Notes on the State of Virginia was initially written in response to a series of questions sent, in 1781, to various members of the Continental Congress by François Barbé de Marbois, then secretary to the French legation at Philadelphia. Joseph Jones forwarded to Jefferson the questionnaire received by the Virginia delegation. On 4 May 1781, Jefferson wrote to Marbois that he intended "to give you as full information as I shall be able to do on such of the subjects as are within the sphere of my aquaintance," and on 20 December of the same year he did indeed send Marbois the "answers to the quaeries" he had put forward (The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Boyd, 5:58, 6:141). However, Jefferson, encouraged by François Jean de Beauvoir Chastellux, continued to revise and expand his Notes during his term in the Continental Congress and as Minister to France. From Paris, on 10 December 1784, he wrote to James Madison that "I could not get my answer to the queries on Virginia printed in Philadelphia," John Dunlap having been out of town and Robert Aitken asking too high a fee, "but I am printing it here" (Papers 7:563; cf. Jefferson to Charles Thomson, 21 May 1784, Papers 7:282). Finally, on 11 May 1785, Jefferson could report to Madison that "They yesterday finished printing my notes. I had 200 copies printed, but do not put them out of my own hands, except two or three copies here, and two which I will send to America, to yourself and Colo. Monroe" (Papers 8:147).
Diving his Notes into twenty-three wide-ranging chapters on physical and political subjects—including "Rivers," "Mountains," "Climate," "Productions mineral, vegetable and animal," "Aborigines," "Constitution," "Laws," "Religion," and "Weights, Measures and Money"—Jefferson produced a "philosophical history" that at once refuted and corrected contemporary European notions about the New World while exhorting the great potential of his new nation. In the words of Dumas Malone, in his Notes Jefferson "did more than describe his country, he revealed his own thought" (Jefferson the Virginian, p. 374).
In the Notes Jefferson certainly revealed his attitude towards slavery more explicitly than in any writing apart from his first draft of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson used his answer to Marbois's eighteenth query, "The particular customs and manners that may happen to be received in that state," to expose the "unhappy influence" of slavery: "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. ... Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever ..." (pp. 298–300).
The two hundred copies that Jefferson had printed did not begin to meet the demand for the book. Garbled pirated editions forced Jefferson to release authorized French- and English-language editions in 1786 and 1787, respectively. This first, privately printed edition is now rare on the market.
"During his long and productive life Thomas Jefferson wrote and published only one full-length book. ... Though he gave it a misleadingly modest title and was originally reluctant to publish it at all, the Notes on Viriginia was eventually accepted as an important contribution to American letters and science, and it is recognized today as the best single statement of Jefferson's principles, the best reflection of his wide-ranging tastes and talents. It is, in short, an American classic" (Peden, p. v).
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