Notes on the State of Virginia


Notes on the State of Virginia Notes on the State of Virginia

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Table of contents

    The Intended Audience of Notes on the State of Virginia

    Notes on the State of Virginia was indirectly commissioned by Francois Marbois, Secretary of the French legation to the United States.1 He was stationed in Philadelphia and had wanted to collect information on all the thirteen colonies that had now become the United States. A delegate from Virginia, Joseph Jones, knew that his colleague Thomas Jefferson was best suited for the task, especially with Virginia being the largest state at the time.

    Jefferson had a lot of pride in his native state. Not only was he a successor to generations before him, but he was also active in local and state politics as a representative in the provincial government in the House of Burgess before the Revolutionary War. During the American Revolutionary War for independence from Britain, he was serving as Governor of Virginia. Jefferson was very fond of his home state, often expressing in correspondence to friends and colleagues a desire to return to Virginia and take a break from politics.

    Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia essentially was an answer to Marbois' questions. He sought to outline and collect all possible data and information on the State of Virginia, comprehensively, but also as a representation of America as a whole, as he believed Virginia embodied the ideal society. The book would go on to be published in Paris anonymously, and only later, once Jefferson discovered for himself the French translation and was dissatisfied, did he approach publishers in London to print an English version he approved of.

    For the most part, Jefferson wrote the book with the international community in mind, for those interested in a detailed look and cataloging of what America had to offer. Early prints circulated only a couple hundred copies, and Jefferson explicitly instructed friends to share copies only with their most trusted friends themselves.2

    George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, and his proponents were the ultimate audience of Jefferson's work. Buffon was the foremost natural historian in Western thinking of the late 18th century, who incorrectly proposed that the lands and biome of the Americas were inherently inferior compared to Europe. Jefferson wanted to show the promise of America, with the example of Virginia, and rightly refuted the outlandish, baseless (although widely accepted) claims by Buffon. Ultimately, Jefferson was seeking financial and military support and wanted to secure long-lasting alliances, like with France. Notes on the State of Virginia in this way served as an advertisement for the potential prosperity of the newly formed United States to other countries.

    Thomas Jefferson: Notes on the State of Virginia

    Thomas Jefferson was an avid learner of natural science, and very familiar with his home state. Much of the book is based on ideas from Enlightenment thinking that Jefferson was educated on. To him, the government's role was to help facilitate and protect a citizen's inalienable rights, such as the freedom to express oneself and protest, without fear of punishment from the government. It's the government's job to protect this individual freedom against others who seek to take them away. In this way, he expounded on the concepts in the "Declaration of Independence" of which he was the primary author.

    Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, StudySmarterThomas Jefferson wrote much of Notes on the State of Virginia from his experience in local and national politics and as a native resident. Wikimedia commons.

    Thomas Jefferson's father, who was self-educated, insisted on Thomas Jefferson receiving a formal education. He studied mathematics, science, classics, and several languages. From ages seventeen to nineteen he attended the College of William and Mary, the second oldest American college today. Attending college in the capital of colonial Virginia, Williamsburg, gave Jefferson access to many influential and important people. Jefferson was exposed to the idea that people could and should be governed by their own reasoning, rather than by a monarch who received their power through hereditary tradition.

    Thomas Jefferson's political career started in his home of Virginia. He was a representative in the House of Burgess, and eventually became Virginia's governor. Afterward, he became the third president of the United States and won reelection. His political experience would inspire much of his thinking and what information to include in Notes on the State of Virginia.

    Notes on the State of Virginia: Summary

    Notes on the State of Virginia is a compilation of information on the state of Virginia. Jefferson details the natural resources and environment, the military, the economy, the industry and manufacturing, the population, and the government, along with his views on religion, separation of church and state, and slavery.

    Chapters 1 -5 present information on the geography and many bodies of water of Virginia. The following chapters deal with infrastructure, military, and demographics of people. Chapters 19 - 22 detail the economy of Virginia: production, accounting, legal systems, and revenue. Jefferson felt less qualified to expound on the details of the economy, and instead, he expounded on the topics he was more experienced with, such as the geopolitics of Virginia. He described the rivers as conduits of commerce, but also marked the boundaries of the state with territories of Native Americans. Being from Virginia, an agriculturist, and a nature observer, he felt qualified to describe its natural resources and its potential for being even more prosperous. He even noted the change in climate, as in his lifetime Virginia became warmer, and he cited the evidence of the mountains having smaller and shorter snow caps.

    Notes on the state of virginia, chart of Native American territories and rivers, StudySmarterNotes on the State of Virginia includes multiple charts and diagrams listing and detailing virtually everything one could imagine. Jefferson wanted to be as thorough as possible. Wikimedia commons.

    Jefferson previously attempted to include a condemnation of slavery in the "A Summary View of the Rights of British America" (1774) and the "Declaration of Independence" (1776), but it was edited out by his colleagues for politically motivated reasons. He finally was able to include them in Notes on the State of Virginia.

    Main ideas of the Notes on the State of Virginia

    Despite the extensive cataloging of natural resources, accounting, and infrastructure of Virginia, the main ideas of the Notes on the State of Virginia are the conclusions that Jefferson reaches through his reflections on good society, religion, the state, and his views on slavery.

