At the end of November 1790, just a week after his arrival in Philadelphia, Thomas Jefferson bought fifty pounds of refined maple sugar.[1] Such a purchase seems odd for someone living in a boardinghouse. Jefferson was not, however, beginning to stock the cellars of the new house he would soon occupy. He was making his first contribution to the cause of eliminating slavery in the West Indies.

Jefferson had known the most vocal champion of the cause, Dr. Benjamin Rush, since the days of the Second Continental Congress. When the new Secretary of State had passed through Philadelphia the previous spring, Rush had called on him, later confiding to his commonplace book his relief at finding Jefferson uncontaminated by five years of contact with European courtiers. "He was plain in his dress," Rush wrote, "and unchanged in his manners. He still professed himself attached to republican forms of government."[2]

Although they spent most of the visit deploring the "attachment to monarchy" of their mutual friend John Adams, Rush and Jefferson almost certainly discussed the sugar maple.[3] The doctor's enthusiasm for domestic sugar production had been growing during Jefferson's absence in France. In 1788, Rush had published an essay on the "Advantages of the Culture of the Sugar Maple Tree" in a Philadelphia monthly. In 1789 he had founded, with a group of Philadelphia Quakers, the Society for Promoting the Manufacture of Sugar from the Sugar Maple Tree. He had even staged a scientific tea party to prove the potency of maple sugar. The guests – Alexander Hamilton, Quaker merchant Henry Drinker, and "several Ladies" – sipped cups of hyson tea, sweetened with equal amounts of cane and maple sugar. All agreed the sugar from the maple was as sweet as cane sugar.[4] 

Rush's aim, like that of the Quaker philanthropists who shared his cause, was "to lessen or destroy the consumption of West Indian sugar, and thus indirectly to destroy negro slavery." Other advocates of a sugar war on slavery used prose of a higher pitch. French abolitionist J.-P. Brissot de Warville, roused by his conversations with Pennsylvania Quakers, believed that tapping the maple would "drive out the sugar produced by the tears and blood of slaves."[5] "Sugar made at home," announced one almanac maker, "must possess a sweeter flavor to an independent American of the north, than that which is mingled with the groans and tears of slavery."[6]

Soon after his meeting with Rush, Jefferson joined the chorus. The sugar maple, he wrote a friend in England, "yeilds a sugar equal to the best from the cane, yeilds it in great quantity, with no other labor than what the women and girls can bestow .... What a blessing to substitute a sugar which requires only the labour of children, for that which it is said renders the slavery of the blacks necessary."[7]

"Mr. Jefferson uses no other sugar in his family than that which is obtained from the sugar maple tree," Rush wrote following Jefferson's purchase from sugar refiners Edward and Isaac Pennington in November 1790 . And Jefferson himself documented this use in a memorandum book entry for March 1791. He calculated the cost – two cents – of his morning coffee, noting that "On trial it takes 11. dwt. Troy of double ref[ine]d Maple sugar to a dish of coffee" (eleven pennyweight was the equivalent of 3 ½ teaspoons).[8]

Jefferson and other conscientious consumers could now, as Brissot phrased it, "put sugar in [their] coffee without being saddened by the thought of all the toil, sweat, tears, suffering and crimes that have hitherto been necessary to procure this product."[9] The Secretary of State, however, envisioned political as well as humanitarian benefits from an American sugar industry. He hoped to gain commercial independence from the British, and even to compete with them by exporting a surplus. In April 1791, Jefferson's expectations were further raised when Rush introduced him to Arthur Noble, who came from upstate New York with sugar samples and accounts of the maple's productivity.[10] Noble wrote William Cooper, his associate in schemes to encourage settlement of their frontier lands, that Jefferson "is as Sanguine as you or I about the Maple Sugar, he thinks in a few years we shall be able to Supply half the World."[11]

What one scholar has called the "Maple Sugar Bubble" was created by a strange association of land speculators and abolitionists. Cooper, the founder of Cooperstown and father of James Fenimore Cooper, tried to use sugar maples – "these diamonds of America" – to lure settlers to Otsego County. The "Bashaw of Otsego," as Jefferson called him, managed to yoke his own commercial objectives to the prevailing interest in "diffusing useful knowledge," by asking the aid of Rush and other philanthropists in preventing wholesale destruction of maple trees by the advancing tide of settlement.[12]

Stimulated by the news from New York, Jefferson immediately wrote to President Washington and others, noting that "evidence grows upon us" that the United States could become an exporter of sugar.[13] "I confess I look with infinite gratification to [its] addition to the products of the U.S. ...."[14]

Two weeks later, Dr. Rush came to Jefferson's house on Market Street for breakfast. Over their cups of coffee sweetened with the "innocent" product of the maple, Jefferson and Henry Drinker listened to Rush read his account of the tree and its benefits and gave him "some useful hints." Rush went home to revise his piece, while Jefferson made preparations for a vacation expedition that would carry him into the heart of sugar maple country.

