Thomas Jefferson’s 'Notes on the State of Virginia': A Prolegomena

by M. Andrew Holowchak

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Dr. Holowchak, one of the world's foremost Jefferson scholars, has once again written an intriguing new book on Thomas Jefferson. This time he scrutinizes Jefferson's famous book, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” and does it with exemplary care. Holowchak begins with other historians' assessments of the book and continues with accounts of the process of Jefferson's writing, the book's publication history and its reception. Then follows a step-by-step uncovering of Jefferson's actual philosophical and political purposes in putting together this classic text of the late Enlightenment. There is much to learn from Holowchak's thorough knowledge and informed interpretations of Jefferson's early ideas about nature, the sublime, natural human rights, empiricism, ethics, and, of course, politics—including his lifelong plan for the emancipation of slaves. In addition to learning about eighteenth-century American and European intellectual history in general, the reader gains a number of new insights into the famously most complicated founding father of the United States.

Ari Helo
University of Helsinki, Finland

Why did Jefferson write 'Notes on the State of Virginia'? There are today two common theses. The first, the Alphabet-Soup Thesis, maintains that the book is more or less a loose collection of notes in answer to the 22 queries given by French diplomat François Barbé-Marbois. Jefferson’s altering the arrangement of his answers to the questions is a matter of allowing for a smoother “narrative” for his answers, but other than that, one ought to be cautious not to read too much into his restructuring. The second, the Deconstructionist Thesis, is that meticulous deconstruction of the text reveals a latent thesis, which Jefferson, consciously or subconsciously, kept from his readers. Both views are problematic. The former cannot explain why Jefferson fell so deeply into the project, rearranged Marbois’ questions so that the book would flow smoothly from nature to culture, and continually revise his often-lengthy answers, even after the Stockdale edition in 1787. The latter suffers from the fact that Jefferson tended never to write elliptically.

"Thomas Jefferson’s ‘Notes on the State of Virginia’: A Prolegomena" is an attempt to provide an alternative, “dialectical” reading to current interpretations of the book. The book, Holowchak asserts, is neither a simple omnium gatherum nor is its message accessible only through deconstruction. There is an obvious movement from nature (Gr., 'phusis') in the first seven queries to culture (Gr., 'nomos') in the remaining 16 queries, but that “movement” is not linear. Early naturalistic queries set up neatly Jefferson’s discussion of the cultural aspects of Virginia, and Jefferson’s explication of the cultural aspects of Virginia cannot be grasped without frequent returns to the naturalistic queries, hence its dialectic. Jefferson’s aim overall, sums Holowchak, is the appropriation of what nature had given for humans’ use—to perfect the social state by taming nature and putting it to use for human betterment.


Part I. Structure and Intendment of the Work

Chapter I. Scholarly Takes on Notes on Virginia
Chapter II. In Jefferson’s Own Words
Chapter III. Reception of the Book, Then and Now

Part II. Historical Antecedents

Chapter IV. Empiricism and Science
Chapter V. Jefferson and the Economy of Nature
Chapter VI. The Stadial History of Jefferson’s Day

Part III. The Philosophy of Nature & Culture

Chapter VII. “Apologia” for the New World
Chapter VIII. Arguments for Religious Freedom

Part IV. Jefferson’s Empiricism

Chapter IX. A Sublime and Beautiful New World
Chapter X. Scientific Description & Explanation
Chapter XI. Testing Hypotheses

Appendix I
Appendix II

M. Andrew Holowchak, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and history who taught at institutions such as the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Michigan, and Rutgers University, Camden. He is the editor of 'Journal of Thomas Jefferson and His Time' and author/editor of over 50 books and over 200 published essays on topics such as ethics, ancient philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, and critical thinking. His current research is on Thomas Jefferson—he is acknowledged by many scholars as the world’s foremost authority—and has published nearly 165 essays and 23 books on Jefferson.

New World, freedom of religion, empiricism, aesthetics, science, Virginia, Thomas Jefferson