A Sweet Legacy? Thomas Jefferson and the Development of the Maple Sugar Industry in Vermont
AbstractWhen Thomas Jefferson and James Madison headed north from New York City on May 21, 1791 for a trip through New York and New England, Americans were sweetening their tea and baked goods with white cane sugar produced by slaves in the British West Indies and imported from Great Britain, America's erstwhile enemy. Jefferson was already a proponent of using maple sugar instead of cane, largely as a result of his friendship with Benjamin Rush, the Philadelphia abolitionist. At a stop in Bennington, Vermont he met with local dignitaries, including Governor Moses Robinson and Vermont Gazette editor Anthony Haswell, who reported on Jefferson's championing of maple sugar production and optimistic calculations of how much the US demand for sweeteners the local product could supply. Jefferson had already begun attempts to grow maple trees at Monticello, and on his return trip he places an order for sugar maples with a nursery on Long Island. For the rest of his life he continued to purchase, use, and promote maple sugar as a replacement for cane, even as slave labor maintained his lifestyle at Monticello.
Maple sugaring is a quintessential New England activity, and it is most closely associated with Vermont. Vermont is by far the largest maple syrup producer in the United States and makes twice what the other five New England states combined produce. What impact, if any, did Thomas Jefferson's advocacy have on the development of the sugaring industry, particularly in Vermont? What other factors were at work in promoting maple over cane sugar in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? To what extent is it possible to document the influence of one or another factor in the evolution of the maple sugaring industry, given the dearth of production records during this era? How does the picture we gain of Thomas Jefferson as maple sugar advocate reconcile with that of the lifelong slaveowner who even on his death did not free all of his slaves?
Using both primary and secondary sources (including letters, newspapers, almanacs, government agricultural reports, journal articles and Jefferson biographies), this thesis discusses the impact of Thomas Jefferson's advocacy on the development of maple sugaring in Vermont. Despite suggestions in popular literature that Jefferson was the father of the maple sugar industry, the reality is more complex. For one thing, there were numerous other factors contributing to the promotion and development of maple sugar and syrup in the United States, such as the so-called maple sugar bubble fueled by land speculators; abolitionist fervor; and economic necessity among colonial farmers struggling to wrest a living from the rocky, forested lands of New England. It is also difficult to draw a line from Jefferson to the steadily increasing amount of maple sugar and syrup produced because no production records were kept until 1840, when the US Census Bureau began to keep them. Finally, the maple sugar industry never became a force in the commercial arena until technological advances beginning in the mid-nineteenth century (e.g., tin buckets and cans and more efficient sap evaporating systems) gave it impetus. Therefore, my conclusion is that, while Jefferson continued to advocate the use of maple sugar both at home and abroad well past the turn of the nineteenth century, his influence was just one of many, and not the seminal one.
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