written March 2009
The history of Virginia, from the first Tidewater settlements to the advent of the Civil War, is built upon the struggle for land and the substantial labor required to make the Commonwealth agriculturally productive. The question was inescapable, and throughout this era was tied to what it meant to be a Virginian. Thomas Jefferson’s addressing these very obstacles in Notes on the State of Virginia during 1781 are quintessentially Virginian in nature, yet the systematic inquiry and the thoughtful, multi-layered suggestions posited are uniquely Jefferson. From his initial surveys of the exact size of the Commonwealth, and a steady, building analysis rivers, to marveling at the great possibilities of the West beyond, are reminiscent of the earliest English reports of the New World; his later investigations into the nature of man and his social relationships show the mark of Enlightenment training, and Jefferson’s break from the past toward a new Virginia.
Like all aristocrats of his day, Jefferson benefited from and relied on his high social status. These advantages allowed him a path toward education, books, and the College of William and Mary, the finest institution Virginia had to offer. Many of his ideas of the world and the en vogue Enlightenment notion of “natural law” that found their into the Declaration of Independence and in Notes on the State—many dealing with universal truths—were born through the luck of a gentry status. Jefferson’s access to elite learning set him apart from the common eighteen-century Virginian, yet his natural genius and “canine appetite” for learning soon superseded others of similarly lofty background.
Notes of the State of Virginia begins with a general overview of the geographical Virginia, then zeroes in on precise, detailed plans for the lands within to cultivate greater yields. There was practical— and political— matters at stake. In 1871 Jefferson was serving as governor of Virginia during the close of a costly revolution. His attention to Western lands, beyond the mountains to the Mississippi River set expansion as a clear goal for the new nation. And the United States must now be more self-reliant, producing goods that it once unloaded from British ships. Jefferson’s agrarian study and long list of vegetables is reminiscent of George Washington’s itemized list to Robert Cary, with an implied excitement of harvesting a rich Virginia bounty for a newly varied economy that would no longer be tied exclusively to tobacco. Tobacco’s never-ending boom-bust cycle that impeded Virginia is evident also in the letters of Washington, who had relied on the unstable crop for his credit and thus sustained status. Jefferson’s close analysis of plants and animals were the inward studies of a curious, scientific mind, quite the evolution from the loud, exploitative seventeenth-century dispatches to London extolling a new Promised Land. Governor Jefferson carefully surveyed the wealth that can be pragmatically extracted from Virginia, as the United States was dauntingly tasked to weather being self-supportive without a Mother country, gain European trade partners, and make good on a heavy war debt.
Jefferson’s economic responsibilities did not preclude him from indulging in his zoological scholarship. His study of American species, specifically the questioning of the correlation between modern elephants and ancient mammoths, was his first clear mention of a universal natural law:
“Every race of animals seems to have received from their Maker certain laws of extension at the time of their formation. Their elaborative organs were formed to produce this, while proper obstacles were opposed to its further progress. Below these limits they cannot fail, not raise above them.”
Jefferson’s pre-Darwinian notion allowed for limited growth, but not for the rising above of the original makeup: the apple could not fall far from the tree. While he later predicts North American species can grow to the girth of their European counterparts, he rejects evolution into other forms, saying “all the Manna in heaven would never raise the Mouse to the bulk of the Mammoth.” First looking at the variety of plant yields, and then inspecting the relative effects of heat and moisture on animals, Jefferson slowly built a case for an orderly world that was a new Great Chain of Being. And the prime mover of this system relied less on Providence’s good graces, and was more dependent on environment and genetics.
In this example of a religious vs natural sciences worldview suggests, the seventeen-century, like all other eras, was a soup of competing ideas, some pulling back into tradition and others pushing ahead into new frontiers. And Jefferson himself was not immune to being a citizen of his own time. The world that surrounded Jefferson was one that still strongly held to folk superstitions and ancient dogmas; many paradoxically strained to lead upright, frequently Biblically-assisted lives, oft while leading otherwise uncritical existences. Jefferson, to his credit, was more than once quite willing to doubt with own assumptions and question his findings, saying “Ignorance [doubt] is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing than what is wrong.” This flexibility of thought is a hallmark ofNotes, and gives the author a credibility that his contemporaries often lacked. The general American populace’s knowledge about and acceptance of foreign peoples and ideas were nearly nonexistent in the 1780s. He was utterly apart from the vast number of common Virginians by making empirically-based statements, such as favoring a “suspension of opinion until we are better informed.” In clear contrast to Jefferson’s careful and serious study of elephant and mammoth bones as they relate to the natural world, most contemporaneous natural philosophizing first begged a consideration of Biblical notions of evil and monstrosity, then applying those traits to animals found in the New World. Such backwards deduction had led to the creative position that opossums—often incorrectly rendered for European readers—to be associated with cannibals. While such discovered curiosities held the power to repel or be feared by early colonists, Jefferson was the opposite. He actively sought new arenas of learning, then soberly sought to properly place that new piece into the larger environmental puzzle he was constructing. In Notes Jefferson continued and applied the work of Francis Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning to his own spheres. In time he came to advocate a similar education model of Virginia based on the science he employed.
