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Notes on the State of Virginia

JEFFERSON, THOMAS. (English) Observations sur la Virginie

Paris: Barrois, 1786

Contemporary mottled calf, spine gilt. Complete with half-title, two errata leaves, folding table, large folding map (approx. 26 x 27 in.) printed on thick paper and in outstanding condition. Tiny private owner’s stamp (DC in a circle) on title. Very light wear. An outstanding copy.

FIRST PUBLISHED EDITION of Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia, issued the year after the extremely rare privately printed edition.

Jefferson’s only book-length work, this is “probably the most important scientific and political book written by an American before 1785” and the work on which “much of Jefferson’s contemporary fame as a philosopher was based” (Peden).

“A virtual manual of Jefferson’s political opinions” (ANB), Jefferson’s Notes contains some of Jefferson’s most important statements on liberty, constitutional government, religious freedom, and slavery. It is in this book, when considering the problem of slavery, that Jefferson wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” Jefferson’s famous agrarianism is reflected in his statement that “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God … whose breasts He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”

Jefferson’s Notes covers a wide range of philosophical, physical, and political subjects including Constitution, Laws, Religion, Rivers, Productions, and Weights, Measures, and Money. The book “laid the foundations of Jefferson’s high contemporary reputation as a universal scholar and of his present fame as a pioneer American scientist. Unpretentious in form and statistical in character, this extraordinarily informative and generally interesting book may still be consulted with profit about the geography and productions, the social and political life, of eighteenth-century Virginia” (DAB). The book appeared in nineteen editions in at least five countries by the time of Jefferson’s death, making it one of the best-known and most influential American books of the period. It remains in print to this day.

It was long believed that this edition came into being only when Jefferson learned that a copy of the private edition had fallen into the hands of a French publisher who planned to issue a poor and unauthorized translation. Thus Jefferson was forced to engage the Abbé Morellet to prepare this translation. In fact, however, Gordon Barker has recently shown that Jefferson himself authorized the French publication and worked with Morellet to present a much-improved version of the work. In the end “Jefferson seemed to regard Observations as the preferred representation of his work” (see Barker, “Unraveling the Strange History of Jefferson’s ‘Observations sur la Virginie,’” Virginia  Magazine of History and Biography, 2004).

This is the first edition to contain Jefferson’s famous map of Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and part and North Carolina. Jefferson went to great pains to prepare a first-rate map, gathering his information from disparate sources, drawing the map himself, having the maps engraved according to his specifications in London, and shipping the plate to Paris for printing. Jefferson wrote, “Should he [the engraver] ask a few guineas more I shall not stand about it. But nothing must be wanting in the execution, as to precision, distinctness, exactness, the form of his letters, and whatever else constitutes the perfection of a map.”  The result is one of the most famous maps in American history. This example is in outstanding condition.

This is a beautiful copy of the greatest American book, other than The Federalist, of the Founding era.