Can someone explain the importance of Thomas Jefferson's "Notes on the State of Virginia"?Why is this such an important piece of american literature?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Jefferson's work was fairly significant for several reasons.  The first was that it was a detailed and thorough analysis of Jefferson's beloved Virginia.  There is a data collection technique evidenced throughout the work.  Almost scientific in its precision, Jefferson's "Notes" displays both his wide acumen about his state, but also that his state has rendered so much to be catalogued.  Through both the data collection and the work itself, the premise that America was "undeveloped" land was refuted.  On a larger level, the political implications of the work are also extremely significant.  Desiring to “cultivate the peace and friendship of every nation,” he wished “to throw open the door of commerce to all.” With conviction in peaceful progress, he advocated minimum military or naval forces on two grounds: American financial resources could not maintain a force to stand against that of a European power without bankrupting the country; and the expenditure of such funds would be more beneficially applied to the improving of the arts and handicrafts of America.  We can also see an outlining and justification of Republican policies that call for a decrease in government, an emphasis on farming/ agriculture, and the clear demarcation between religious belief and political institutions, three elements that will seek to define both Jefferson and America in the 19th century.  Finally, the work is significant because Jefferson attempts to "hold the wolf" of slavery.  In the work he argues against slavery on both republican and moral grounds.  However, he concedes that he feels there are "natural" differences between the races.  Such a flawed belief system highlights America's challenge with relations of race and the institution of slavery, elements that will pervade American History and thought.

jerseygyrl1983 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I will expand on the previous educator's mention of how Jefferson tried to establish notions of "natural" differences between the races, particularly what made black people so different from other groups.

Jefferson based his ideas on pseudoscience, or false science. He starts with the most obvious difference—color—and explains it as follows:

Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us.

Jefferson goes on to claim that blackness hides "the expression of every passion" which are evident in "the fine mixtures of red and white," and that black people excrete less by the kidneys and "more by the glands of the skin," giving them a strong, unpleasant odor. In regard to character, he claims that black people lack "forethought" and that "their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection." Some of the stereotypes that Jefferson established in the document have persisted.

Whereas he admired some of the manners and supposed characteristics of indigenous peoples and advocated for their education—though only in Christianity and in matters pertaining specifically to them and their tribes—he did not believe that black people had the same capacity to learn, and considered them inferior to whites in mind and body.