On this journey north to Lake Champlain and into New England, Jefferson took seriously his role as a promoter of alternatives to cane sugar. In the new whaling port of Hudson, he urged its founder to find a substitute for the West Indian molasses used in the town's distillery. In Bennington, Vermont, and perhaps elsewhere, he tried to interest some of the more prominent landholders in making maple sugar in a systematic manner, by tending orchards of maples as they would apple trees. His advice was broadcast in the Vermont Gazette and one Bennington acquaintance, Joseph Fay, resolved "to plant an orchard in regular form next Spring, in hopes to encourage others in the same laudable undertaking in case I succeed."[15]

Jefferson had been making his own efforts to create a sugar grove at Monticello, but the maple seeds he had sent home the previous December "failed completely." On his return journey through Long Island, he stopped at the Flushing nursery of William Prince and reserved Prince's entire stock of sugar maples. Sixty trees reached Monticello in November and were planted by enslaved laborers "in a grove" below the Second Roundabout on the northeast slope of the mountain.[16]

Back in Philadelphia in the summer of 1791, Jefferson tried to get one hundred pounds of unrefined maple sugar to send to Albemarle County, "in order, by a proof of it’s quality, to recommend attention to the tree to my neighbors."[17] None of sufficient quality could be found. "Such is the avidity for Maple sugar," he wrote later in the year, "that ... I have not been able this year to buy a pound for myself," and there is no record that he ever bought it again.[18]

In the meantime, Benjamin Rush read his revised account of the sugar maple at a meeting of the American Philosophical Society on August 19, 1791. This essay, Rush told Jefferson, "owes its existence to your request."[19] It took the form of a letter to Jefferson, describing the process of making maple sugar and discussing its superiority to West Indian cane sugar. He furnished figures to prove that New York and Pennsylvania could provide for the entire domestic consumption and leave sugar worth a million dollars for export. Several pages were spent extolling the "nutritious qualities" of sugar and its remedial use in medicine. "It has been said," Rush added, "that sugar injures the teeth, but this opinion now has so few advocates, that it does not deserve a serious refutation."[20]

Bringing his reading to a close, Rush confessed that "I cannot help contemplating a sugar maple tree with a species of affection and even veneration, for I have persuaded myself to behold in it the happy means of rendering the commerce and slavery of our African brethren in the sugar islands as unnecessary as it has always been inhuman and unjust." And finally, Jefferson's contributions to the cause were highlighted: "I shall conclude this letter by wishing that the patronage which you have afforded to the maple sugar as well as the maple tree by your example, may produce an influence in our country as extensive as your reputation for useful science and genuine patriotism."[21]

Because of "the impatience of the gentlemen interested in the sugar lands," Rush published his essay as a pamphlet in 1792. It was widely reprinted in the United States and Europe and its words were often repeated in books and encyclopedias. But despite Rush's publicity and Jefferson's subtler patronage, through recommendation and example, the great expectations of patriots and land promoters alike were disappointed. The various New York enterprises failed and Rush's Pennsylvania company of Quakers was dissolved in 1795 with the loss of £1400. The "large plantations" of maples that Jefferson envisioned for the slopes of Monticello consisted in 1794 of only eight surviving saplings. Two more trees were sent south in 1798, and one of them may be the ancient specimen still standing near the West Lawn today.

Both Jefferson and Rush must have looked with distaste on another maple product brought by Arthur Noble from New York – maple whiskey. Jefferson went so far as to sample it, but was gratified to hear that "less profit is made by converting the juice into spirit than into sugar."[22] Rush praised instead the weaker beverages that could be made from the maple. The thin sap afforded "a cool and refreshing drink in the time of harvest" and "a pleasant summer beer could be made from its syrup."[23]

Rush died after twenty years of silence on the subject of the sugar maple, his visionary ideas of 1791 forgotten. Jefferson, although he had tempered his hope for a national sugar industry, still advocated the cultivation of the sugar maple on a household scale: "I have never seen a reason why every farmer should not have a sugar orchard, as well as an apple orchard."[24]

By then, his attention was caught by another possible substitute for cane sugar. Hearing of the auspicious beginnings of the beet sugar industry in France, Jefferson asked two French correspondents for "recipes" of the process of making sugar from the beet, as well as advice on the best species. He lauded the sugar beet as he had the sugar maple: "[It] promises to supplant the cane particularly, and to silence the demand for the inhuman species of labour employed in it’s culture & manipulation."[25]

- Lucia C. Stanton, 11/90. Originally published as "Sharing the Dreams of Benjamin Rush," in Fall Dinner at Monticello, November 2, 1990, in Memory of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville, VA: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 1990), 1-12.


