J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, January 05, 2013

Promoting the Manufacture of Sugar from the Sugar Maple Tree

Another periodical on my recent reading list was the Autumn 2012 issue of Colonial Williamsburg, featuring its usual mix of articles. One that caught my eye was Mary Miley Theobald’s “Thomas Jefferson and the Sugar Maple Scheme”.

I first read about this episode in the early republic in William Cooper’s Town, by Alan Taylor. The founding patriarch of Cooperstown, New York, sent maple sugar down the Susquehanna River to Philadelphia. The idea was that by switching to domestic sugar from cane sugar made in the Caribbean, Americans could:
Theobald writes of Jefferson:
On his return from France in 1789 to serve as the country’s first secretary of state, he joined [Dr. Benjamin] Rush’s Society for Promoting the Manufacture of Sugar from the Sugar Maple Tree, and proposed a plan. Yeoman farmers of America, he said, could produce enough maple sugar to supply the country’s needs and then some. With little effort, they could export to half the world and put the British sugar producers out of business.

The maple sugar scheme combined Jefferson’s love of botany with his antislavery sentiments, his desire for his country to achieve economic independence, his dislike of the British, and his vision of the yeoman farmer as the backbone of the American republic. “What a blessing,” he wrote a friend in 1790, “to substitute a sugar which requires only the labour of children, for that which it is said renders the slavery of the blacks necessary.”
Of course, Jefferson was also living off the labor of black children.

The Monticello website has a long page, based on the work by Lucia Stanton, about Jefferson’s maple effort, with quotations from his letters. Unfortunately, although the American sugar scheme earned press coverage for Cooper on both sides of the Atlantic, it didn’t stick.

1 comment:

G. Lovely said...

Thank you for bring this fascinating footnote to my attention, but delving further into Jefferson's writings on the subject only confirms my belief that there were actually two men with radically divergent views on race named Thomas Jefferson involved in the founding of our nation.

Surely Jefferson is the exemplar of F. Scott Fitzgerald's dictum that "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."