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Tom Chaney: R745, A Philosopher surveys his country

Of Writers and Their Books: . First published in Hart County News-Herald 14 January 2007.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column, A review of The Way to Cook by Julia Child

By Tom Chaney

A philosopher surveys his country

Thomas Jefferson, of course, was the chief author of the Declaration of Independence. During the Revolutionary War he was governor of Virginia, the largest of the colonies. As governor, he had a pretty rough time of it, what with the British dashing about in his native state and making life uncomfortable for him on his magical mountain at Monticello. In fact he even had to flee to escape the pesky redcoats accompanied by Benedict Arnold.

While being unable to do much governing, he received an interesting project from the Secretary of the French Legation, Francois, the Marquis de Barbe-Marbois. Marbois, as he was generally known by the Americans, was interested in learning all he could about these colonies strung out along the necklace of the Atlantic shore.

To that end he prepared a list of twenty-two queries about the nature of the various colonies. The project for Virginia was put in Jefferson's lap. Evidently he welcomed the job. As he noted it enabled him to organize and expand his knowledge of Virginia.

To visualize the size of the project, one must be aware that the colony of Virginia encompassed not only the current state of that name, but all of the territory between the Atlantic and the Mississippi River curling up behind Pennsylvania to touch the Great Lakes -- Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan were once a part of Virginia.

Laid up as a result of a fall from a horse, Jefferson completed the manuscript of Notes on the State of Virginia in the fall of 1781. By the following April the manuscript was in Marbois' hands. Jefferson carried the book to Paris where it was first published in 1785.

Jefferson had developed an incredibly strong curiosity about his world. He takes Marbois' task as an occasion to lay out his thoughts on a multitude of subjects. He had, by his own account a "canine appetite" for learning. Like Bacon, he had taken all fields of knowledge for his province. He read the classics. He learned the law. He studied history. He did scientific experiments in agriculture. He studied meteorology and the mysteries of space and the universe. He kept careful notes. He corresponded widely.

Most of all, Jefferson was committed to the premise that knowledge of the past must be used to remedy the injustices of the present and to prepare for a better future.

Beginning with an account of the geography of Virginia, Jefferson moves to queries about flora and fauna, climate, population, laws, manufacture, commerce, and a multitude of other topics which provide the reader with the basis of his philosophy of the new world.

Although Jefferson never got much beyond the Blue Ridge in his own travels, he had extensive notes on the characteristics of the sprawling colony. He tells us that the Green River is navigable for loaded batteaux at all times for 50 miles from the Ohio; and that there are impassible rapids beyond which navigation continues to the mouth of the Barren.

We learn of the first discovery of the prehistoric bones at Big Bone Lick in what is now Kenton County.

But, most interesting to me are his discussions on the potential of the new world. A new world -- free from the abuses of the old -- where the mind and person of men can be free. Where the mind of man is not shackled by the constraints of received religion, where the residents are the recipients of the benefits of individual liberty.

Two interesting necessities are his argument for the eventual abolition of slavery and the promotion of religious liberty.

Jefferson speaks of the "unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the presence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the . . . unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal." The child is "daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities."

He was a staunch advocate for the inclusion of freedom of religion in the laws of Virginia. He accuses the established church in Virginia of being no better than the oppression in England and that of the Puritans in New England. He praises the religious and intellectual liberties of New York. Heresy had just recently ceased being a hanging crime. At this writing the incipient nation is just six years away from the establishment of the Bill of Rights, born in Virginia, without which the Constitution would never have been ratified.

In Notes we see the growing Jeffersonian mind. Here is the advocate of liberty. Here is the agrarian ideal to prevent the worst of the industrial age from infecting the shores of the new world.

And most of all we get a glimpse of the man who, as President after the turn of the new century, would buy half a nation from France and set out the Corps of Discovery led by Lewis and Clark to study a brave new world.

Young men may dream dreams; old men may have visions. Thomas Jefferson set an entire nation on the road to discovery of itself. The blueprint for that road is here in his Notes on the State of Virginia. The start of the journey contains the whole, though the end transcends the dreamer.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73/111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2012-01-15 02:42:00
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