Jefferson's "Notes on the State of Virginia"--Positions and Perspectives

"Reason is in the estimation of the philosopher what grace is to the Christian. Grace determines the Christian’s action; reason the philosopher’s.Other men are carried away by their passions, so that the acts which they produce do not proceed from reflection (i.e., contemplation). These are the men who move in darkness; while the philosopher, even in his passions, moves only after reflection. He marches at night, but a torch goes on ahead. The philosopher forms his principles (beliefs) upon an infinity of individual observations. [Other] people adopt the principle without a thought of the observations which have produced it, believing that the maxim (truth) exists, so to speak, of itself; but the philosopher takes the maxim at its source, he examines its origin, he knows its real value, and only makes use of it, if it seems to him satisfactory. "--The Philosophe, Denis Diderot

Jefferson as Philosophe, Enlightenment Rationalist

Jefferson's Notes answers the queries of Mssr. Marbou by mustering empirical data and observations--charts, measurements, maps, firsthand descriptions, etc. He refutes Buffon's charge that the New World is weaker and less developed by including information regarding a mastodon's skeleton, comparative species charts of Old and New World, and a discussion of Indian life and culture, including the oratory of Chief Logan. Jefferson also holds a high faith in reason (as opposed to religious faith) as a method of assessing truth. He looks to the diversification and disestablishment of religion as positive goods because they dilute zealots and bring more focus to the rational as the test of what is actual--"the best way to silence religious disputes is to take no notice of them."

According to Richard Hooker, the philosophes were defined by three dominant ideals. :

  • "Progress: Human history is largely a history of the improvement of humanity in three respects: a) developing a knowledge of the natural world and the ability to manipulate the world through technology; b) overcoming ignorance bred of superstitions and religions; c) overcoming human cruelty and violence through social improvements and government structures."
  • "Deism: Deism is a term coined in the philosophe movement and applies to two related ideas: a) religion should be reasonable and should result in the highest moral behavior of its adherents; b) the knowledge of the natural world and the human world has nothing to do whatsoever with religion and should be approached completely free from religious ideas or convictions."
  • "Tolerance: The greatest human crimes, as far as the philosophes were concerned, have been perpetrated in the name of religion and the name of God. A fair, just, and productive society absolutely depends on religious tolerance. This means not merely tolerance of varying Christian sects, but tolerance of non-Christian religions as well (for some philosophes )."

[Click here for a more complete discussion of this.]


  • How does Jefferson's approach to truth and reason compare with that of Franklin and Paine? How does it compare with that of Edwards and the Puritans?
  • Jefferson was willing to inspect an Indian burial mound to describe its contents.  How would a Native American view his actions? What might Jefferson say in his defense?

Jefferson as Racial Idealist and Bigot

Jefferson has very different notions of Native Americans and Africans.  he praises the former as naturally virtuous, concerned with moral matters, skilled in their environment, and rhetorically moving. Biological differences from Europeans are slight and unimportant.  While Jefferson disapproves of slavery, his stance toward Africans is far more troubling. He sees them as less beautiful, having less reason and memory, perhaps even inferior in their bodies. He discounts Phillis Wheatley as a non-poet and Ignatius Sancho as wild and without style. His answer to slavery is deportation as protection against miscegenation.

Question: Why do you think Jefferson comes to such two different perspectives on two different races? What does each view reveal about Jefferson's concerns, prejudices, even ideals?

Jefferson as Agrarian Republican

"The republican is the only form of government which is not eternally at open or secret war with the rights of mankind."

"On this view of the import of the term republic, instead of saying, as has been said, "that it may mean anything or nothing," we may say with truth and meaning, that governments are more or less republican as they have more or less of the element of popular election and control in their composition; and believing, as I do, that the mass of the citizens is the safest depository of their own rights, and especially, that the evils flowing from the duperies of the people, are less injurious than those from the egoism of their agents, I am a friend to that composition of government which has in it the most of this ingredient."
--To John Taylor Monticello May 28, 1816

Jefferson's query on manufacture stresses farming as leading to virtue. He calls farmers "the chosen people of God." He wishes to see workshops stay in Europe and stresses government by the people and depreciation of paper money as concerns. His constitutional history of Virginia stresses the injustices of the past such as James I's reworking of the state charter, Parliament's control over foreign trade in the 1650s, but especially George III's wrongs and the righteousness of the 1776 Revolution as resistance to tyranny.


  • What do the two above quotations reveal about Jefferson's political ideals?
  • What is the relationship between Jefferson's agrarian and republican ideals?