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November 2, 2009
Jefferson and the Itty-Bitty Potentate
This blog entry came up in my Google Alert a few days ago - its main focus is actually a cathedral in Saigon, but it incidentally mentions a fascinating little episode in Jefferson's life of which I was heretofore unaware. As you may know, TJ was forever in pursuit of superior rice varieties to import to the U.S., and famously smuggled rice grains out of Italy in defiance of Italy's harsh non-exportation laws. While in France, a little birdie told TJ that Vietnam had some fabulous rice. And it just so happened that a representative of Vietnam was then living in exile at the French court - 7-year-old Prince Canh. Here's a portrait of Canh on Wikipedia - he is very adorable, non? Apparently he was wildly popular with the ladies at the French court and predictably inspired them to do new and even stranger things to their coiffures. Jefferson wasted no time in arranging for an audience with the pint-sized foreign dignitary. Let's pause a minute to savor the image of overly-dignified Minister Plenipotentiary Jefferson having a diplomatic tête-à-tête with a 7-year-old boy. Cinder Stanton discusses this incident in fairly fine detail in a 1983 report she did on TJ's pursuit of rice. It seems that unfortunately Jefferson never obtained his Vietnamese rice, but the blog post I mentioned above mentions another aspect to this meeting that perhaps bears thinking about: this could well have been the first contact between the U.S. and Vietnam. Now, I think it depends on how you qualify that - I have a hard time believing that no Americans had ever set foot in Vietnam before, or Vietnamese folks hadn't at ever stopped off at U.S. ports. Maybe it was the first diplomatic contact. My slapdash googling did not turn up any information to the contrary, so I'll let that one stand unless somebody cares to contradict me. So, there you go - yet another first on Jefferson's resume.