About This Site

This site invites users users to inspect and compare two different eighteenth-century printings of Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, and to study a third, modernized and searchable reading text. The reading text, newly transcribed and annotated, has been digested under the main milestones of the printed text and made navigable on phones, tablets, and laptops as well as desktop computers. Thumbnail images to the right of the text link to archive-quality, high-resolution scans of two unique and historical objects that are now among the holdings of the University of Virginia's Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

One set of scans reproduces a copy of Notes on the State of Virginia that Jefferson had privately printed in Paris in 1784 and that was presented to the Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette. (Jefferson's inscription to Lafayette appears on the book's flyleaf.)

The second set of scans is taken from Jefferson's own copy of the first published edition, which was printed for the London publisher John Stockdale in 1787. This copy contains hundreds of annotations, corrections, and revisions in Jefferson's own handwriting, many of them interlineated in the text or set off in the margins; other additions appear on scraps of paper that were later inserted when the copy was rebound in the twentieth century.

It is this second, personal artifact that supplies our copy text. What the scanned pages reveal is that Jefferson never thought of his Notes as a finished book. Indeed, filled with marginalia and manuscript inserts (newly transcribed and reproduced here), Jefferson's personal copy of the Notes strains against received notions of the book as printed, fixed, and standardly paginated, and therefore lends itself well to study in a digital environment.

This site also publishes the large map that was folded up and bound in with Jefferson's personal copy of the text. The map, engraved for the Stockdale edition and based in large part on one that had been published by Joshua Frye and Thomas Jefferson’s father Peter Jefferson in 1753, is another means by which the book attempts to represent Virginia and surrounding areas in print. In this edition, the original map has been georectified and overlaid on to a modern digital map of the world. The volume's covers, endpapers, letters, and other documentary materials may be viewed with the University of Virginia Library's iView MediaPro publication of the scans.

About Notes on the State of Virginia

One of the most important works written by an American in the eighteenth century, Notes on the State of Virginia is Thomas Jefferson's account of his native state, its flora and fauna, its natural wonders, its people and their history. It is an important document in the life of its author as well as the history of the state and the new nation of which it was a part. The text was prompted by a questionnaire given in 1780 to representatives of all the original American states by François Marbois, secretary of the French legation to the Continental Congress. Correspondents in several of the other states responded to Marbois's questionnaire, but only Jefferson seized the opportunity to write a detailed and comprehensive account of his native Virginia. Employing Marbois's twenty queries as a structuring device—although not constrained by them—Jefferson's Notes describes Virginia's geography, its commerce, its natural history, its geography, its people, and its political and legal institutions. In its scope, Jefferson's Notes aspires to be encyclopedic, which is only one of the many ways in which it stands as a paradigmatic project of the Enlightenment. Citing authorities on subjects as wide-ranging as political theory, natural history, Siberian exploration, and numismatics (among many others), Jefferson engages in a rich dialogue with many of the most significant European thinkers of his day, asserting both explicitly and implicitly that the new nation was every bit the peer of its Old World counterparts.

Jefferson's text has a complicated and fascinating history. It first circulated in manuscript copies among Jefferson's friends, and Jefferson sent Marbois a copy of his manuscript in December of 1781. Over the next three years, Jefferson revised and enlarged his text, incorporating new information from correspondents and pursuing his own research. In 1784, Jefferson took the revised manuscript with him to Paris, where he was serving as Minister to France for the newly-independent United States of America. There, he found a printer willing to prepare the work for distribution "to some of his friends and to some other estimable characters beyond that line" (this language is quoted from the copy presented to the Marquis de Lafayette). After he learned of a French translation that was to be published against his wishes, Jefferson began negotiating with the London publisher John Stockdale to publish an authorized edition of the book based on a corrected copy of the private Parisian printing.

As printed books marked by manuscript additions, the two scanned copies of the Notes complicate traditional scholarly distinctions between print and manuscript cultures. No author's name appears on the title page of the 1784 edition, and the work was not so much published as printed (as he wrote to Lafayette, Jefferson was "unwilling to expose these sheets to the public eye"). Indeed, Jefferson begs Lafayette that his printed book be circulated, like the previous manuscript copies, only among friends. Conversely, Jefferson's own copy of the published 1787 edition is filled with private manuscript additions, cancellations, second thoughts, and personal touches. On many pages Jefferson exercises a typographic hand so that his neat lettering looks almost like print. On the bottom of pages 113 and 273, Jefferson has, as it were, signed the signatures—that is, he has written the letter "T" before the printed "I" at the bottom of page 113 and has drawn an "I" after the printed "T" at the bottom of page 273. (Both Jefferson and Stockdale use a 23-letter Roman alphabet, in which "I" and "J" are conflated.)

Just as Jefferson bestrides public and private, print and manuscript, his use of the word "state" records another ambivalence. On the title pages of both the Paris and London editions, the word "state" already reads as a play on words. In his Notes Jefferson attempts to represent a new political entity, the State of Virginia (an entity that included what is now West Virginia, and had only recently given up its claim to what is now the state of Kentucky, as well as sections of what are now Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana). But Jefferson also attempts to capture its state or condition at the moment of publication. Writing to an American publisher in 1814, Jefferson likened the subject of his text to a lengthening shadow, "never stationary." What Jefferson seems to have discovered through his drafts and revisions is that his was a ceaselessly evolving subject. As the "state" of Virginia changed over time, and as Jefferson himself obtained new information, or had second thoughts, he found his book in need of revision, a process that is visible in the text and images presented here. Drafted during the War of Independence, published in London during the Constitutional Convention, annotated and amended in the decades that followed, the Notes is a restless, revolutionary book.

By multiplying Jefferson's Notes, by showing it in different states, our online variorum edition emphasizes that the text has a temporal dimension. We offer an edited text for those who wish to read Jefferson's work, but we also encourage students and other users to compare the 1784 and 1787 printings and to study Jefferson's extensive annotations in his personal copy, both in his own hand and in our transcriptions (and to compare, likewise, the 1784 manuscript of the Notes digitized by the Massachusetts Historical Society). This edition offers readers a unique opportunity to encounter Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia as published and revised in his own lifetime.

John O'Brien and Brad Pasanek
Charlottesville, Virginia
August, 2014