Do not read this book if you want a coherent history and description of Virginia up to the American Revolution. Do not read this book if you are an African-American and are offended by the well-meaning, enlightened, progressive but ultimately unacceptable attitudes of a 18th century slave-owning Southerner. And do not read this book if you are bored by lists, particularly lists of vegetables, animals, birds, census returns and populations of Indian tribes.
Do read this book if you want to read Thomas Jefferson in his own words and not via a constitutional document. Do read this book if you are a descent of Native-Americans from Virginia or the surrounding areas. And do read this book if you are a Virginian.
HISTORY OF THE BOOK: In 1780 a French diplomat in Philadelphia circulated a list of questions to prominent citizens asking for information about the 13 colonies. A copy of this list was sent to Thomas Jefferson, who answered the questions on behalf of Virginia in the following year. Jefferson subsequently circulated manuscript copies of his answers among his friends. In 1784 Jefferson was appointed as an American diplomat to France. In Paris he had an edition of 200 printed and distributed privately. He continued to revise and expand on his Notes even after this printing. Each recipient of his book was asked not to lend it to anyone else as, for political reasons, Jefferson did not want his proposals for a constitution of Virginia and the emancipation of the salves to be publicly known. However, a French bookseller obtained a copy and published a French translation. This raised the possibility of a further unauthorised English translation with the risk of translation errors caused by a double translation from English to French and then from French to English. Jefferson arranged for an authorised copy to be printed in London, which was published in 1787.
In 1801 Jefferson became the third President of the United States of America.
The book is written much like an epic poem- with lists of river, towns, economic conditions etc in 1780s. But also much more: His feeling on race. He obviously did not hate blacks, proposed a theory that they were less intelligent, had an aesthetic view of man akin to Gulliver's Travels and the horses. Theory of education is much akin to European model of today, much better than current theories in use. He opposed multiculturalism and opposed teaching children religion in schools or anyplace else, preferring Greek, Roman and European histories and philosophy for guidance of children. The difference between the America he wanted and the reality of today is striking. Which is better? Each must judge, but this is a must read book.
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Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia was written as a response to a questionnaire sent out to every governor of the states of America in the late 18th Century. Only Jefferson answered this questionnaire in anything other than short answers and the lengthy response which he gave has come to represent Jefferson's political testement. Jefferson's writings give an important insight into his reading of human nature and beliefs on many diverse subjects, not solely about the issues of slavery and race. However, while this book is clearly a work of considerable scholarly merit (particularly in the extensive statistics which Jefferson employs in the book) it does expose some unsavoury (by todaus standards) views on the slavery which was common place in 18th Century Virginia. Jefferson himself was a slave owner and suggesttions that the Black community should not be incorporated fully into the "white" community not only because of the deep rooted prejudices of the white community but also because of the "of the injuries they [the slaves] have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions 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" and "They secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour" give ample ammunition to those who have branded him a Racist. WHile it is debateable whether these statements were anything worse than the beliefs of his peers, it certainly gives a new and darker slant to one of the heroes of the American revolution. This is certainly well worth a read for anyone wanting something other than the "Holywood" interpretation of American History.
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