Thomas Jefferson: Notes on the State of Virginia

(1784)

Context

During the Revolutionary War, the Virginia General Assembly was working its way through the new state’s laws in an effort to scrub out those regulations that existed only because Virginia had inherited laws from Great Britain. No longer obliged to preserve Britain’s laws, Virginia placed the entirety of its legal code under review—including the ways in which slaves were passed from one member of the family to another through inheritance and how they were treated in the criminal code. There was even a proposal to provide for gradual emancipation. Few people at the time thought that an immediate or outright abolition of slavery was possible, but there were calls in several quarters for gradual emancipation.

This idea is one that Jefferson sought to address in the Notes, specifically in Query XIV. Originally written for a select audience of French and other European intellectuals and the close circle of Jefferson’s friends, Notes on the State of Virginia was eventually...

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Thomas Jefferson (Library of Congress)

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