Tag Archives: Notes on Virginia

20,000 letters but only one book …

… in the year 1781. I had received a letter from M. de Marbois, of the French legation in Philadelphia … addressing to me a number of queries relative to the state of Virginia. I had always made it a practice whenever an opportunity occurred of obtaining any information of our country, which might be of use to me in any station public or private, to commit it to writing. These memoranda were on loose papers, bundled up without order, and difficult of recurrence when I had occasion for a particular one. I thought this a good occasion to embody their substance, which I did in the order of Mr. Marbois’ queries, so as to answer his wish and to arrange them for my own use … On my arrival at Paris I found it could be done [printed in book form] for a fourth of what I had been asked here [in America]. I therefore corrected and enlarged them, and had 200. copies printed, under the title of Notes on Virginia.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Smart leaders kill at least two birds with one stone.
Over the years, Jefferson collected a great quantity of material about his native Virginia, unorganized and difficult to access. This French inquiry gave him the opportunity to both gratify the request and bring order to his mess. The result was the only book Jefferson completed, Notes on Virginia. It came to be regarded as an authoritative scientific source, a third bird.

Primarily a compilation of natural history of Virginia, Jefferson answered 23 “Queries” on these topics: 1. Boundaries, 2. Rivers, 3. Sea Ports, 4. Mountains, 5. Cascades, 6. Productions, 7. Climate, 8. Population, 9. Military force, 10. Marine force, 11. Aborigines, 12. Counties and towns, 13. Constitution, 14. Laws, 15. Colleges, buildings and roads, 16. Proceedings as to Tories, 17. Religion, 18. Manners, 19. Manufactures, 20. Subjects of commerce, 21. Weights, Measures and Money, 22. Public revenue and expences, 23. Histories, memorials, and state papers


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How would you attack a great evil?

In the very first session held under republican government, the assembly [Continental Congress, 1774] passed a law for the perpetual prohibition of the importation of slaves. This will in some measure stop the increase of this great political and moral evil, while the minds of our citizens may be ripening for complete emancipation of human nature.
Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia, Query VIII, 1782

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders embrace great change in tiny increments.
Notes on Virginia was the only book Jefferson completed. It answered 23 questions posed by a Frenchman about the state. Most of the book is devoted to the natural history, or science, of Virginia. Question #8  is “The number if its inhabitants?”

Jefferson wrote about the growth in population from “the infancy of the colony,” which he estimated at 567,614 in 1781. He went into some detail whether it was wiser to grow their own population or increase it through immigration. (He preferred the former.) The answer ended with a paragraph on the “great political and moral evil” of slavery  and its support by the British government.

Jefferson pointed out that the first representative (republican, small r) national assembly, not meeting under the authority of the King, voted to forbid forever bringing more slaves to America. Jefferson hoped that slowing the increase in the slave population would eventually encourage Americans’ thinking toward the time when all slaves would be freed.

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