Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, although written in 1781, was published in English only in 1787, after being first published in French in 1785. It is recognized as a founding classic of the American Enlightenment, written by an encyclopedist and politician whose interests covered not only the political structure and practices of the American New World, but also agriculture, education, trade and commerce. This work is a confident portrayal of a New World society, against its portrayal as backward and infertile, violent and uncivilized by its European critics. Four major themes combine in Notes on the State of Virginia - nation-building, civilization, democracy and culture.
Jefferson portrays a nation in the making that draws on its own natural and cultural resources. In this context, civilization does not refer to a political legacy or a critical perspective. It refers to a political image of a state that must combat its own tendencies towards corruption, dependence and tyranny. In Jefferson's view, the mark of a civilization occurs with the division between force and law. According to him, it is only civilization that can limit power and replace inequality with equality. Jefferson also argues that political republicanism requires a cultural republicanism of tolerance, diversity of opinion and disagreement, and education into the arts of rulership. These two aspects - political and cultural republicanism - are the keys to understanding Jefferson's response, in civilizational terms, to the Old World's prejudice against the New, and are represented by the extracts published below.