Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
John and Tom’s Excellent Adventure: On John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Travel, and the Meaning of an Education
On April 4, 1786, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson set off on a road trip together.
Both in England from which their America had freshly won its independence, the object of their tour was — as dull as it sounds to me — a series of English gardens. Instead of Lonely Planet or even a Baedeker, their guide book was Jefferson’s copy of Observations on Modern Gardening by one Thomas Whately.
As David McCullough recounts in his excellent John Adams, the road trip had no great historical significance. But it was “the one and the only time” when the famous frenemies, the "North and South Poles of the American Revolution,” would spend “off on their own together.” And, perhaps given my circumstances on the road, I can’t help dwelling on this image of the two Great Men driving around the English countryside, John and Tom, just a couple of dudes, a couple of American tourists.
As of only a decade earlier, when he was forty, the farthest that John Adams had ever traveled from his Massachusetts home was Philadelphia, and it was to attend the Continental Congress. As of that time the farthest Jefferson had ever gone from his home in Virginia was New York. Compared to the norm of the vast majority of people in the vast majority of human history, wherein most people lived and died within ten miles of their place of birth, Adams and Jefferson were well traveled. Compared to modern globetrotters, they had seen very little of the world indeed.
If, as inveterate travelers and travel bloggers including myself frequently argue, that travel is an indispensable element of a broad and true education, then men such as Adams and Jefferson were lacking in a complete education. Or to put it conversely, Adams and Jefferson were Adams and Jefferson despite their lack of travel, certainly as of the time when they signed the Declaration of Independence.
Perhaps, then, we have been putting too much stock in the educational value of travel. Adams and Jefferson were far more products of their studies of the law, of classical authors such as Cicero and Tacitus, of great English poetry and fiction such as Shakespeare and Defoe, than they were of countries that they saw.
Certainly I have frequently reflected that some travelers I meet on the road see much but understand little. I have also reflected that oftentimes I am no less guilty of failures of understanding. Visiting new countries can easily be a waste without the benefit of sufficient study, insight, and reflection. And it’s a persistent problem in our age when it takes me less time to fly from one continent to another than to read a substantial book.
In the decade or so following the Declaration of Independence, both Adams and Jefferson would come to serve their country as diplomats, with postings in France, the Netherlands, and Britain. As such they came to travel far more widely than before and far more widely than most of their generation. And they appreciated these opportunities, agreeing with us travel bloggers and recognizing the humane value in seeing broad swaths of the world.
Adams, who took his son John Quincy Adams with him to Europe, would later emphasize to his son what a unique opportunity he enjoyed as a teenager to travel all over Europe at a time when hardly any youngster could do so. John Quincy would later serve as an ambassador in several countries as well (not to mention President). And not least because of John Quincy’s far ranging travels at an early age, when he was able to study foreign languages, George Washington later told Adams that his son was “the most valuable public character we have abroad,” sure to prove himself “the ablest of all our diplomatic corps.”
So John Adams didn’t need travel to become John Adams, but John Quincy Adams couldn’t have been John Quincy Adams without it.
After Adams retired from the presidency and John Quincy, like his father before him, was appointed minister to the Court of St. James, Adams sent his son some travel recommendation. Take a tour of the English country gardens, he told him, and make sure to buy Whately’s Observations on Modern Gardening.
The theologian John Henry Newman once explained that a liberal education is like a fine garden: it is not necessarily useful or profitable; it does not make one rich, or confer high social status; it’s just a nice thing to have.
Perhaps travel is the same way — it’s not useful or profitable, but it’s a nice thing to have. And perhaps that is also why it seems a cornerstone of a humane education. But one ought always to remember that, as Proust said, the true journey of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."