Throughout his extensive, accomplished life, Thomas Jefferson—founding father, author of the Declaration of Independence, and third U.S. President—published only a single book: Notes on the State of Virginia. Comprised of twenty-three “queries” and rich with charts, maps, and drawings, Notes is a literary and scientific accomplishment in which Jefferson details an examination of ecology, economics, history, education, the military, and the “science of government.”
In his Query concerning “Productions Mineral, Vegetable and Animal,” Jefferson catalogues America’s natural resources, such as copper, lead, coal, marble, precious stones, and medicinal springs and provides a discussion on native vegetation and animals, in which Jefferson juxtaposes European and American animals, as well as a climate’s effect on a land’s natural resources. As part of his analysis, Jefferson provides data regarding rain, winds, temperature, and geographical features, such as volcanoes.
In addition to providing an accounting and charting of the statistical data, Jefferson also paints a vivid, florid picture of America’s natural landscape. For example, when detailing the Shenandoah, Jefferson describes:
It is as placid and delightful, as that is wild and tremendous. For the mountain being clover asunder, she presents to your eye, through the cleft, a small catch of smooth blue horizon, at an infinite distance in the plain country, inviting you, as it were, from the riot and tumult roaring around, to pass through the breach and participate of the calm below.
In his Query on “Laws,” Jefferson explains Virginia’s and the United States’ political and legal construction and recounts laws regarding debtors, marriages, real property conveyances and land acquisition, slavery, loaning laws, and education. Jefferson also recognized the importance of education and sought “to diffuse knowledge more generally through the mass of the people.” To ensure the survival of the republican experiment (that is, the new American government), education and the study of history is imperative.
History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views…An amendment of our constitution must here come in aid of the public education. The influence over government must be shared among all the people. If every individual which composes their pass participates of the ultimate authority, the government will be safe…
In 1776 and again in 1781, members in the House of Delegates proposed the creation of a dictator, who would be vested with complete power over the government, military, people, and property. Jefferson vehemently opposed the measure, based in part on his study of Roman history, and attributes the support of his fellow delegates to a misguided understanding of the past.
Those who meant well, of the advocates for this measure, (and most of them meant well, for I know them personally, had been their fellow-labourers in the common cause, and had often proved the purity of their principles), had been seduced in their judgment by the example of an ancient republic, whose constitution and circumstances were fundamentally different. They had sought this precedent in the history of Rome, where alone it was to be found, and where at length too it had proved fatal.
Now, as Jefferson’s Notes has become a part of American history, the writing rightly takes its place as a didactic, panoptic study of the United States and the State of Virginia during the second half of the Eighteen Century.