Friday, May 22, 2020
Notes on the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson
The future president as scientist and statesman
During his lifetime, Thomas Jefferson wrote enough documents, papers, letters, and addresses to fill many volumes, but he only published one full-length book. Notes on the State of Virginia was first printed in a limited edition in 1785 and then published for the American public in 1787. Jefferson wrote the book after the Declaration of Independence but before the completion of the U.S. Constitution, at a time when America was engaged in the Revolutionary War with Britain and the colonies were governed by the Articles of Confederation (an early form of American government at which Jefferson levels some criticism). In response to inquiries from a French diplomat, Jefferson penned the work in the form of 23 questions and their answers. While Jefferson writes mostly on the specifics of his home state, he does broaden his scope to encompass the American colonies as a whole, thus leaving behind a valuable document of the colonial era.
Prussian scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt was a great admirer of Jefferson and of Notes on the State of Virginia in particular. The reason for this is because Jefferson approaches his study of Virginia very much as an explorer or scientist would. This book is almost a prototype for what geographers today refer to as “area studies.” It would be hard to imagine any of today’s state politicians possessing the encyclopedic knowledge of their state that Jefferson displays here. His thorough examination of Virginia reveals Jefferson the polymath or Renaissance man who possesses a boundless curiosity in numerous disciplines. He recites in detail the breadth and depth of every river mouth, the navigability of rapids, the productivity of mines, the most successful species of crops and breeds of livestock, and the geographical distribution of mammoth fossils. He presents tables of self-gathered climate data, calculates population demographics, catalogs all of America’s known mammals and birds, and outlines a geographic history of all the Native American tribes east of the Mississippi. He even compiles a bibliography of historical texts on the exploration and founding of America, ranging from Newfoundland to Jamaica.
Of course, as one would expect from the future president, Jefferson also includes plenty of political philosophy and law. Slavery and Indian relations are two topics much discussed. Jefferson meanders from an explanation of homestead laws to a discussion of slaves as property and then to a comparison of racial characteristics among whites, blacks, and Indians. Some of the opinions expressed on race are certainly not politically correct by today’s standards, but for his time white Southern males didn’t get much more liberal than Jefferson. In several passages he advocates for Indian rights and the abolition of slavery, though the historical record shows on the latter issue he didn’t really put his money where his mouth was. He was sympathetic to the plight of slaves and Indigenous peoples, but he saw them as children who needed to be guided by a white hand. He equivocally talks about emancipation and racial equality as indefinite long-term goals.
As appendices, Jefferson provides an outline of the Virginia state constitution, as well as an act establishing religious freedom in the state of Virginia. Editions after 1800 also include an appendix of conflicting legal depositions pertaining to an Indian massacre Jefferson discusses in the text, which is quite tragic. Notes on the State of Virginia does have some boring and antiquated passages, but it is loaded with interesting historical detail, even for those who aren’t specifically interested in Virginia. This book really gives the reader a fascinating look inside the mind of Jefferson and also provides a multifaceted glimpse into colonial life in an America on the verge of independence.
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