Primary Source References

Undated. "Take up the young aspens and plant a dble. row of them on the road leading from the gate down towards the landing. Where they fail, plant locusts, walnuts, wild cherries, elms, lindens, maples, and cedars, just as you can get them."[26]

1786 February 8. (Jefferson to James Madison). "The seeds of the sugar maple too would be a great present."[27]

1786 May 12. (Madison to Jefferson). "I have taken measures for procuring the Paccan nuts and the seed of the Sugar Tree."[28]

1787 December 9. (Madison to Jefferson). "The annexed list of trees will shew you that I have ventured to ... add 8 other sorts of American trees, including 20 of the Sugar Maple."[29]

1788 October 8. (Madison to Jefferson). "I shall send along with this a few seed of the sugar maple, the first and the whole that I have been able to obtain."[30]

1790 June 27. (Jefferson to Benjamin Vaughan). "Though large countries within our Union are covered with the Sugar maple as heavily as can be concieved, and that this tree yeilds a sugar equal to the best from the cane, yeilds it in great quantity, with no other labor than what the women and girls can bestow, who attend to the drawing off and boiling the liquor, and the trees when skilfully tapped will last a great number of years, yet the ease with which we had formerly got cane sugar, had prevented our attending to this resource. ... What a blessing to substitute a sugar which requires only the labour of children, for that which it is said renders the slavery of the blacks necessary."[31]

1790 December 16. (Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph). "I send herewith some seeds which I must trouble you with the care of. They are the seeds of the Sugar maple and the Paccan nuts. Be so good as to make George prepare a nursery in a proper place and to plant in it the Paccan nuts immediately, and the Maple seeds at a proper season."[32]

1791 May 1. (Jefferson to William Drayton). "The attention now paying to the sugar-Maple tree promises us an abundant supply of sugar at home; and I confess I look with infinite gratification to the addition to the products of the U.S. of three such articles as oil, sugar, and upland rice."[33]

1791 May 1. (Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph). "I shall be glad to hear how the white wheat, mountainrice, Paccan and Sugar maples have succeeded. Evidence grows upon us that the U.S. may not only supply themselves the sugar for their own consumption but be great exporters."[34]

1791 May 1. (Jefferson to George Washington). "A Mr. Noble has been here, from the country where they are busied with the Sugar-maple tree. He thinks Mr. Cooper will bring 3000£’s worth to market this season ...."[35]

1791 May 27. "Cohoes. Sugar Maple."[36]

1791 June 5. (Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph). "We were more pleased however with the botanical objects which continually presented themselves. Those either unknown or rare in Virginia were the Sugar maple in vast abundance ...."[37]

1791 July 6. (Jefferson to William Prince). "When I was at your house in June I left with you a note to furnish me with the following trees, to wit[:] Sugar maples. All you have."[38]

1791 July 7. (Thomas Mann Randolph to Jefferson). "In a late letter you desire us to let you know our success with the seeds you sent from Philadelphia. The Sugar maple has failed entirely, a few plants only having appeared which perished allmost immediately.... For both of these [rice] and the maple we preferred the flat ground below the park on the little stream which passes thro' it, being the natural situation of the latter, and more suitable to the former than the garden."[39]

1791 July 17. (Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph). "I have taken effectual means of repairing the loss of the sugar maple seed, by bespeaking a new supply of seed, and purchasing a considerable number of young trees from Prince in Long-island who will forward them to Richmond in the fall."[40]

1791 August 9. (Joseph Fay to Jefferson). "... respecting the sugar maple seed ... I had determined to furnish you had you not written, but the seed does not come to maturity until the Month of October, when the frost kills the stem of the leaf and seed, and causes them to fall from the tree .... no time shall be lost in doing it in the proper season and forwarding them to you. I have examined my young groves since you left this, and find the young maple very thrifty and numerous, by calculation nearly one thousand to the acre. I intend to plant an orchard in regular form next Spring, in hopes to encourage others in the same laudable undertaking in case I succeed."[15]

1791 August 30. (Jefferson to Fay). "I am to acknolege the receipt of your favor of the 9th. inst. and to thank you for your attention to my request of the Maple seed. Every thing seems to tend towards drawing the value of that tree into public notice. The rise in the price of West India sugars, short crops, new embarrasments which may arise in the way of our getting them, will oblige us to try to do without them."[42]

