Notes on the State of Virginia Essay - Critical Essays

Thomas Jefferson

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Thomas Jefferson’s universality is best evinced in his NOTES ON THE STATE OF VIRGINIA, which he began writing in 1780 in answer to inquiries from the French government about conditions in Virginia. Then Governor of Virginia, Jefferson’s far-reaching interests ranged over all of what he called America’s empire of liberty. The NOTES are not restricted, therefore, to the boundaries of Virginia as they existed before 1781, including, in addition to the present commonwealth the territory now covered by the states of West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and part of Pennsylvania. The writing of the NOTES was made easier because Jefferson for some twenty years had collected colonial maps, legislative journals, newspapers, and explorers’ accounts. He had made and continued to make investigation of Virginia’s institutions, economy, flora, fauna, fossils, meteorological conditions, and Indian culture. No dry, statistical account, although containing plenty of facts, the NOTES deal with culture in its widest sense. They include so many of Jefferson’s comments about social phenomena that they comprise in capsule his political and social philosophy, his intellectual, scientific and ethnic beliefs.

The book, with 260 pages of text and appendices, is arranged arbitrarily by the queries of Francois Marbois, secretary of the French legation in Philadelphia. Jefferson’s essays in reply vary in length from one page each on Sea Ports and Marine Force to the forty-five pages accorded Virginia’s Productions, Mineral, Vegetable and Animal. Essays between ten and twenty pages consider her Aborigines, Constitution, Laws, and Jefferson’s Draught of a Fundamental Constitution.

Besides writing celebrated descriptions of Harper’s Ferry and Natural Bridge, Jefferson speculated on the physical characteristics of beasts and mankind as well as on the natural resources of his state. He convincingly refuted the contention of the French naturalist Buffon that there were fewer species of mammals in America than in Europe and that the American ones had degenerated as a result of the inferior climate. With spirit, he contradicted Buffon’s disparagement of the American Indian, hailing the noble red man as superior to the white in fortitude, as equal in physical conformation, and as potentially equal in sexual prowess and mental talent. The Indian’s limitations were, insisted Jefferson, only those which resulted from inadequate diet and a cultural lag which he compared with that of the Gauls before the Roman conquests north of the Alps. In response to the Abbe Raynal’s lament that America had produced no good poet, mathematician, or scientist, Jefferson asserted with pride his claims for Franklin in physics, for Rittenhouse in astronomy, for Catesby in ornithology, and for the Indian Logan in eloquence. As for other cultural achievements, Jefferson pleaded for time in which American liberty might achieve what he considered its certain promise.

Although Jefferson did not write a separate essay on the subject of education, he outlined fully his views in the NOTES. In doing so, he concealed with typical modesty the personal role he had played in the reform of the College of William and Mary and in proposing a system of primary and grammar school education. Preoccupation with religion at the college was transferred during the Revolution to emphasis on science; at the same time Latin and Greek gave ground to modern languages, but interest in mathematics and moral philosophy was continued. Jefferson’s schemes for pre-college education were not so extreme as is sometimes thought. He did urge free education of all children in the Three R’s and in mathematics, but only the best student of a school district six miles square would study at the state’s expense in an intermediate or grammar school, whose six-year curriculum afforded instruction in Greek, Latin,...

(The entire section is 1605 words.)