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Two hundred thirty-one years ago today Thomas Jefferson celebrated his 44th birthday riding a mule over the Alps on his way to Italy. Jefferson’s first official federal position after writing the Declaration of Independence was serving as Minister to France under President George Washington. Jefferson’s job was to grow America’s economy, which he did by forming trade agreements to sell whale oil and tobacco overseas. He also looked for new crops that could be grown in the U.S. and sold in Europe.
One thing he noticed was that the French ate a lot of rice, but they didn’t buy rice grown in America. The French preferred dry or upland rice. American farmers grew “swamp” rice and suffered with mosquitoes and malaria. Jefferson thought that if American farmers switched to upland rice they would not only be able to sell it abroad, they would also be healthier.
Jefferson asked for samples of upland rice from friends, farmers, ship captains who traveled to far off lands, and even the seven-year-old prince of Cochin China. The most prized rice, however, was grown in Italy and banned from export.
Determined to help America, Jefferson rode over the Alps and found the unhusked grain. “I could only bring off as much as my coat and surtout [overcoat] pockets would hold,” he wrote a friend. Under penalty of death, he smuggled it across the border.
Back in France, Jefferson sent rice to farmers in South Carolina and to his farm manager at Monticello, his home in Virginia. He even grew samples of rice in pots on his windowsill when he returned to New York to be Secretary of State.
Unfortunately, the upland rice didn’t grow well in the South and didn’t become a big export for the U.S., but Jefferson was not discouraged. He had already set his sights on another amazing plant that he hoped would be “the source of the greatest wealth and happiness.” Olive trees.
Many years later when Jefferson listed his achievements, along with writing the Declaration of Independence he included his attempts to bring rice and olives to the United States. “The greatest service which can be rendered any country,” he said, “is to add an useful plant to its culture.”
Celebrate his birthday with a salad made from some of the useful plants he brought to our culture— kale, tomatoes, peppers and chickpeas with a splash of olive oil.
Happy Birthday, Thomas Jefferson!
Peggy Thomas is the author of Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation
Among her other books are:
* For the Birds: the life of Roger Tory Peterson
* Snow Dance
* Farmer George Plants A Nation
* Joshua the Giant Frog
* Forensic Anthropology: the Science of Talking Bones
MLA 8 Citation
Thomas, Peggy. "Happy Birthday Thomas Jefferson - Smuggler!" Nonfiction Minute,
iNK Think Tank, 13 Apr. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/
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