Notes on the State of Virginia

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Notes on the State of Virginia

"Query XIX: The present state of manufactures, commerce, interior and exterior trade?" Excerpt from Notes on the State of Virginia

First written in 1780 as a set of responses to questions from French diplomat François de Barbé Marbois. Published in book form in 1785

Reprinted in The Life and Writings of Thomas Jefferson

Published in 1944

American statesman Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) was one of the founding fathers of the United States. The founding fathers are the members of the Constitutional Convention that drafted the U.S. Constitution in 1787. A man of many interests, Jefferson played a central role in shaping the new nation. He strongly supported the movement toward republicanism, or rule by an elected government that represented a population of citizens all seen as fairly equal in the eyes of the law. (This equality, however, was limited to white males). His goal was to eliminate the kind of class structure that existed in England, where the wealthy upper class ruled the poor lower class. For Jefferson, an economy based on agriculture was important to the new American republicanism. He did not believe the promise of freedom and liberty in the new nation would be fulfilled if industrialization (the development of industry) became widespread. He feared the abuse of workers by industrialists (people who engage in profit-making enterprises that manufacture a certain product, such as textiles or steel) and the urban misery and corruption that had accompanied the Industrial Revolution in England (a period between 1750 and 1850 in which rapid advances in technology significantly altered the way people lived). Instead, Jefferson had a strong vision of the United States as a rural land of independent farmers.

Jefferson's father had been a prominent leader and landowner and one of the earliest settlers of the wilderness country around Albemarle County, Virginia, where Jefferson was born. Jefferson was an eager student from an early age, and he believed he had been destined by nature to be a scientist. At the age of seventeen he entered the College of William and Mary. Since there was little use for a scientist in Virginia at the time, he studied law and began a successful law practice in 1767.

As the American Revolution (1775–83; the American colonists' fight for independence from England) began, Jefferson joined the Continental Congress, a committee of representatives formed to lead the American colonies in the war for independence from England. The Congress appointed Jefferson to a committee charged with writing the Declaration of Independence. Though other members of the colonial congress made changes to the document, Jefferson is generally credited with its authorship. The document presented commonly held beliefs of the time and a summary of Jefferson's personal political beliefs: that all men, a term that included white males only, are created equal; that they possess inalienable (not able to be taken away or sold) rights granted by God; that governments exist to uphold these rights; and that governments get their authority from the consent of the people they govern.

During the American Revolution, Jefferson served as a member of the Virginia legislature, and in 1779 he was elected governor of the colony. As governor Jefferson composed the first version of his only full-length book, Notes on the State of Virginia. Written in response to a series of questions posed to him by a French minister visiting the United States, the work outlines the geography and natural history of Virginia, then adds a description of the region's social, economic, and political structure. When published in 1785, the book established Jefferson's reputation as a scholar and a pioneering American scientist.

One of the questions posed in Notes on the State of Virginia was about the state of industry in the nation. Jefferson responded that industry should be left to Europe. He had been to England and witnessed the miserable conditions of the industrial working people there. The workers were generally very poor, lived in slums (severely overcrowded urban areas characterized by run-down housing and crime), and were entirely dependent upon their employers for their survival. Most had no hope of a better life. Jefferson believed the revolution had been fought so that Americans would be free from slavery and no one would rule over others simply because they had more power and money. (It is worth noting that despite his devotion to the principle of personal liberty, Jefferson was a slave owner with mixed feelings about the South's African slave system.) Since the newly formed United States had what seemed to be unlimited land available for farming, he argued that there was no need for industry. He saw the new country as a strictly farming economy, in which each family had their own land and answered only to the seasons and the soil for their income. Jefferson firmly believed that farming was noble work—the work human beings were meant to do—while trade and manufacturing brought out greedy ambitions and corrupt behavior in which human beings used one another for selfish gain.

Things to remember while reading "Query XIX" from Notes on the State of Virginia:

  • American colonists had long been receiving most of their manufactured goods, such as textiles (cloth), kitchenware, and tools, from England, but during the American Revolution trade between the warring nations ceased, and the colonists were forced to make their own goods. After the war England was eager to return to the profitable trade it had established with America, but a growing section of the U.S. population believed that Americans should not allow themselves to be economically dependent on Britain. This group, unlike Jefferson, wanted the United States to start its own Industrial Revolution, like the one that had already swept England earlier in the century.
  • At the time of the American Revolution, all farmland in England was owned by the nobility (people from England's long-ruling families; the upper classes). England had experienced a population explosion in the seventeenth century and there was not enough land to support the people. Some 25 to 50 percent of the population lived in poverty. A portion of the rural poor migrated to cities seeking jobs. London's population, for example, grew from about 200,000 in 1600 to 575,000 in 1700. Jefferson argued against similar industrialization since, unlike Europe, the United States could support all its people on its available lands.

"Query XIX: The present state of manufactures, commerce, interior and exterior trade?" Excerpt from Notes on the State of Virginia

We never had aninterior trade of any importance. Ourexterior commerce has suffered very much from the beginning of thepresent contest. During this time we have manufactured within our families the most necessary articles of clothing. Those of cotton will bear some comparison with the same kinds of manufacture in Europe; but those of wool, flax, andhemp are very coarse, unsightly, and unpleasant: and such is our attachment to agriculture, and such our preference for foreign manufactures, that be it wise or unwise, our people will certainly return as soon as they can, to the raising raw materials, and exchanging them for finer manufactures than they are able to execute themselves.

