Support Our Work!

In honor of Thomas Jefferson’s 281st birthday, will you help us preserve and protect Monticello for generations to come?

GIVE NOW

In the 1790s, Thomas Jefferson and much of the country faced a significant crisis caused by a tiny insect. Monticello Guide Kyle Chattleton reads from an article prepared in 1991 by Lucia "Cinder" Stanton, Monticello's Shannon Senior Historian, focusing on the infamous Hessian fly.

Kyle Chattleton: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. 

Olivia Brown: Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation — from the past and from the present.

Kyle Chattleton: My name is Kyle Chattleton. 

Olivia Brown: And I'm Olivia Brown.

Kyle Chattleton: Thank you for joining us. We hope you'll learn something new.

Today’s episode comes from the research and writing of Lucia “Cinder” Stanton, Monticello’s Shannon Senior Historian, who wrote an article in 1991 titled, “Analyzing ‘Atoms of Life.’"

When Thomas Jefferson opened his mail on October 22, 1791, he found a small packet of dried stubble from the wheat fields of Long Island. Inside, according to the accompanying letter, was a thriving population of the most infamous insect of the 1790s. Hessian flies had arrived at 274 Market Street, well ahead of the rest of their tribe, still working their way south through the farms of New Jersey.

This was not Jefferson's first encounter with the diminutive enemy of wheat. He had examined some "in the worm state" along the Hudson River the previous May, and throughout the rest of his month-long tour of New York and New England he questioned farmers, tavern keepers, and roadside blacksmiths about their experiences of the winged pest. Jefferson had taken to the field in his role as chairman of a new committee of the American Philosophical Society, charged with the mission of collecting materials "for forming the Natural History" of the Hessian fly and finding "the best means of preventing or destroying the Insect."

The adult Hessian fly is delicate and harmless. Its larval form, however, attacked wheat with such voracity that the appearance of the insect was considered by some American preachers a divine judgment for political sins. The effect of its destruction was captured in an article in The American Museum in 1787: "It is well known that all the crops of wheat in all the land, over which it has extended, have fallen before it, and that the farmers beyond it dread its approach; the prospect is, that unless means are discovered to prevent its progress, the whole continent will be over run, a calamity more to be dreaded than the ravages of war."

In the spring of 1791 Jefferson had decided to take an active part in repelling the invaders, first by creating a committee and then by setting out to survey the site of the Hessian fly's earliest attacks. He travelled the entire length of Long Island, eventually reaching the very spot (now under Brooklyn) where American farmers had first watched their wheat stalks shrivel and break in 1777.

In the first years of its ravages, the insect was viewed as an immigrant, a stowaway in the straw for the Hessian troops who disembarked at Flatbush in 1776 during the Revolutionary War. By the 1790s, however, students of the subject were beginning to absolve the Germans of responsibility. Samuel Mitchill, a Long Islander himself, attributed the name to the country people, "ever fond of ascribing every thing disagreeable to the Germans." This professor of agriculture and natural history at Columbia College, after consulting European scholars and scientific works, believed that the fly was an American native.

Jefferson, who heard Mitchill's "Short Memoir on the Wheat-Insect" read at an August 1791 meeting of the Philosophical Society, came to the same conclusion one year later. In June of 1792, he was given a second batch of Hessian flies. For two weeks he watched over the flaxseed-like chrysalises, was present at their "hatching," observed an adult fly laying her eggs, and recorded details of a minute anatomy — presumably with the aid of a microscope, as the fly was "between the size of a gnat & musketoe." He recorded the eight saffron-colored "annuli" on its abdomen, its two "moniliform" antennae, and two "balances like the plectrum of the sticcada," a keyed instrument he had seen Benjamin Franklin play in France.

Since April 1791, when he had moved for the formation of the select committee on the Hessian fly, Jefferson had looked like the answer to Samuel Mitchill's call for a hero to defend American crops. "We are almost entirely in the dark respecting the history of the insects injurious to our useful plants," the learned doctor told a meeting of the Agricultural Society of New York in January 1792, "and that man would be laudably and beneficially employed, who should collect what is knowable concerning the different moths, bugs, flies and worms, which infest our fields and gardens."

That man was not to be Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson had made avid investigations on the fly's breeding grounds, had been an active committee chairman, and had made his own brief foray into entomology — but nothing followed. This is particularly puzzling because throughout 1792 responses were trickling in to the committee's widely published questionnaire about the wheat pest. These answers still lie unpublished in the chairman's papers. Jefferson seems never to have made his own conclusions known and his committee published no final report. He turned instead to political battles and the Hessian fly continued its southward progress.

It was observed "crossing the Delaware like a cloud." In 1797 it invaded the fields of Mount Vernon. In 1801 it was "laying waste" all the wheat near Washington.

Monticello's wheat crop seems not to have been affected until 1811, after which there were bad years and worse. The fly devoured one third of the wheat crop in 1813 and losses in 1817 provoked Jefferson to write: "we, of this state, must make bread, and be contented with so much of that as a miserable insect will leave us. this remnant will scarcely feed us the present year, for such swarms of the Wheat-fly were never before seen in this country." Jefferson may then have wished that increasing social duties and the barbs of his political foe Alexander Hamilton had not distracted him from completing his fly research. Other factors had probably contributed to his retirement from the cause. The cyclical pattern of the Hessian fly's assaults caused some observers to believe it was on the decline in 1792. Jefferson may also have felt that some articles published in that year sufficiently cleared the good name of American wheat, by demonstrating that the fly never infested the grain. 