Jefferson’s inquiry into the American “aborigines” is revolutionary thoughtful when compared to other takes on native peoples, as evidenced by the cold, dismissive certainty of Mons. de Buffon. Buffon proclaims them “feeble,” with “ardor for his female,” “cowardly,” and with an “icy” heart. Jefferson dismisses Buffon, calling natives “noble,” “honorable,” and not defective in ardor. Further, he links Indian women and white males for a common strength of labor, and stated—like a thoroughly modern physician—that the impotency in question can be traced to poor diet and exercise. Further, Jefferson was sympathetic to condemnations Indians received for their lack European-esque “genius,” insightfully connecting a cause of this divination to their cultural lack of writing. He also related the story of a chief named Logan, the victim of white atrocity. Indians, he insisted, should be studied anthropologically, as they had not yet been “viewed to us as subjects of natural history.” Such illustrations point to a Jefferson not satisfied with simple answers when confronting his society’s complicated condition that left him, even when, as an elite among the top racial-wrung of the American strata, this left him open to criticism. When discussing the merits of the New World and the Old as a whole, Jefferson pointedly asked whether it could be believed nature is a Trans-Atlantic partisan.” As an answer, Jefferson related that Indians have said “flied come from Europe” too.
Jefferson’s criticism of the institution of slavery in Notes is surprisingly severe and clear in the section discussing “Manners.” He viewed it in language not unknown to later Abolitionists, as a commutable sickness spread by the generations, as “our children see it, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal.” Jefferson goes on to lambaste the evils of slavery and its infection over all citizens. One must presume he included himself as part of this national whole. To remain human, he stated, it was of the utmost to maintain “manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.” In this he was a practitioner as well; the careful, clever separation of slaves from being a visual intrusion upon the white household of Monticello was carefully wrong with just such intentions. Erecting barriers to maintain morals amidst professed immorality, Jefferson’s estate was an isolated plantation much on the model Dell Upton describes as “the great planter intended that his landscape would be hierarchical, leading to himself at the center.” Jefferson the scientist astutely tried to break down centuries old walls, like Jefferson the lord of Monticello erected sly partitions unlike anyone else. This highlights the crisis within Jefferson that makes him a uniquely beguiling American figure. Arriving at a certain understanding of basic universal humanity that was in the vanguard of its day, Jefferson nevertheless could not reconcile the democratic philosophies he held in one hand with the rigid social requirements on his other. Should men like Jefferson and Washington find empathy with a modern reader, for the entrapment their statuses required? Perhaps out level of rebuke should at least match to the level of hypocrisy they themselves realized. Virginia entered the revolution less to the troubles of far off New England, and more of the real possibility of British invasion into their own lands. Virginia’s fears were heightened with the specter of black slaves freed and set against them. Cognizant of Virginia’s own sorted racial history, hysteria ensued upon the loyalist Governor Dunmore’s threat of slave freedom and the formation of black regiments. Jefferson’s mood toward slavery was less emotional, and as always is willing to go with what is true; in 1781 he correctly predicted that slavery could not maintain indefinitely:
“I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that is disposed, in the order of things, to be with the consent of the master, rather than by their extirpation.”
For all of his far-reaching soliloquies, Jefferson was in keeping with a leeriness about a diverse America that was beyond his personal experience or imagination. Certain immigrants can should be assimilated, in his view. Yet because race “difference is fixed nature,” he could not foresee how a post-slavery society would function. The mixing of the races was yet unthinkable, as with nearly all Virginians, and could only sight improbable solutions, such as the expatriation of slaves to colonies like Liberia, stating “When freed [slaves are] to be removed beyond the reach of mixture.” Jefferson, we know now, did partake in discreet mixing, as was common. This practice is suitably noted as a black woman having “an Albino child by a black man,” surely a convention for mentioning at the act.
The flexible nature of Jefferson’s questioning mind could not grasp the orthodoxy of conventional Christian religion, especially rites tied to government. Recognizing the limits of government intervention, Jefferson, stated the harmlessness of what some Virginians took to be grave—and illegal—offenses: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there be twenty gods, or no gods. It neither picks my pocket or breaks my leg.” And Jefferson seems to have firmly decided on wearing a more-or-less secular hat for his scientific pursuits. Perhaps he sensed an adherence to religion alone while in scientific pursuits could devastatingly skew with the data, such as with Susan Parrish’s example of Barton, a colonial Virginia doctor, who saw in the birth of opossums a proof for the story of Genesis. It was because of such travesties of inquiry, among others, that Jefferson wrote the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1777, which beyond keeping the Baptist factions of Danbury, Connecticut at bay, he saw as one of the four accomplishments worthy of his obelisk.
While it may be impossible to draw a line from Jefferson’s evolution of, and contradictions to, his own ideas, the scientific questioning he first encountered in the natural world of plants and animals led him to address humanity in the same manner. Notes on the State of Virginia should be remembered as a private meditation, and a work whose significance the author doubted. Finally released to the public in 1788, the book was used as a weapon against him for the rest of his life. While the early botanical and other studies were valued enough, Jefferson was assailed as a “lair” about his views on Native Americans, African-Americans, and an “infidel” concerning religion. The criticisms would flare again during his presidential campaigns, particularly in 1800. That a harsh break from his contemporaries occurred should not be surprising. It is difficult to know, but his status as a revered Founder during his lie time probably sparked more insurrections against such a figure holding such unorthedox ideas, as much as the title probably shielded him from such attacks. His studied concepts of the natural world pushed the bounds of the Enlightenment and its radicalism of free inquiry, into the face of established social mores. Thomas Jefferson was a new kind of Virginian for a new America, perhaps yet to be born, and while it is clear Notes broke with the staid conventions of its time, it attempted to grapple with it meant to tRiley be a Virginian in 1781 — as thus, at the very dawn of the United States, an American— more honestly than any other person of the day.