Composition of Notes
In October 1780 François Barbé-Marbois, secretary of the French legation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, sent questionnaires to officials of the thirteen states requesting detailed information about their history, geography, economy, and culture. Virginia’s copy went to Joseph Jones, a delegate to the Continental Congress. He sent it to Jefferson, then governor of Virginia, who accepted the task with relish. In November, Jefferson acknowledged his “mysterious obligation” to Marbois “for making me much better acquainted with my own country than I was before.”
Marbois did not receive Jefferson’s responses until April 1782, and wrote of his “inexpressible pleasure” for “the candor and frankness on those subjects which politicians of narrow vision call secrets of State”—reflecting among other factors Jefferson’s detailed descriptions of Virginia’s waterways and deficient defenses, and meticulous tabular account of the state’s militia strength by county.
Revision and Expansion
Jefferson continued to revise Notes during the spring, summer, and early autumn of 1782. His wife, Martha, died on September 6 from complications of a difficult pregnancy, leaving Jefferson virtually paralyzed with grief for almost two months. A diplomatic appointment as a peace commissioner on November 12—although he was ultimately prevented from sailing—helped to restore his enthusiasm for life and for Notes. He immediately began soliciting specimens of elk, moose, and other large fauna, as well as size-related data, from correspondents in northern New England and the West in order to refute views expressed by Europe’s premier naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, on the inferiority of New World species. On his arrival in Philadelphia, Jefferson took the manuscript of Notes, now nearly forty pages, to printer Robert Aitken. Aitken quoted a cost of £48 to print it, but Jefferson did not pursue it then.
In June 1783 the General Assembly reelected Jefferson to Congress with a mandate to represent the state’s western interests—a significant theme of Notes. Passages from a letter toon the potential for Virginia’s western trade appear verbatim in the book’s Query VI, “Rivers.” Jefferson also recruited his friend to keep detailed meteorological records daily from sunrise to sundown; he would incorporate them into his own data in Query VII, “Climate” (which Marbois did not request).
Without Jefferson’s permission, the printers Pritchard and Hall struck the first American edition in Philadelphia in 1788. Mathew Carey published the first authorized American edition in 1794. In 1797, Jefferson published “An Appendix to the Notes on Virginia Relative to the Murder of Logan’s Family,” subsequently revised, which appeared in the 1800 edition and most editions after that.
Although Jefferson continued to collect material and often discussed a revised edition, he abandoned the idea by 1814. Some of the new material was incorporated in the 1853 Richmond edition brought to press by Jefferson’s grandson and executor, Thomas Jefferson Randolph.
Structure and Content
Notes on the State of Virginia is divided into twenty-three chapters, largely taken from Marbois’s queries. They are, as they appear in Jefferson’s manuscript copy:
- I It’s boundaries
- II Rivers
- III Seaports
- IV Mountains
- V Cascades and caverns
- VI Productions mineral, vegetable and animal
- VII Climate [not requested by Marbois]
- VIII Population
- IX Military force
- X Marine force
- XI Aborigines
- XII Counties and towns
- XIII Constitution
- XIV Laws
- XV Colleges, buildings, and roads
- XVI Proceedings as to tories
- XX Subjects of commerce
- XXI Weights, measures and money
- XXII Public revenue and expences
- XXIII Histories, memorials, and state-papers
Following the text are two appendices, the first containing Charles Thomson’s observations, chiefly on western commerce, natural features, and Indians, and the second presenting Jefferson’s “Draught of a Fundamental Constitution for the Commonwealth of Virginia,” prepared for a 1783 constitutional convention that never materialized.
Jefferson reordered and renumbered Marbois’s queries, consolidating some and subdividing others (and appending one, “Climate,” that Marbois did not request). The new structure broadly moves from the natural world (Queries I, II, IV, V, VI, and VII) to humans and their artifacts (VIII–XII), to productions of culture and intellect (XIII–XV, XVII, IX–XXIII). (Queries XVI, on Tories, and XVIII, on customs and manners—in fact, exclusively discussing the “custom” of slavery—would seem to fall outside this schema.)
