On June 12, 1790, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson was recovering from an attack of his "periodical headache." Two letters and a small parcel arrived at 57 Maiden Lane.1 After examining them, Jefferson left the house, joined the shopping throngs on Broadway, and returned home with two flowerpots. These he filled with earth in which he carefully laid part of the contents of the parcel; the rest he sent to friends in Virginia, observing: "It is a most precious thing if we can save it."2 Two weeks later, he placed the pots, now containing twenty-three seedlings, before a window in his book gallery. Jefferson then anxiously watched their race with the retreating sun.
The plant on Jefferson's windowsill was a kind of upland rice. Its seed had traveled from the island of Timor in the Dutch East Indies, around the Cape of Good Hope to London, and across the Atlantic to New York. The name of the sailor who brought it from the Orient had recently been in all the newspapers. Lieutenant William Bligh, ousted from H.M.S. Bounty by a mutinous crew, had failed in his mission to transplant breadfruit trees from Tahiti to England's West Indian colonies. He had arrived at Coupang in Timor with neither his ship nor his trees, after a 3,600-mile voyage in an open twenty-three-foot launch. For seven weeks, he sustained the loyal remnant of his crew by partitioning raw noddies and boobies and doling out half-ounces of moldy sea biscuit and teaspoonfuls of rum. While the sailors recovered at Coupang, Bligh made sure he had something of botanical value to show the patron of his enterprise, Sir Joseph Banks. He purchased a stock of mountain rice and took it safely back to England. Banks gave a portion to Benjamin Vaughan, who shared it with Jefferson, describing it as "the sole fruit" of Bligh's voyage.3
Jefferson had first become interested in introducing the culture of dry, mountain, or upland rice to America in the summer of 1787, when he read a traveler's account of Indochina. By then, he had solved the mystery of the slow sales of Carolina rice in France. He had "sifted the matter to the bottom by crossing the Alps into the rice country" of Italy.4 From the fields of Lombardy, he brought back the iron tooth of a rice pestle and pocketfuls of unhusked grain, in defiance of a law prohibiting "the exportation of rough rice on pain of death."5 His observations in Italy proved that neither the variety nor the method of preparation was an impediment to the sale of American rice. Southern rice planters must make more of an effort to ship directly to France rather than to British middlemen — particularly in time for Lent.6
Jefferson now turned his attention from the commercial success of his southern countrymen to their health. In the summer of 1787, he began to wonder whether the culture of dry rice might "enable us to get rid of those ponds of stagnant water so fatal to human health and life."7 He had been reading Voyages d'un Philosophe by Pierre Poivre, a man who had traveled the Far East as a missionary — first for the Catholic faith and then for French colonial agriculture. During an adventurous life, in which he was captured three times by the British, Poivre introduced the nutmeg, clove, and other Asian plants to the colonies of Île de France and Bourbon (today Mauritius and Réunion). To break the Dutch monopoly of the spice trade, he too resorted to smuggling, and even to night raids. But it was Poivre's description of the mountain rice of Vietnam, a country ruled by philosopher-princes, that particularly caught Jefferson's attention.8
"The dry rice of Cochinchina has the reputation of being whitest to the eye, best flavored to the taste, and most productive," Jefferson wrote to William Drayton, then president of the South Carolina Society for Improving Agriculture and Other Rural Concerns.9 This letter was the first maneuver in his new campaign to transform production of the staple crop of South Carolina and Georgia. Jefferson was not alone in his view that the cultivation of rice in inland and tidal swamps "sweeps off numbers of the inhabitants annually with pestilential fevers."10 No one was yet aware of the role of the anopheles mosquito in transmitting malaria to humans near its breeding grounds, but everyone deplored the debilitating fevers endemic in those who lived near the standing water of coastal rice plantations.
To bring to an end the culture of a plant "which sows life and death with almost equal hand," Jefferson first had to find a sufficient stock of the seed of its alternative.11 In his global search, he enlisted an Oriental prince, an English scientist, a French philosophe, and an American sea captain. He started by canvassing his acquaintances in Paris. He accompanied his letter to Simon Charles Boutin, Treasurer of the Royal Navy, with a copy of his Notes on the State of Virginia. Boutin promised his assistance to a project so "useful and full of humanity" and invited Jefferson to dine at his estate on the hill of Montmartre.12 There Jefferson would have seen a notable mineralogical cabinet and the first English garden in Paris, with a dairy and menagerie, an antique tomb shaded by cypresses, and a pavilion housing a Roman gladiator in marble. Exotic shrubs and flowers filled the groves and greenhouses of Boutin's "Tivoli."
