson smuggled new varieties of rice he hoped to transplant to the Carolinas; runs a wine-tasting marathon in colonial costume; attends a yellow vest protest in France while reflecting on Jefferson’s reactions to the then-young French Revolution; and hikes the Peaks of Otter trail near Lynchburg, which Jefferson surveyed at the age of 71. 

A UVA history graduate, Baxter often studied on the Lawn, “quite literally at the feet of my mentor’s statue,” he says. To Baxter, Jefferson was the brainy Founder. “Through my trips I see him in a new light,” he writes, “not as a demigod but a fellow traveler who put his boots on one at a time, got lost, had vehicle breakdowns, and searched for places to sleep in strange lands. He discovered palaces and hovels, rivers and mountains, distant horizons far from home.” 

In addition to ice cream, Jefferson is credited with popularizing macaroni and cheese, French fries, and Champagne, all imported from his travels. Today, his advice holds for anyone who’s ever bought a souvenir t-shirt on vacation. Next time, imagine Jefferson as your traveling companion. Then ask yourself: what would he bring home?

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