1791 November 8. "60 Sugar Maples trees at 1/ 3-0-0."[16]

1791 November 25. (Jefferson to William Short). "Such is the avidity for Maple sugar, that it is engaged in the country before it comes to market. I have not been able this year to buy a pound for myself .... When double refined it is equal to the double refined of the Cane, and a like equality exists in every state of it. There is no doubt but that were there hands enough in the Sugarmaple country, there are trees enough not only to supply the U. S. but to carry a great deal to Europe and undersell that of the cane. The reason why it may be cheaper, is that it is the work of women and children only, in a domestic way, and at a season when they can do nothing in the farm. The public attention is very much excited towards it, and the high price of W. India sugars will draw these forth."[44]

1791 November 29. (Fay to Jefferson). "I am sorry to inform you that not a single seed of the Maple has come to maturity this year in all this Northern Country. I have made diligent inquiry thro’ the State; wheather this is owing to the Worms, or a General blast is uncertain. The Great Scarcity and high price of sugars (owing to the Insurections in the Islands) occasions the Greatest preparations for improving the Maple in this quarter, every providential circumstance seems to Conspire to promote this usefull branch."[45]

1791 December 11. (Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph). "Mr. Brown writes me word that the 4. bundles of trees from Prince are safe arrived there, so that I am in hopes you have recieved them."[46]

1792 January 26. (Rush to Jefferson). "I enclose you a few copies of the tract on the manufactory of Maple Sugar. It owes its existence to your request."[47]

1792 March 27. (Thomas Mann Randolph to Jefferson). "The sugar maple, it appears, is the most delicate of the whole number, for all of them are totally lost. It gives some consolation however, to know with certainty that this plant is abundant about Calf-pasture ...."[48]

1792 April 19. (Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph). "I am sorry to hear my sugar maples have failed. I shall be able however to get here any number I may desire, as two nurserymen have promised to make provision for me. It is too hopeful an object to be abandoned."[49]

1792 May 27. (Martha Jefferson Randolph to Jefferson). "Many of your sugar maples are alive and tolerably flourishing considering the drouth."[50]

1792 July 2. (Jefferson to Hugh Rose). "I am now endeavoring to procure as many as I can of the Sugar maple trees, to commence large plantations of these."[51]

1792 October 8. (Fay to Jefferson). "I have taken the earliest care to collect a few of the maple seeds, which you will receive herewith by the post; should the soil of Virginia prove friendly you will soon be able to furnish the State, as they produce very spontaniously. Please to offer a few to Mr. Madison with my best respects. I also enclose a Small bunch to his Excellency the President which perhaps his curiosity will lead him to accept, if you will please to take the Trouble to offer them. This seed must be committed to the Earth as soon as convenient this fall, in some place where they will not be exposed to be devoured by fouls and squirrels."[52]

1792 October 16. (Jefferson to Washington). "Colo. Fay having sent him a paper of Sugar-Maple seed, Th:J., on his request, asks the President's acceptance of the within."[53]

1792 November 4. (Jefferson to Fay). "I have delivered a part to the President and will deliver another portion to Mr. Madison who is just arrived here. In the name of us all accept thanks for this present, which I deem valuable.... Of 80. trees I bought in N. York, very few survived the transplantation. Do they begin to increase the quantity of sugar made with you?"[54]

1794 April 20. "[T]here are 8. Sugar maples alive."[55]

1798 March 22. (Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph). "I have just had put on board the sloop Sally ... a box of plants ... as follow: ... Sugar maple 2. plants."[56]

1808 July 15. (Jefferson to C.P. de Lasteyrie). "I should think the Sugar-maple more worthy of experiment. there is no part of France of which the climate would not admit this tree. I have never seen a reason why every farmer should not have a sugar orchard, as well as an apple orchard. the supply of sugar for his family would require as little ground, and the process of making it is as easy as that of cyder."[57]

1809 November 6. (Jefferson to Thomas Lomax). "I propose to make me a large orchard of Paccan & Roanoke & Missouri scaly barks which I possess .... to these I shall add the sugar maple tree if I can procure it."[58]


