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.

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.”

On March 4, 1781, Jefferson informed Marbois that he had undertaken the task of answering “some of” his queries, noting that his “present occupations disable me from completing” them. The pressure of events, including a second British invasion of Virginia and the death of his daughter Lucy Elizabeth, delayed Jefferson’s responses. Jefferson resigned the governorship on June 1 and three days later fled Monticello to avoid capture by the British. In seclusion with his family at his Poplar Forest plantation and having suffered the humiliation of a legislative investigation of his conduct as governor, Jefferson returned to his study of Virginia, transmitting it to Marbois on December 20. Jefferson had already contemplated wider dissemination of the work, suggesting to the secretary of Congress, Charles Thomson, on December 20 that portions of it might be submitted to the American Philosophical Society. Thomson readily agreed and later offered extensive comments on the manuscript, which Jefferson incorporated as an appendix to the printed edition.

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

George-Louis Leclerc

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 to George Washington on the potential for Virginia’s western trade appear verbatim in the book’s Query VI, “Rivers.” Jefferson also recruited his friend James Madison 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).

Printing History

Engraving of Thomas Jefferson

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
  • XVII Religion
  • XVIII Manners
  • XIX Manufactures
  • 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.)

An Eye-Draught of the Mammoth Cave
An Eye-Draught of the Mammoth Cave, in Warren County. [Ky]
Plan of Madison and Amen's Caverns
Plan of Madison and Amen’s Caverns
A Sketch of several antient Fortifications
A Sketch of several antient Fortifications, situate on the Little Miami River &c.
A Sketch of Several Forts by the Scioto River
A Sketch of Several Forts by the Scioto River
A Map of the country between Albemarle Sound
A Map of the country between Albemarle Sound, and Lake Erie, comprehending the whole of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania, with parts of several other of the United States of America.

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.

Weather Observations

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 in Summary View of the Rights of British Americans of 1774 and to offer a twenty-five-page critique of the existing Virginia constitution, which he regarded as unrepresentative and 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.


Daguerreotype of Isaac Jefferson

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 enslaved people. (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.

Virginian Luxuries.

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 enslaved people 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 [1789] 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.

October 1780
François Barbé-Marbois, secretary of the French legation in Philadelphia, sends a questionnaire to representatives from all thirteen states eliciting historical, geographical, economic, and cultural information about each. Virginia's copy goes to Joseph Jones, who forwards it to Governor Thomas Jefferson.
November 30, 1780
Thomas Jefferson writes to the French consul, Charles-François-Adrien Le Paulmier, Chevalier d'Anmours, "I am at present busily employed for Monsr. Marbois without his knowing it, and have to acknolege to him the mysterious obligation for making me much better acquainted with my own country than I ever was before."
March 4, 1781
Thomas Jefferson writes in a letter to François Barbé-Marbois that "my present occupations disable me from compleating" the responses to Marbois's queries, but intends "shortly, to be in a condition which will leave me quite at leisure to take them up."
June 5, 1781
Governor Thomas Jefferson retreats to the Poplar Forest site with his family to avoid capture by the British. While he is there, he works on portions of Notes on the State of Virginia.
December 20, 1781
Thomas Jefferson sends to François Barbé-Marbois his answers to Marbois's queries and requests that Marbois show them to Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress.
December 20, 1781
Thomas Jefferson writes Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress, suggesting that some of the answers to the queries posed by François Barbé-Marbois might be submitted to the American Philosophical Society.
April 13—17, 1782
The Marquis de Chastellux visits Thomas Jefferson at Monticello and reviews Notes on the State of Virginia.
April 22, 1782
François Barbé-Marbois writes to Thomas Jefferson confirming his receipt of Jefferson's answers to Marbois's queries.
November 12, 1782
Congress appoints Thomas Jefferson as a commissioner to join John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and Henry Laurens in Europe to negotiate a peace treaty with Great Britain.
November 26, 1782
Thomas Jefferson writes to George Rogers Clark, asking him to procure "some of the big bones" to ship to Europe. "Elk horns of very extraordinary size, or anything else uncommon would be very acceptable."
December 27, 1782
Thomas Jefferson arrives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to prepare for his departure for France; while there, he explores the possibility of publishing Notes on the State of Virginia.
September 25, 1783
Thomas Jefferson sends a copy of Notes on the State of Virginia to Thomas Walker and asks him to edit and add data on animal sizes and on Indians.
January 16, 1784
Thomas Jefferson writes the Marquis de Chastellux that Notes on the State of Virginia has "swelled to nearly treble bulk. [B]eing now too much for M.S. copies I think the ensuing spring to print a dozen or 20 copies to be given to my friends, not suffering another to go out."
May 1784
Thomas Jefferson arrives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with the manuscript of Notes on the State of Virginia, but the printing is too expensive. He writes to Charles Thomson, "Perhaps I may have a few copies struck off in Paris if there is an English printer."
July—December 1784
In Paris, Thomas Jefferson revises Notes on the State of Virginia and brings the manuscript to a printer.
May 10, 1785
The printing of an edition of 200 copies of Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia is completed in Paris.
Spring—Autumn 1785
Thomas Jefferson distributes Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) to "some friends" and "other estimable characters," urging them not to republish it.
November—December 1785
Abbé André Morellet begins to work with Thomas Jefferson on translating Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) into French.
Summer 1786
Thomas Jefferson sends thirty-seven copies of Notes on the State of Virginia for distribution to students at the College of William and Mary and another fifty-seven copies to Richmond bookseller Alexander Donald.
August 8, 1786
The London printer John Stockdale proposes publishing Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia in England.
The French edition of Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, translated by Abbé André Morellet, is printed.
February 1, 1787
Thomas Jefferson asks the London printer John Stockdale to publish Notes on the State of Virginia.
September 1787
London printer John Stockdale publishes the first English edition of Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia.
  • Ferguson, Robert. “‘Mysterious Obligation’: Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia.” American Literature 52 (1980): 381–406.
  • Peden, William, ed. Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1955.
  • Tucker, David. Enlightened Republicanism: A Study of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2008.
  • Wilson, Douglas L. “The Evolution of Jefferson’s ‘Notes on the State of Virginia.’” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 112, no. 2 (2004): 98–133.
APA Citation:
Forbes, Robert. Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/notes-on-the-state-of-virginia-1785.
MLA Citation:
Forbes, Robert. "Notes on the State of Virginia (1785)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2023, March 03
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