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Born in 1743, Jefferson was still a young man when he drafted his first responses to Marbois in late 1781. Although he had already made important contributions to the Revolutionary cause, both in Congress as chief draftsman of the American Declaration of Independence and in Virginia as a reform-minded legislator, Jefferson’s allegedly poor performance as war governor clouded his future prospects. Lacking the constitutional authority and political resources to mobilize effective defenses against the turncoat Benedict Arnold’s invasion of the state in December 1780, Jefferson and the legislature fled from Richmond, the state capital, to Charlottesville; Banastre Tarleton’s follow-up assault on Charlottesville precipitated further flight, with the beleaguered ex-governor seeking refuge at his Poplar Forest plantation near Lynchburg while the legislature reconvened at Staunton, across the mountains. Despite the state’s woefully inadequate defenses, the British threat quickly subsided. Commander Charles Cornwallis walked into a Franco-American trap at Yorktown and his surrender (December 19, 1781) sapped Britain’s counter-revolutionary will to fight and pointed toward a peace settlement. Republican Virginia had nearly been wiped off the map and Jefferson’s career had been tarnished, perhaps irredeemably, even though the Virginia Assembly resolved “to obviate and remove all unmerited Censure.” If the commonwealth had survived, neither Jefferson nor his fellow Virginians—with the glorious exceptions of Commander George Washington and his Continental troops—deserved any credit for this happy outcome.
As Jefferson drafted his Notes and revised them over the next few years, Virginia’s prospects revived. Centrally located and with the largest territory and population of any state, Virginia was bound to take the leading role in the union that had secured its independence as a self-governing commonwealth. The forward-looking, boosterish thrust of many of Jefferson’s “Queries” (or chapters) reflected his renewed confidence in a future that could be calculated and projected, in the characteristic mode of contemporaneous political economy, in terms of extensive territory, an expanding population, and boundless resources. But fundamental questions lingered for Jefferson about whether Virginians were sufficiently virtuous and patriotic to fulfill their state’s promise. Marbois’ questions led Jefferson to probe Virginia’s constitutional liabilities, both in the familiar modern sense of his concerns about the 1776 state constitution and in the broader sense of his concerns about possible defects in the “constitution” and character of the body politic.
Jefferson’s authorial presence may not be immediately apparent in Notes on the State of Virginia, but it is nonetheless an extraordinarily personal document, written in a time of epochal changes in his world and in his private life. The malaise of 1781 was exacerbated in the next year by the devastating blow of the death of his wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson, and was only relieved by new public assignments, first as a Virginia delegate in the Confederation Congress (1783–84) and then as the new nation’s representative in Paris (1784–89). Notes was first published in 1785, in a private French edition intended for limited circulation, and only gained a broader readership in the first English (Stockdale) edition, published in London in 1787. Jefferson was reluctant to publish, but feared that bowdlerized, mistranslated versions of the original text would misrepresent him to the larger world; except for his famous state papers, written in his capacity as a public servant, Jefferson would avoid publication in the future. Jefferson’s reluctance to publish Notes reflected his awareness that some of its passages, particularly on slavery and the Virginia constitution, would provoke controversy, revealing too much about his own private views and thus compromising his public persona. His self-consciousness was also apparent in his choice to include the map of Virginia drafted by his surveyor-father Peter Jefferson and Professor Joshua Fry of the College of William and Mary in 1751 as a frontispiece of the Stockdale edition. Philiopiety and patriotism merged as Jefferson simultaneously merged his own identity with his father’s and with Virginia’s.
Jefferson emphasized three major themes in ordering his responses to Marbois’ Queries. He began with a set of Queries (I–VII) on Virginia’s physical geography that can be read as a sustained commentary on, and prose equivalent of, the Fry-Jefferson map, and then proceeded to a survey and analysis of the Commonwealth’s population in Queries VIII–XI and a discussion of its government, laws, manners, and public statistics in Queries XII–XXII. Notes concludes with a Query (23) on previous histories of Virginia (which Jefferson considered inadequate) and a catalogue of important state papers. Bracketed by a prospectus for Virginia’s future growth and by a compilation of resources for understanding its past, Jefferson’s ambivalent analysis of contemporary Virginians and their capacity for fulfilling the American Revolution’s promise constitutes the heart of his book.
Virginia’s prospects seemed boundless, if only Virginians would seize them. The Commonwealth’s territorial claims, not yet recognized by other states or by foreign powers when Jefferson began writing, were bounded on the north and west by the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, embracing a total of 121,525 square miles, a vast domain “one third larger that the islands of Great Britain and Ireland” (Query I). Rivers (Query II) would be key to the development of Virginia’s inland empire, particularly if the Potomac could be connected with the Mississippi River system. Nature favored Virginians, but it was incumbent on them to improve its advantages. This was the implicit message of Query VI, with its extensive inventories of mineral, vegetable, and animal resources. Refuting the claim of prominent European naturalists that animal species, including humans, degenerated in the New World, Jefferson assembled data that demonstrated that Americans were at least as big, probably bigger than their Old World counterparts. The new nation had already produced a cohort of “geniuses” (including George Washington, “one of the most celebrated worthies of the world,” scientist-statesman Benjamin Franklin, and the astronomer David Rittenhouse) who augured well for its human development. Yet even these patriotic polemics betrayed Jefferson’s anxieties. Would succeeding generations live up to the Revolutionary generation’s high standard? Would Americans successfully exploit their natural advantages? Would Virginia extend its effective jurisdiction to the limits depicted and described by Peter Jefferson and his son Thomas?