It is just as well that the bug committee was dormant during Jefferson's presidential years. Federalist journalists had enough fun with the "bone committee" of the American Philosophical Society, considered a hotbed of Jeffersonians. The sight of politicians peering into the secrets of nature offended Jefferson's opponents. "Science and government are two different paths," observed one author. "He that walks in one, becomes, at every step, less qualified to walk with steadfastness or vigour in the other." Honored for his breadth of vision by his friends, Jefferson was convicted by the Federalists for his curiosity. The philosopher-president was viewed as an irresponsible visionary, subject to "philosophic fogs."

Federalist satirists found the minute examinations of natural history particularly worthy of ridicule, and made Jefferson's study and measurement of fossils a frequent target. Fourteen-year-old William Cullen Bryant dismissed his chief of state with the rhyme:

Go search, with curious eye, for horned frogs,
'Mongst the wild wastes of Louisianan bogs;
Or, where Ohio rolls his turbid stream,
Dig for huge bones, thy glory and thy theme.

Jefferson's reputation as an observer of insects was not forgotten, at least by Washington banker John P. Van Ness, who in 1806 sent to the President's House two worms just plucked from his Lombardy poplar tree. Wondering if this might be the poisonous "reptile" lately exciting comment, Van Ness supposed that it would be "gratifying" to Jefferson "to observe the worm particularly."

Whether the Federalist journalists had any idea of the president's interest in insects, they could not resist portraying him in an entomological mode. Joseph Dennie, whose Port Folio adopted Jefferson as "our political Mammoth," published a supposed fragment of his diary, found on the banks of the Potomac. In it, Jefferson suffers writer's block after irritating public business interrupts his composition of a "dissertation on cockroaches." In 1807, a youthful Washington Irving created a fictional tourist to America, who hears that the president is "a very plain old gentleman — something they say of a humorist, as he amuses himself with impaling butterflies and pickling tadpoles."

Jefferson's amusement at the schoolboy satire of the opposition party was no doubt faint, but if he did not collect butterflies he did make a scrapbook of the poems, squibs, and caricatures of the Federalist press. His vexation surfaced later when he wrote that his opponents saw "even science itself, as well as my affection for it, a fit object of ridicule and a disqualification for the affairs of government."

The explosion of the Hessian fly population in 1817 brought forth another burst of publications. Thomas Say gave it a proper scientific description and name in the Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences. John Hartwell Cocke, in American Farmer, described for the first time the hatching of its egg. Samuel Mitchill returned to the subject in the American Journal of Science, and his brother-in-law Samuel Akerly opened his own article with a reference to the greater scope offered to all manner of insects by the new immensity of the agricultural nation. He also recommended changing the fly's name, which had been "saddled upon the poor Hessians, who are innocent of the charge."

Akerly closed by reviewing the commonly used methods for evading the worst injuries of the insect: sowing late in the fall; using bearded wheat; manuring well; and ploughing in or burning the stubble after harvest. Jefferson's own optimistic view in 1792 had been that "a particularly vigorous species of bearded wheat and good husbandry seem to be a perfect preservative." In 1803 he still advocated manuring well and sowing the yellow bearded wheat, and actually considered the Hessian fly "a great blessing" because it drove American farmers to adopt improved agricultural habits.

As for sowing later in the fall, he once declared it "a poor remedy," but seems to have been forced to adopt it by 1814, when he recorded in his farm book the proper seeding time as October 10 to November 10: "What is sown either earlier or later is subject to the fly." Interestingly, the current "fly-safe" sowing date for Albemarle County is October 9. The Hessian fly, who now lives wherever wheat is grown in the United States, is kept in check by the very techniques practiced by the observing farmers of Jefferson's time: late planting, fertilizing, and cleaning the fields after harvest. And the search still goes on for a resistant wheat species.

In 1818, twenty-five years after Chairman Jefferson had gathered in letters and questionnaires, the findings of the American Philosophical Society committee on the Hessian fly were finally made public. Jefferson's son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph read before the Agricultural Society of Albemarle "An Historical and Physiological Notice of the Hessian Fly." Randolph summarized in turn the observations of each correspondent, whose reports had lain so long undisturbed in one of the cartons in Jefferson's cabinet. He concluded with the recent observations of General Cocke, whom he credited with being "the first to discover the locomotive power of the young caterpillar." 

Federalists were forgotten and entomological investigations left to others when Jefferson contemplated the cosmos in 1823. To John Adams he wrote: "it is impossible for the human mind not to percieve and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom." He knew what he was talking about when he itemized the movements of celestial objects, the structure of the earth, animals and plants "examined in all their minutest particles," and "insects mere atoms of life, yet as perfectly organised as man or mammoth."

Olivia Brown: This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. 

Kyle Chattleton: Join us for new episodes every two weeks on Apple and Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and the Virginia Audio Collective.

Olivia Brown: To learn more about Monticello or to plan your next trip, visit us online at Monticello.org. 

 

Recent Videos and Podcasts