Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Short Review Of "Notes on the State of Virginia" By Thomas Jefferson

Book Review:
Notes on the State of Virginia
By Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson by Mather Brown, 1786
Thomas Jefferson, Library of Congress

Taylor Speer-Sims

Notes on the State of Virginia
By Thomas Jefferson
Kindle edition: Lawrence, KS: Digireads.com, 2010

            Thomas Jefferson wrote the Notes on the State of Virginia as answers to a series of queries in 1781, and then he “somewhat corrected and enlarged [them] in 1782.”[1] These answers were written with the understanding that the reader would be, more than likely, not American. However, there is also the understanding that the reader could be American, and just not aware of the landscape and people of Virginia. Jefferson wrote in a very straightforward message. The reader would have very little knowledge of the surroundings of which Jefferson found himself, but would have been interested in changing that into enlightenment of the locale.
            Notes on the State of Virginia is very methodological and scientific in nature. Not only was Jefferson interested in scientific facts; he was also interested in the Enlightenment, thus trying to break the neck of ignorance. He said “Ignorance is preferable to error: and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing, then he wrote believes what is wrong.”[2] By stating this, he wanted to emphasize the fact that believing the wrong thing about something, especially his beloved Virginia, then to not know. However, not knowing something was not right either. So, he wrote these notes to assist the reader in becoming knowledgeable, and thus follow along with the Enlightenment styling of America. This was very effective for those over seas, as well as American readers then and now. By using rational and factual information, Jefferson was, and is, very believable in his writings.
            Facts had been absolutely essential to Jefferson as he believed that the “universe was subject to natural law.”[3] Because of these beliefs, Jefferson’s work is a prime example of the rationalist stage. Just as most of the writers that fall within this stage, Jefferson had been a lawyer-politician, aristocratic planter, as well as a professional. Jefferson had a classical education in the classics and held beliefs of the European progressives. He was Republican through and through. The masses should become enlightened, but should not rule. America was the leader of Republicanism, and he was sure that others would want to follow.
            Jefferson’s book is organized via the order in which he answered the query. Does this make sense? The answer to this question is yes and no. The reason that it may be a yes is that you can completely comprehend each answer. However, sometimes these queries do not flow from one to another, and so the answers sometimes do not flow easily. One query may be of animals, then the next of caverns. Once you understand this fact, then the reading does become easier. Until then, it can be confusing.
            While the reading is confusing at first, the reader becomes engrossed in Jefferson’s descriptions and ideals of his idea of Virginia. He tries to back up each and every claim that he made by giving facts, or at least what he believed to be facts. He did fall short on two instances. One such was “A substance supposed to be Pumice, found floating on the Missisipi,[4] has induced a conjecture, that there is a volcano on some of its waters…”[5] Jefferson did not mention who said this, nor who made the correction. Another misstep that Jefferson took was when he mentioned that bones of elephants had been found “no further south than the salines.”[6] Yet, he gives the myth that these animals, “in ancient times… came to the Bib-bone licks, and began an universal destruction of the bear, deer, elks, buffaloes, and other animals.”[7] Even with these missteps, Jefferson did try his best to be thoroughly scientific, even going so far as to include lists, registers, and maps to be as specific as possible.
            This book does become extremely engrossing in that Jefferson included so much information that it is almost as if the reader is there with him. He very much wanted to be as accurate as possible, and it can definitely be discerned during the reading. Specific information is given in the first person. An example is that he wrote, “I have known one instance of an Emerald found in this country.”[8] Of course, there have been many more than one emerald dug up in America, the fact that he had said that he only knew about one being found makes this author believable. He could have just said that there was only one found, or that there may have only been one that had been found and the reader would have believed him. However, because he wrote that specifically he had only known of one, made (and still makes) him more believable as a historian. This was why he was so believable as a leader of the Americans as well. He was trustworthy. It was easy to want to be like this man, he was intelligent, knowledgeable, trustworthy, and capable. He at least gave this impression by his notes.