    Virginia as a Model Society

    It's not a coincidence that Thomas Jefferson used his home state of Virginia as a model society. Here he was formally educated and started his political career. As a representative in the state legislature, and eventually governor, Jefferson would lament that he didn't do enough for his home state. Frequently he would favor legislation that protected individual rights against the interests of wealthy landowners, such as himself. He understood that his inherited wealth came from the work of generations before him, and he wanted to offer the same opportunities to other Americans.

    Separation of Church and State

    Thomas Jefferson was a vocal advocate of the separation of church and state. In his view, if religion is legitimate and its God is powerful, it does not need the support of manmade institutions. This was considered highly controversial in Jefferson's time. While public intellectuals mostly espoused the rationality of Enlightenment thinking, organized religion still played a crucial role in most citizens' lives. While Jefferson was running for president, his opponents cited his criticisms of religion as proof of his atheism and lack of faith.

    Jefferson personally believed in a God and was brought up in a Christian household. While he attended church regularly, Jefferson viewed these public displays of faith as acts of respect toward his constituents. He did not believe in the supernatural claims of the Bible, like miracles. Jefferson preferred to view the world through the rationality and logic of the Enlightenment. Jesus and the Bible were moral authorities, provided they were not officially adopted by the state. A passionate believer in religious freedom, Thomas Jefferson was against denying anyone's rights on grounds of religious affiliation. For example, before the revolution, Virginia barred anyone who did not follow the church of England from holding public office.

    Anti-slavery sentiments

    Jefferson, despite relying on slaves to maintain his estate, was willing to acknowledge the precarity of the institution of slavery. He felt that slavery was built upon the oppression and humiliation of a group of people. It was only natural that rebellion was inevitable, and it was a deep-rooted fear of slave masters. This fragile and abusive relationship could not be sustained. Yet he did not feel that free white people and free Black people could co-exist.

    While he offered the solution of deportation of freed slaves to form another country, Jefferson was more interested in diagnosing and describing the problem than offering solutions. Any anti-slavery sentiment was unpopular at the time, and despite trying to include discussion of these in his previous written works, "Summary of the Rights of British America" and the "Declaration of Independence", his colleagues opted to edit them out them. Thomas Jefferson felt he could finally be open and honest about his complicated relationship with slavery since he wrote Notes on the State of Virginia for international audiences.

    The Significance of Notes on the State of Virginia

    Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia became one of the most important and comprehensive descriptions of the cultural life of the early American Republic.2

    Jefferson took this questionnaire that desired a local report and made it into a larger scientific and philosophical inquiry of the American experiment. Notes on the State of Virginia was more a dialectical discussion than an accumulation of details about the wealth of resources, culture, and power of Virginia. Each topic was interlaced with Jefferson's own political views: the superiority of an agrarian society, and the necessary protection of individual autonomy built on a limited, democratically elected, central government.

    Abolitionists, like David Walker, would cite Jefferson's passages on slavery as an example of a great person with problematic thinking on equality. Walker's intention was to advise later abolitionists on how to anticipate and handle this sort of thinking with their opponents. On the other hand, Abraham Lincoln would reference antislavery passages from Jefferson to support his Emancipation Proclamation (1863), such as reframing the "all men as equal", extolled by Thomas Jefferson, as principles meant to extend to all peoples, especially the recently freed Black populace.

    Notes on the State of Virginia - Key takeaways

    • Notes on the State of Virginia was written by Thomas Jefferson as an answer to questions posed by Francois Marbois, Secretary of the French legation to the United States.
    • Thomas Jefferson attempted to provide a comprehensive description of the State of Virginia, but his political views and ideas interlaced throughout the text ultimately became the points of discussion for readers.
    • The main ideas of the Notes on the State of Virginia include Virginia as a model society, the separation of church and state, and anti-slavery sentiments.
    • Notes on the State of Virginia would continue to be read generations later by abolitionists like David Walker, and future President Abraham Lincoln.

    1. Meacham, John. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (2012).

    2. Shuffelton, Frank (Ed). Notes on the State of Virginia (1999).

    Notes on the State of Virginia Notes on the State of Virginia
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Notes on the State of Virginia

    What is the Notes on the State of Virginia about?

    Notes on the State of Virginia is about the State of Virginia's natural resources, geography, economy, and government.

    Who originally published Notes on the State of Virginia?

    Thomas Jefferson had Notes on the State of Virginia published while in Paris, France, anonymously.

    What did Thomas Jefferson argue in Notes on the State of Virginia?

    Thomas Jefferson argued that church and state should be separated, slavery as an institution was unsustainable, and America had just as much promise in its natural resources and biome as that of Europe, if not more.

    What was the purpose of Notes on the State of Virginia?

    The purpose of Notes on the State of Virginia was that Jefferson sought to answer a questionnaire proposed by Francois Marbois, Secretary of the French legation to the United States.

    Who is the intended audience of the Notes on the State of Virginia?

    The intended audience for the Notes on the State of Virginia was a French foreign delegate but also proponents of Buffon, a widely accepted natural historian who claimed that the natural resources and biome of America was inferior to Europe.

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