Notes On The State Of Virginia Essay

, Research Paper

Notes on the State of Virginia

Any study of the United States should include Thomas Jefferson?s Notes on the State of Virginia. Not only does he meticulously gather information, categorize and document the natural resources, but also discusses Virginia?s constitution and laws, which he uses as a microcosm for the United States? government. Jefferson?s celebration of the national bureaucracy is not without the various problems that existed in the United States during his lifetime. The most problematic issues were the institution of slavery and the extermination of America?s indigenous people. Jefferson attempts to come to terms with both issues, but ultimately is unsure how to handle them. He is arguably one of the most important men in American history, and to appreciate Thomas Jefferson, the man, one must understand the fruits of his labor: The United States of America. In short, it is impossible to completely comprehend the atmosphere of the colonial era without touching upon the words and wisdom of Thomas Jefferson.

In his contemplation of what the United States truly represents, Jefferson takes time to validate America?s break from England. He is writing to a European audience and, being the statesman and politician, provides what he deems as justification for the colonists? separation from the ?Mother Country.? Jefferson politically attacks King George and records the offenses done by the British. He argues that the colonists no choice but to defend themselves against the injustices thrust upon them. As Jefferson states,

The following is an epitome of the first fifteen years of his rein. The colonies were taxed internally and externally; their essential interests sacrificed to individuals in Great Britain; their legislatures suspended; charters annulled; trials by juries taken away; their persons subjected to transportation across the Atlantic, and to trial before foreign judicatories; their supplications from redress thought beneath answer; themselves published as cowards in the councils of their mother country and courts of Europe; armed troops sent among them to enforce submission to these violences; and actual hostilities commenced against them. No alternative was presented but resistance, or unconditional submission. Between these could be no hesitation. They closed in the appeal to arms. (117)

European perception of the colonies was important to Jefferson because he knew the fledgling nation would need allies to break free of Britain?s tyranny. He felt that other European nations would be more inclined to respect and admire a country that simply sought to protect their natural rights to freedom.

To ease European criticism, Jefferson dispelled the notion that the United States enslaved its indigenous people. Jefferson proclaimed, ?An inhuman practice once prevailed in this country of making slaves of the Indians. (This practice commenced with the Spaniards with the first discovery of America).?(61) Despite pardoning the country of American Indian slavery and tagging the Spanish with its origins he is keenly aware that this does not justify the United States? enslavement of African-Americans.

Jefferson addresses the institution of slavery and envisions an apocalyptic end. He acknowledged the importance of African Americans to the economic stability of the nation, but could not perceive their willingness to simply move past the injustices done unto them. As he points out

Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expense of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinction which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race. (138)

Jefferson recognized the degradation that slavery created and perpetuated but realized that the institution offered economic stability and that most (white) people of the nation were not ready to end the practice. By no means is he seeking integration based on total equality, but felt that African-Americans could contribute economically while being socially and judiciously repressed: A limited form of slavery/freedom.

The prejudice taught to future generations made the abolition of slavery within American society difficult to establish. Jefferson noted that,

There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him. From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do. (162)

He recognized in order for every American to be free of this racial burden attitudes and perceptions had to be undone and relearned.

Thomas Jefferson?s sensitivity toward minorities is easily recognized in his lengthy discussion of Native Americans. He goes into great detail about the Mannahocs, Manocans, and Powhatans located in the state of Virginia. Jefferson admitted his lack of experience with indigenous peoples and acknowledges his reliance on others to supply him with information. He simply states, ?the Indian of North America being more within our reach, I can speak of him somewhat from my own knowledge, but more from the information of others better acquainted with him, and on whose truth and judgement I can rely? (59). This once again demonstrates the seriousness upon which he endeavored to make this work an authentic and accurate (at least from the Euro-centric point of view) depiction of Virginia. And as Virginia, much like the rest of the nation, the Native American was an intricate part of the colonists? lives.

Jefferson displays some cultural sensitivity when he attempts to dispel the image of American Indians as a barbarous and uncivilized occupant of North America. He is aware of the growing curiosity that Europeans have about American Indians and goes to great length to gather information. He mentions that they are not entirely chaotic, but have a certain tribal law that comes from a ?natural? understanding of what is right and wrong. Jefferson acknowledged that,

Any offense against these is punished by contempt, by exclusion from society, or, where the case is serious, as that of murder, by the individuals whom it concerns. Imperfect as this species of coercion may seem, crimes are very rare among them: insomuch that were it made a question, whether no law, as among the savage Americans, or too much law, as among the civilized Europeans, submits man to the greatest evil, one who has seen both conditions of existence would pronounce it to be the last: and that the sheep are happier of themselves, than under care of the wolves. (93)

Jefferson is a powerful advocate of Native American life and law. A clear indication of this was his willingness to incorporate many of the concepts found in the tribal government of the Iroquois into the overall scheme of America?s democratic system. He may not have been willing to say that Native Americans were more civilized than Europeans, but in his eyes they were far more complex than mindless savages.

Jefferson is not only impressed with American Indian culture, government and law, but the eloquence of its leaders. He attempted to debunk the stereotype of the ?mindless savage? by acknowledging Native American intellect and emotion. He was quite moved by a malicious chain of events that destroyed an American Indian chief?s family. Jefferson did the utmost research in order to validate the events and the speech. Once he confirmed both, he confidently stated that ?the speech of Logan, an Indian chief, delivered to lord Dunmore in 1774, was produced, as a specimen of the talents of the aboriginal of this country, and particularly of their eloquence; and it was believed that Europe had never produced any thing superior to this morsel of eloquence?(230). Jefferson may have not intentionally helped to perpetuate the myth of the noble savage, but it seems more likely he attempted to raise the level of Native Americans from mindless wilderness savages to men. Who one day he hoped would prove productive to American society.

In reviewing Thomas Jefferson?s Notes on the State of Virginia it is obvious that he was not only concerned with Virginia, but issues that involved the entire nation. What was most intriguing and kept resurfacing throughout various sections of the book was the theme of Native Americans and Africans Americans. His thoughts were often contradictory. As a man fashioned by his surroundings, Jefferson attempted to understand how cultural diversity and absolute freedom could live along side economic prosperity. He obviously felt that due to the common experience of the American Revolution all groups, white, black and red, were American citizens. Now that we have entered the new millennium, and the concepts of cultural and ethnic identity are so prevalent in American society, it is sad to observe, through the reading of Jefferson?s work, that these issues are still not resolved despite the supposed wisdom of hindsight.


Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia


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