            The philosophy of Jefferson appears to have been progress. This was not in the direct line of conquering territories or peoples, but in that of knowledge. There is the evidence that the great state of Virginia was much larger and sophisticated than what the European may have thought at that time. Jefferson gives out lists of flora, fauna, animals, etc. and he also gives animal comparisons to those of Europe.[9] Reading these passages does give the reader the indication that Europeans did think lowly of the Americans, their country, and its inhabitants. So, by allowing the contemporary reader this exact information, it would have given him or her the idea that America was greater than assumed, and that because of that greatness should not be stereotyped. His philosophy would have read something like Americans should not be underestimated by either their birth or their locale. Jefferson’s philosophy affected his writing so that his manner was not only factual, but also direct. He made sure that he included items that would have shook the foundations of Europeanism being greater than Americanism.
Americanism had been Jefferson’s motivation in politics, idealism, and motivation.
He believed in his newfound country, and wanted to make sure that others did as well. As an Enlightened thinker, he believed that the individual made history. He did think that government made history, but that government was because of the people, not the other way around. This is, in this author’s opinion, one of the main reasons why he wrote his notes in the first person. He, of course, wrote directly to someone. However, he included so many personal stories that it made sense to the reader that he was the person making history, and not history making him. “There are particular instances, well attested, where individuals of this country” made the point that he was referring to America, and Americans and did not leave any indication that the people in the States were subjects and not individuals.[10] So, because of this outlook, he wrote the book, in its entirety, based upon the fact that the reader would understand that Americans were separate from the Europeans, and so described everything in extreme detail. Of course, this benefited the Americans, as well!
            Jefferson did try his best to be as accurate and as fair as possible. According to today’s views, he was definitely biased as a white plantation owner and politician. Even with that bias, he definitely believed himself impartial. He described the Indian men “less strong then us, but their woman stronger than ours” however he did go on to say that this was because “our man and their woman is habituated to labor, and formed by it. With both races the sex which is indulged with ease is least athletic.”[11] So, he truly believed that he was being fair in his assumptions. Today, this would be considered racist and sexist due to the generics and rationale.
            Even with his tone of racism and sexism, Jefferson did his best to be as precise as possible, given the age. Because of that, this author thoroughly enjoyed reading Notes on the State of Virginia. Also, there were certain points in which Jefferson describes areas that seem familiar. Could these be the same areas in which they appear? It is unclear, but still fun to think that they may be one in the same! Upon picking up the book, there was an expectation of severe authority, that the book would be descriptive and linear, that there may even have been trouble understanding such a great an awesome founding father. None of this was true of the book! The beginning of the book the reader would have thought,  “What the hell am I reading?” Slowly, ever so slowly, the reader then begins to understand what the author was about.  Even now, Jefferson takes the reader on a journey through his personal experience of his wonderful State of Virginia. He described wonders, and made it easy for everyone to understand. He brought the magical to life, even if it were fanciful. Who would have thought that there were elephants in America? Jefferson wrote in a manner in which everyone would have believed everything that was included within his lines. He was the true master of the rationalist style. Jefferson’s book, Notes on the State of Virginia, will forever be a part of American history.

Couvares, Francis et al, eds. Interpretations of American History: Patterns and Perspectives.
            Vol. 1 Through Reconstruction. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006.

Jefferson, Thomas . Notes on the State of Virginia. Kindle edition (Lawrence, KS:
Digireads.com, 2010.

Originally written for class January 27, 2013 for class at the University of Nebraska - Kearney.

[1] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia. Kindle edition (Lawrence, KS: Digireads.com, 2010.), Location 15.
[2]  Ibid, 20.
[3] Francis Couvares, et al, eds. Interpretations of American History: Patterns and Perspectives. Vol. 1 Through Reconstruction. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006.), 4.
[4] Intentional misspelling due to original quote.
[5] Jefferson, 407.
[6] Ibid, 27. (Another intentional misspelling due to original quote.)
[7] Ibid, 27-28.
[8] Ibid, 551.
[9] Ibid, 720-892, 1035-1412.
[10] Ibid, 1628-1637.
[11] Ibid, 1697.

Tags: 18th Century, Americanism, Colonial, Colonies, Columbia, Jefferson, Liberty, President, Virginia

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