Virginia’s future depended on the size and character of its population. Jefferson’s data showed that Virginians had doubled in number every “27 ¼ years,” suggesting that the state might one day replicate the population density of the “British islands.” But what sort of population would that be? Too many non-English speaking immigrants, ignorant of the principles of “the English constitution, with others derived from natural right and reason,” would make Virginia “a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass” (Query VIII). Virginia’s total population of 567,614 also included 259,230 “slaves of all ages.” The benign natural conditions Jefferson celebrated in earlier Queries had the perverse effect of promoting the growth of the slave population: “this blot in our country increases as fast, or faster, than the whites.” Slaves were even worse than unassimilated immigrants, for as Jefferson later argued (in Query XIV), “the injuries they have sustained” under slavery made them white Virginians’ natural enemies.
Even as Jefferson elaborated on Virginia’s boundless prospects, troubling questions came to the fore when Jefferson turned from the state’s land and people to its government and laws. As an independent commonwealth, Virginia could control the growth and character of its population, assert and vindicate territorial claims against other states, and determine the course of future social and economic development. Jefferson was particularly anxious about the uncertain future of his Bill for Religious Freedom, introduced in 1779 as part of a broad set of legal reforms that would complete Virginia’s republican revolution: “shackles . . . which shall not be knocked off at the conclusion of this war, will be made heavier and heavier, till our rights shall revive or expire in a convulsion” (Query XVII). The legislature’s failure to emancipate and expatriate slaves would also produce “convulsions” (Query XIV) that would jeopardize Virginia’s republican future. Jefferson’s misgivings about the Commonwealth resonated with the crisis in his own career in late 1781.
The British invasion showed that Virginia’s constitution was fundamentally flawed. In June 1781, the legislature considered creating a “dictator” who would exercise extraordinary, despotic powers in the emergency, thus supplanting the constitutional executive (Jefferson himself) and destroying the republic. The “very thought alone was treason against the people”; indeed it would be “treason against mankind in general” (Query XIII). The tendency toward despotism was inherent in the disproportionate concentration of power in the House of Delegates under the 1776 constitution, for “173 despots would surely be as oppressive as one.” The constitution itself had been enacted by a self-appointed revolutionary convention, without the authorization or ratification of the people. Instead of rectifying these defects, Virginians seemed all too prone to sacrifice their rights and regress to a condition worse than monarchy.
Perhaps, as Jefferson’s wartime experience suggested, Virginians lacked the necessary spirit and virtue to sustain their republican experiment and fulfill the glorious future that Notes on Virginia envisioned for them. The centrality of slavery to Virginia’s prosperity underscored his misgivings. On one hand, Jefferson understood that private wealth and public revenue depended on “value of our lands and slaves, taken conjunctly” continuing to double every generation: slaves were integral to the political economist’s Virginia (Query XXII). But the republican moralist “tremble[d] for my country,” knowing that a just God would one day authorize “a revolution of the wheel of fortune.” Would the slaves’ emancipation be “with the consent of the masters” or by “their extirpation” in a bloody race war (Query XVIII)?
As he responded to Marbois’ Queries, Jefferson assumed various roles and voices, thus conjuring up different “Virginias” and betraying his own profound ambivalence at a particularly troubled moment in his career. His concerns about Virginia’s national character are most conspicuous in successive Queries on “Manners” (XVIII) and “Manufactures” (XIX). For the great Enlightenment French philosopher Montesquieu (Charles de Secondat) in his Spirit of the Laws (1743) and his many followers, the moeurs or manners of a people were fundamental to the constitution of any regime. It is striking that Jefferson emphasized the degrading effects of slave-holding on the master class in his discussion of manners: “the whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise” of the “most boisterous passions” and “unremitting despotism.” Worse still were slavery’s demoralizing effects on the rising generation, “nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny.” Only when Jefferson turned to manufactures did he recover his faith in the people, for “those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God,” the “peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.” Now he portrayed Virginians as farmers, not slaveholding despots, virtuous antitypes of the corrupt and dependent “mobs” of Europe’s “great cities.” Yet again, as in his discussion of the size of animals, the juxtaposition of virtuous New World to degenerate Old restored Jefferson’s sense of the American Revolution’s redemptive potential for Virginia and for “mankind in general.”
Notes on Virginia is a self-portrait of its author at a pivotal moment in his career, much more revealing than the autobiography he drafted in 1821, near the end of his life, for the private benefit of family and friends. Of course, Jefferson could not know how his own story, or Virginia’s story, would turn out when he drafted his responses to Marbois’ queries. Jefferson, torn between hope and fear, offers readers of Notes on the State of Virginia vital insight into the uncertainties and contingencies of the American Revolutionary experience.
Peter S. Onuf is Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Educated at Johns Hopkins University, Onuf has written extensively on Thomas Jefferson and his age. He has held positions at several institutions, including visiting professorships at University College Dublin and Oxford University.
A NOTE ON THE TEXT
SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING
NOTES ON THE STATE OF VIRGINIA
No. I: Charles Thomson's Observations
No. II: Draught of the Constitution
No. III: Act for Establishing Religious Freedom
No. IV: Relative to the Murder of Logan's Family
Letters and Documents
EXPLANATORY AND TEXTUAL NOTES