Further Sources


  1. ^ MB, 1:769. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  2. ^ "Benjamin Rush, Commonplace Book, 1792-1813," American Philosophical Society.
  3. ^ See Rush to Adams, April 13, 1790, Adams Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  4. ^ See Rush, "Account of the Sugar Maple-Tree, of the United States, and of the Methods of Obtaining Sugar from It, Together with Observations upon the Advantages Both Public and Private of This Sugar" (Philadelphia: R. Aitken & Son, 1792).
  5. ^ J.-P. Brissot de Warville, New Travels in the United States of America (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1964), 248.
  6. ^ Zadock Thompson and E.P. Walton and Sons, Waltons' Vermont Register and Farmers' Almanac for 1840 (Montpelier, Vt.: E.P. Walton & Sons, 1839).
  7. ^ Jefferson to Benjamin Vaughan, June 27, 1790, in PTJ, 16:579. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  8. ^ MB, 2:812. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  9. ^ Brissot, New Travels, 249.
  10. ^ See Jefferson to Washington, May 1, 1791, in PTJ, 20:342-43, 20:343-44n. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  11. ^ Noble to William Cooper, May 7, 1791, quoted in James Fenimore Cooper, The Legends and Traditions of a Northern County (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1921), 140.
  12. ^ William Cooper, "A Letter on the Manufacture of Maple Sugar," quoted in Transactions of the Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, Arts and Manufactures (New York: Childs and Swaine, 1792), 83-87. For Jefferson's reference to Cooper, see Jefferson to James Monroe, June 23, 1792, in PTJ, 24:114-15. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  13. ^ Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph, May 1, 1791, in PTJ, 20:341-42. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  14. ^ Jefferson to William Drayton, May 1, 1791, in PTJ, 20:332-33. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  15. ^ Quoted in Betts, Garden Book, 167-68. See also PTJ, 22:18. Summary available at Founders Online.
  16. ^ Invoice from William Prince, November 8, 1791, in PTJ, 22:268. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  17. ^ Jefferson to Madison, July 18, 1791, in PTJ, 20:686. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  18. ^ Jefferson to Short, November 25, 1791, in PTJ, 22:334. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  19. ^ Rush to Jefferson, January 26, 1792, in PTJ, 23:77. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  20. ^ Rush, "Account of the Sugar Maple-Tree, of the United States, and of the Methods of Obtaining Sugar from It, Together with Observations upon the Advantages Both Public and Private of This Sugar" (Philadelphia: R. Aitken & Son, 1792).
  21. ^ Ibid.
  22. ^ Jefferson to Washington, May 1, 1791, in PTJ, 20:342-44. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  23. ^ Rush, "The Effects of Ardent Spirits on the Human Body and Mind," quoted in J.N. Stearns, ed., Footprints of Temperance Pioneers (New York: National Temperance Society and Publication House, 1885), 13.
  24. ^ Jefferson to C. P. de Lasteyrie, July 15, 1808, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  25. ^ Jefferson to Alexis Marie Rochon, December 14, 1813, in PTJ:RS, 7:53-54. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  26. ^ Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts, Massachusetts Historical Society.
  27. ^ PTJ, 9:267. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  28. ^ PTJ, 9:520. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  29. ^ The maples cost two shillings each. PTJ, 12:408. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  30. ^ PTJ, 14:4. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  31. ^ PTJ, 16:578-79. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  32. ^ PTJ, 18:308. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  33. ^ PTJ, 20:332-33. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  34. ^ PTJ, 20:341. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  35. ^ PTJ, 20:343. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  36. ^ Perhaps Jefferson's first sight of a native stand of sugar maples. Journal of the Tour, [May 21-June 10, 1979], in PTJ, 20:454. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  37. ^ PTJ, 20:465. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  38. ^ PTJ, 20:603. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  39. ^ PTJ, 20:605. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  40. ^ PTJ, 20:640-41. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  41. ^ Quoted in Betts, Garden Book, 167-68. See also PTJ, 22:18. Summary available at Founders Online.
  42. ^ PTJ, 22:102. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  43. ^ Invoice from William Prince, November 8, 1791, in PTJ, 22:268. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  44. ^ PTJ, 22:334. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  45. ^ PTJ, 22:351-52. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  46. ^ PTJ, 22:389. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  47. ^ PTJ, 23:77. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  48. ^ PTJ, 23:347. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  49. ^ PTJ, 23:435. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  50. ^ PTJ, 23:547. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  51. ^ PTJ, 24:407. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  52. ^ PTJ, 24:541. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  53. ^ PTJ, 24:493. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  54. ^ PTJ, 24:575. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  55. ^ Garden Book, 1766-1824, page 29, by Thomas Jefferson [electronic edition], Thomas Jefferson Papers: An Electronic Archive (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2003)Quoted in Betts, Garden Book, 210. The last one of Jefferson's 200 year old sugar maple trees was knocked down in a windstorm in July 1992.
  56. ^ PTJ, 30:192-93. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  57. ^ Quoted in Betts, Garden Book, 375. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  58. ^ PTJ:RS, 1:657. Transcription available at Founders Online.