Ostensibly a description of Virginia, Jefferson’s expansive portrait implicitly embraces nearly the entire continent and elides the distinction between the nation and the state. The first chapter, “It’s boundaries,” incorporates the future state of Kentucky, which would soon be ceded to the federal government. The second chapter, “Rivers,” follows the state’s waterways from their sources to their mouths and even encompasses rivers within portage distance outside Virginia’s borders, thereby incorporating most of the eastern half of the continent within its reach. But Jefferson does not stop there: his account flows southward “from the mouth of the Ohio to Santa Fé” and onward, “passing the mines of Charcas, Zaccatecas and Potosí, to the city of Mexico,” bringing the entire southwest of North America within Virginia’s compass.
Jefferson’s agrarian predisposition is powerfully affirmed throughout the work. He dispenses with Query III, “Seaports,” in a single sentence (with no nod to Hampton Roads, perhaps the largest natural harbor in the world), and Query XII, “Counties and towns,” fills just over two pages. Query XIX, “Manufactures,” warns against domestic production and calls for the country to remain agricultural: “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people …. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phænomenon of which no age or nation has furnished an example.” By contrast, “The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.” Jefferson also worried that large-scale immigration from Europe would dilute republican sentiment and “warp and bias” legislation.
Query VI, “Productions mineral, vegetable and animal,” accounts for nearly a third of the book. In this chapter, Jefferson unleashed a deluge of facts, figures, and tables to refute the Comte de Buffon’s claim that American species were smaller and weaker than their European counterparts. An equally important target of Jefferson’s rhetorical attack, however, was the Abbé Guillaume-Thomas Raynal, chief author of the sweeping Histoire des Deux Indes, a study of global commerce that was highly critical of slavery in the Americas. Jefferson sidestepped Raynal’s attacks on slavery, however, and focused on his critique of American cultural inferiority: “America has not yet produced one good poet.” Accepting the truth of the charge, Jefferson attributed the deficiency to the nation’s youth, and pointed in compensation to its distinguished scientists.
Jefferson responded to Marbois’s Query VII, “A notice of all what can increase the progress of human knowledge,” with a detailed examination of the single topic of Virginia’s climate. This odd interpretation might seem a wry commentary on the extreme environmentalism of Buffon and other European naturalists, but Jefferson’s own passion for meteorology bordered on the obsessive. He noted that Virginia’s climate had moderated in recent years.
Jefferson used Query XIII, “Constitution,” to elaborate on his theory of the American founding inof 1774, and to offer a twenty-five-page critique of the existing Virginia constitution, which he regarded as unrepresentative and as illegitimate because it was not drafted by a convention. (He also incorporated an alternative constitution as an appendix.) He regarded this discussion as among the two most controversial subjects in the book.
This was the other topic over which Jefferson anticipated conflict. In Query XIV, “Laws,” Jefferson discussed his proposal for the emancipation and removal of Virginia’s slaves. (He never introduced this plan to a lawmaking body.) In a long passage he explained why freed blacks could not remain: “Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” In addition to these “political” reasons, Jefferson added the aesthetic ones of “colour, figure, and hair,” and presented a set of distinctions “proving a difference of race.” He further argued that blacks were inferior to whites in reason and imagination: “This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.” The historian Merrill Peterson aptly characterized Jefferson’s bias toward African Americans as “a product of frivolous and tortuous reasoning” in his book Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation (1970), dismissing his pseudoscientific judgments as “thinly disguised statements of folk belief about Negroes.” Jefferson’s emancipation plan, moreover, was stupendously expensive for a state famous for its parsimony.
Jefferson responded to Marbois’s Query XVIII, “The particular customs and manners that may happen to be received in that state,” with a discussion of the “unhappy influence” of slavery on Virginia: “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other …. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals, undepraved by such circumstances; and with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half of the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies; destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriæ of the other.” (It is noteworthy that Jefferson here describes slaves as citizens.) In considering the potential consequences of slavery, Jefferson adopted his most apocalyptic tone: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that … a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.”
Reception and Significance
As Jefferson predicted, his comments about slavery proved controversial—his strictures on Virginia’s constitution less so. Perhaps more scandalous were his irreverent statements about religion, for example, calling into question the Biblical flood, and remarking that “it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” These overtly skeptical comments generated greater outrage among Christian believers than did his equally heterodox speculations about the separateness of blacks, although these were attacked by some religious and Enlightenment writers. While not a best seller, Notes received high praise and proved greatly influential, with large sections reprinted verbatim in numerous works (including The American Geography  by Jedidiah Morse, who was perhaps his bitterest Federalist opponent). It remains in print in multiple editions, and stands as perhaps the single most important window into Jefferson’s philosophy and character.