Jefferson also asked the aid of "the first character in the kingdom for integrity, patriotism, [and] knowledge,"13 Chrétien Guillaume de Lamoignon de Malesherbes. His letter to this friend opened with an appeal to "your zeal to promote the general good of mankind by an interchange of useful things." Malesherbes could render "the most precious service to my countrymen" by finding a substitute for lowland rice.14
At this time, Jefferson was determined to have the dry rice of Cochin China, and, fortuitously, there was an envoy from that distant land actually in Paris. The exiled Prince of Vietnam, Nguyen Phúc Ánh, had sent his son to seek French aid in taking his country back from the Tay Son rebels. Prince Canh had arrived in the city in February, accompanied by his father's advisor, the French bishop Pigneau de Béhaine. Like Poivre before him, Pigneau had gone to Cochin China as a missionary, but had maintained his apostolic calling, devoting himself to the restoration of the Nguyen family to the Vietnamese throne. The exotic appearance and romantic mission of Prince Canh, who was only seven years old, at once captivated the French court, and many of the ladies of fashion adopted a creation of Marie Antoinette's hairdresser, "la coiffure au prince de Cochin-Chine."
Before the Vietnamese mission left France in December, Jefferson had an audience with the young prince and elicited his promise to send back upland rice from a homeland he had never seen. But no casks from Saigon ever arrived. Prince Canh did not reach Vietnam until after Jefferson left Paris — delayed in India while French officials wriggled out of their treaty with his father. Nguyen Ánh managed to regain his kingdom without French aid, however, and founded an imperial dynasty.
Prince Canh led his father's army in the campaigns of re-conquest but died of smallpox at twenty-one. Bishop Pigneau, a major influence on Nguyen's enlightened judicial and educational reforms, died in 1799; all the mandarins of the court, 12,000 of the royal bodyguards, and 40,000 mourners attended his funeral.
In March 1789, with no word from Vietnam and his departure from France imminent, Jefferson sent off a new round of requests for mountain rice, still specifying the Cochin Chinese variety. He now tried the English connection, through his friend Benjamin Vaughan.15 A strong supporter of the American cause during the Revolution and part of the Unitarian circle of Richard Price and Joseph Priestley, Vaughan first met Jefferson in 1786 at one of Price's religious meetings outside London. There were further encounters and Vaughan, also a prodigious collector of books, arranged for Jefferson's tour of the British Museum. A lifelong correspondence, particularly on scientific subjects, ensued. Vaughan responded enthusiastically to Jefferson's request, dispatching letters to friends in Jamaica and other West Indian islands. But he naturally turned first to Sir Joseph Banks, the pivotal figure in English plant exploration and collection. Banks promptly provided seeds of three kinds of dry rice collected in Sumatra by Charles Miller, son of Philip Miller, whose Gardener's Dictionary was Jefferson's horticultural bible.16 Jefferson planted the Sumatran rice at the Hôtel de Langeac. All three varieties, including the most esteemed, Paddee coccoo ballam, named for its resemblance to a dove's nail, failed to germinate.
Sir Joseph was also Vaughan's source for the seed brought home by William Bligh. It was fitting that Banks was a link in Jefferson's chain of rice introduction, as the parallels between the Englishman and the American were striking. Born only two months apart, each served a long term as president of his country's principal learned institution: Banks of the Royal Society and Jefferson of the American Philosophical Society. Both were initiators of exploring expeditions. With similar reputations for universal wisdom, they often turned their minds to the same subjects, such as coinage, longitude, archeology, or sheep breeding. They shared a desire to promote the happiness of humankind and an ardent belief in an international community of science that transcended political differences. Banks surpassed Jefferson in two areas, however; he had far more money and more time for research. He never held political office and his annual income from the age of twenty-one was matched by Jefferson only during the eight years of his presidency.
Although Jefferson and Banks never met or corresponded, they were connected through their common endeavors, particularly exploration and plant introduction. And the rice from Banks grew "luxuriantly" on Jefferson's New York windowsill in that summer of 1790.17 He had taken the precaution of subdividing his meager stock, sending "a few seeds" to George Wythe in Williamsburg and his manager at Monticello.18 He also gave some to James Madison, who forwarded his "few grains" to his father at Montpelier. In July, Jefferson had his own plants carried to Charles Brannon's "Tea Garden," where New Yorkers resorted in the summer for tea, coffee, iced drinks, and ice cream.19 Jefferson hoped Brannon's greenhouse would hasten the growth of his rice, but neither Jefferson nor any of his auxiliaries succeeded in raising seed from the "sole fruit" of the Bounty.
Where French magistrates, English baronets, and Chinese princes had failed, a young and obscure Bostonian earned the prize. Nathaniel Cutting, a sea captain with mercantile aspirations, had waited for the winds to change at Le Havre in 1789, along with Jefferson and his daughters. Charmed by the "worthy Family" from Virginia, Cutting drank tea with them often at the hotel L'Aigle d'Or. At one of their fireside teas, Jefferson, who had recently received Benjamin Vaughan's glowing report on the dry rice of Africa, charged Cutting with the mission of procuring some on his next voyage. Cruising on the Windward Coast a few months later, Cutting made inquiries about rice culture and picked up a keg of "heavy upland rice" from a trader on the "River Denby, about the Latt. 9.° 30' North" near present Conakry in Guinea.20
This was one of the principal rice-growing areas in Africa. Wet culture using sophisticated irrigation techniques flourished side by side with dry culture, and many varieties were cultivated: the red indigenous Oryza glaberrima, the white Asian Oryza sativa, and their countless hybrids. Since the grain Cutting sent was called "Red Rice," it was probably largely derived from the African species.