The political economists of Europe have established it as a principle that every state should endeavour to manufacture for itself: and this principle, like many others, we transfer to America, without calculating the difference of circumstance which should often produce a difference of result. In Europe the lands are eithercultivated, or locked up against the cultivator. Manufacture must therefore be resorted to of necessity not of choice, to support the surplus of their people. But we have an immensity of land courting the industry of the husbandman [farmer]. Is it best then that all our citizens should be employed in its improvement, or that one half should be called off from that to exercise manufactures and handicraft arts for the other? Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiardeposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is aphenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. It is the mark set on those, who not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry, as does the husbandman, for theirsubsistence, depend for it on thecasualties andcaprice of customers. Dependence begetssubservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition. This, the natural progress and consequence of the arts, has sometimes perhaps beenretarded by accidental circumstances: but, generally speaking, the proportion which theaggregate of the other classes of citizens bears in any state to that of its husbandmen, is the proportion of its unsound to its healthy parts, and is a good enoughbarometer whereby to measure its degree of corruption. While we have land to labor then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a workbench, ortwirling a distaff. Carpenters, masons, smiths, are wanting in husbandry: but, for the general operations of manufacture, let our workshops remain in Europe. It is better to carry provisions and materials to workmen there, than bring them to the provisions and materials, and with them their manners and principles. Theloss by the transportation of commodities across the Atlantic will be made up in happiness and permanence of government. The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body. It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic invigour. A degeneracy in these is acanker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution.

Interior trade:
Trade within the nation.
Exterior commerce:
Trade with other nations.
Present contest:
The American Revolution.
Fiber of the flax plant, used to make cloth.
A tough fiber from the hemp plant, used to make rope and rough cloth.
Used to grow crops.
Place for safekeeping.
Fact or event that can be observed.
Means to support life.
Losses that occur by chance.
Unpredictable or irrational ideas or actions.
Openness to being bribed or bought.
Instrument that detects changes.
Twirling a distaff:
Spinning a staff holding fibers such as wool or cotton.
Loss by the transportation of commodities:
Expenses of shipping goods to and from Europe.
Active in body or mind.
Spreading sore.

What happened next …

In 1789 President George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97) chose Jefferson as his secretary of state. While holding this position, Jefferson came into direct confrontation with the nation's secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804; see Chapter 2), a strong supporter of industrialization. Hamilton sought a stronger federal government with less power held only by the states. He was a champion of the "infant industries," or the newly established manufacturing businesses in the United States, and believed the government should help them. In Jefferson's opinion, Hamilton's financial measures helped the few at the expense of the many, encouraged corruption in the economy, and gave too much power to the government. The public argument between Jefferson and Hamilton represented the national debate over the direction the country should take.

Jefferson became president on March 4, 1801. During his two terms in office, he attempted to create his republican vision of a land of independent farmers. By reducing the means and powers of the government, Jefferson sought to promote peace, equality, and individual freedom. The scientist within Jefferson, however, was greatly interested in the new technologies being invented and used in the United States, and his opposition to them gradually decreased as he grew older.

During the years of Jefferson's presidency (1801–9), the United States was a largely agricultural nation, with more than 90 percent of its population living in rural areas, and fully 80 percent working on farms. Industry began to develop very slowly in the early part of the nineteenth century, and then very rapidly in the second half of the century. By 1920 more than half of the nation's population lived in cities. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, more than 80 percent of Americans lived in urban areas.

Did you know …

  • During the presidency of George Washington there was only one political party—the Federalists. No political party system existed. The two-party system came about when people like Jefferson organized in opposition to the Federalist policies of Alexander Hamilton. The Federalists believed in a strong federal government, national banks, and government aid of industrialization. Jefferson became the leader of the new party, the Republicans (also known as the Democratic-Republicans), who believed in stronger states' rights, less federal interference in people's lives, and a republic of landowning farmers.
  • Though Jefferson believed that "those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God," he did keep his own slaves and held conflicting views about slave labor in the United States. Jefferson did not believe blacks were equal to white Americans, but by the end of his life he was convinced that slavery was morally wrong. Agonizing over the issue, he wrote a plan for the gradual emancipation (freeing) of slaves. His plan stated that the freed slaves would not live in communities with their former owners. Rather they would be sent to live in colonies in some remote land. Jefferson never submitted his plan to the government of Virginia.

Consider the following …

  • Explain why Thomas Jefferson believed that the growth of manufacturing in the United States was a threat to the values of the new nation. What was it about working as a farmer that Jefferson believed was morally superior to industry? Discuss some of the ideas expressed in the passage above to summarize his opposition to manufacturing in the new nation.
  • Can you envision the United States today if Thomas Jefferson and his supporters had been successful in preventing industry from developing in the United States? Do you think any good might have resulted had the country remained largely agricultural? What negative results might have occurred?

For More Information


Davis, David Brion and Steven Mintz, eds. The Boisterous Sea of Liberty: A Documentary History of America from Discovery through the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Ellis, Joseph J. The Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

Hindle, Brooke, and Steven Lubar. Engines of Change: The American Industrial Revolution, 1790–1860. Washington, DC and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986.

Kasson, John F. "Republican Values as a Dynamic Factor." In The Industrial Revolution in America. Edited by Gary J. Kornblith. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Koch, Adrienne, and William Penn, eds. The Life and Writings of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Modern Library, 1944.

Randall, Willard Sterne. Thomas Jefferson: A Life. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1993.

Web Sites

"Biography of Thomas Jefferson." The White House. (accessed on July 6, 2005).