Notes on the State of Virginia

by Thomas Jefferson

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Why did Jefferson write so much about the trees, plants, and animals of Virginia in query 6 of Notes on the State of Virginia?

Jefferson's section on the trees and plants of Virginia is a lengthy description of the kinds of resources that can be found in the region. Jefferson tries to highlight how Virginian society is influenced by its environment.

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To some extent, Jefferson is following the established tradition of colonial histories, which would often go into considerable detail regarding native flora and fauna. But more importantly, what Jefferson's trying to do is give the impression that the structural basis of Virginian society is not so much legally imposed upon, as derived from, the surrounding landscape. In that sense, Jefferson is arguing that the political, legal, and social institutions of the Commonwealth—including, notoriously, slavery—are a perfectly natural outgrowth of the native environment. In other words, the structures of Virginian society are natural, not artificial.

Jefferson's concept feeds into his wider vision of an American society based on the ownership of land. As part of that vision, Jefferson is confident, that so long as there is sufficient land available, then the institutional structure of social and political life in Virginia will, with slight modifications, take root elsewhere.

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Jefferson wrote Notes on the State of Virginia in large part to refute several theories popular among European intellectuals. The first, and the most applicable to this question, was a theory posited by the French naturalist Comte de Buffon that the "inferior climate" in the New World had caused animals to degenerate. He predicted, therefore, that there would be no megafauna as large as in Europe. Many of his descriptions of plants, animals, and fossils found in Virginia were his evidence to the contrary. While stationed in France, he had a number of elk and bison skulls, among other large animals, brought to France to further disprove Buffon's thesis. Buffon also disparaged the abilities, in fact the very humanity, of Native Americans. Jefferson responded that Native Americans were the equals of white men, and that they lacked only culture and civilization. These statements can be contrasted with his views on African-Americans, who he characterized as essentially inferior, in the same book.

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