The ten-gallon cask of West African rice reached Jefferson in September 1790, when he stopped in Philadelphia on his way to Monticello. On the day he received it, he purchased canisters, no doubt for sending some of its contents to designated growers (the rice he smuggled out of Italy had been sent to South Carolina in a tea canister).21 He took out some for himself, gave some to William Bartram for his botanical garden, and certainly filled a canister for George Washington, whom he was about to visit at Mount Vernon. The cask was then resealed and sent on to Ralph Izard for the South Carolina agricultural society. In November, Jefferson reported to Cutting that he had "distributed it into so many hands as to ensure a fair experiment."22
In 1791, Jefferson again tried to raise rice in a flowerpot, but both his and Bartram's plants failed to set seed in the short Philadelphia growing season. Farther south, the seeds he had left in a niche of Monticello's parlor the previous fall fared better. Thomas Mann Randolph planted them along Meadow Branch and reaped a rice harvest.23 Although Jefferson and his neighbors produced good crops of African rice for a few years, they soon abandoned its cultivation, having no machine for husking it.
Despite his disappointment in the members of the South Carolina agricultural society, who apparently did not perform the "very exact experiments" he anticipated, Jefferson still plied them with rice.24 According to Governor John Drayton, in his View of South Carolina (1802), Jefferson, "with an attention, which has in many instances been manifested to the interests of this state," sent the society in 1797 ninety-eight different parcels of rice from the Philippines, accompanied by descriptions in Spanish.25 These seeds did not germinate. But the African upland rice took hold in Georgia. Jefferson enlisted Abraham Baldwin in the introduction efforts. Baldwin, father of the University of Georgia, encouraged experiments with the new variety and related "the history of it's progress" each time he came north to attend Congress. Nothing came of the trials in South Carolina, Jefferson wrote in 1808, "but being carried into the upper hilly parts of Georgia, it succeeded there perfectly, has spread over the country, and is now commonly cultivated: still however, for family use chiefly."26
Jefferson's initial hope that he could "save the lives of thousands, and health of tens of thousands annually" had to be modified.27 The less productive dry rice could not compete as a commercial crop with the rice of the malarial swamps. No longer expecting southern planters to abandon their irrigation culture, he was content to see a valuable grain carried to areas where its cultivation had previously been impossible. He heard that it was spreading into Kentucky.28 In Alabama, too, as Anne Royall noted in 1821, every planter grew a crop of "reddish" upland rice for household use.29 In the fall of 1800, when Jefferson asked "whether my country is the better for my having lived at all," he gave himself high marks for the introduction of upland rice. His private list of public services culminated in an account of the spread of dry rice throughout the south and his famous words, "[T]he greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add an useful plant to it’s culture; especially a bread grain."30
One of the first persons Jefferson must have consulted in his search for the rice of Cochin China, back in Paris in 1787, was Andre Thoüin, head gardener at the Jardin du Roi (later Jardin des Plantes). There Thoüin presided for decades, a master acclimatizer, the center of an extensive network of international plant exchanges. In 1809, the annual box of seeds Thoüin sent to his old friend at Monticello contained "a collection of many different species of rice." Jefferson sent it to John Milledge in Georgia, along with the opinion that "the scripture precept of 'prove all things & hold fast that which is good' is peculiarly wise in objects of agriculture."31
Jefferson, unable to resist further experiment, must have taken some seed out of Thoüin's box before passing it on. His garden book for May 7, 1810, reads: "Sowed upland rice at the mouth of the Meadow Branch."32
1. Benjamin Vaughan to Jefferson, March 27, 1790, in PTJ, 16:274. Transcription available at Founders Online.
2. Jefferson to George Wythe, June 13, 1790, in ibid., 16:495. Transcription available at Founders Online. See also Jefferson to Vaughan, June 27, 1790, in ibid., 16:578. Transcription available at Founders Online.
3. Vaughan to Jefferson, March 27, 1790, in ibid., 16:274. Transcription available at Founders Online.
4. Jefferson to Edward Rutledge, July 14, 1787, in ibid., 11:587. Transcription available at Founders Online.
5. Jefferson to John Jay, May 4, 1787, in ibid., 11:339. Transcription available at Founders Online.
6. Jefferson to David Ramsay, October 27, 1786, in ibid., 10:490-91. Transcription available at Founders Online.
7. Jefferson to William Drayton, July 30, 1787, in ibid., 11:646. Transcription available at Founders Online.
30. Jefferson, "Summary of Public Service," [after September 2, 1800], in PTJ, 32:124. Transcription available at Founders Online.
31. David Bailie Warden to Jefferson, May 20, 1809, in PTJ:RS, 1:208 (transcription available at Founders Online); Jefferson to John Milledge, October 10, 1809, in ibid., 1:596 (transcription available at Founders Online).
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.More >>
No story illustrates Jefferson’s missionary zeal for plant experimentation or his devotion to American economic success better than his lifelong quest for upland rice. In 1787, Jefferson was serving...More >>