Author: Robert P. Forbes

assistant professor of history and American studies at the University of Connecticut—Torrington.

Notes on the State of Virginia (1785)

Notes on the State of Virginia, by Thomas Jefferson, is at once a compendium of information about the state and a sweeping commentary on natural history, society, politics, education, religion, slavery, liberty, and law. Many consider it the most important American book written before 1800. Jefferson originally composed the work in 1781 in answer to queries posed by a French diplomat, and then revised and expanded it into a description and defense of the young United States as interpreted through a Virginia lens. The book is divided into twenty-three chapters, largely taken from the diplomat’s queries, though Jefferson reordered and renumbered them. Notes was first published in Paris in 1785 in an edition of 200. Both a French translation, published in 1786, and the widely circulated London edition of 1787 incorporated important structural changes and a detailed map. Notes on the State of Virginia wrested the interpretation of the young American nation from European critics and intellectuals and offered an eloquent indigenous voice. It profoundly influenced European understanding of the United States, as well as American views of Virginia. It established Jefferson’s international reputation as a serious scientist, a man of letters, and the principal spokesman for his “country,” whether Virginia or the United States; his discursive text, ranging over the entire continent, implicitly blurred the distinction between the two. As the most detailed and influential portrait of any state or region of the United States for generations, Notes ensured that Virginia would be a primary focus of future studies of the American republic. The book contains Jefferson’s most powerful indictments of slavery; it is also a foundational text of racism.

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