Unraveling the Strange History of Jefferson's Observations Sur la Virginie

By Barker, Gordon S. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Unraveling the Strange History of Jefferson's Observations Sur la Virginie


Barker, Gordon S., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


When Thomas Jefferson left Paris on the eve of the French Revolution, the marquis de Condorcet, philosophe, statesman, and close friend of the future president of the United States, declared that "whatever may happen here, Monsieur Jefferson will always be the friend of the philosophers and of the free men of all countries."1 This tribute underscored the influence of the author of the Declaration of Independence on the literati he admired so much. At the same time, these remarks confirmed the recognition of Jefferson as a citizen in the cosmopolitan Republic of Letters that had emerged in Enlightenment France.2

The representation of Jefferson's Observations sur la Virginie as a "botched" publication-the usual view in the historical literature of the French translation of Jefferson's only full-length book-strikes a discordant note with this testimony from an immortal of the French Enlightenment.3 Published in early 1787, Observations was the first edition of Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia offered to the public. Earlier, in May 1785, Phillipe Denis Pierres printed two hundred copies of Jefferson's legendary responses to the queries of François Barbe de Marbois, secretary of the French legation at Philadelphia, but that press run was for private circulation only. Jefferson personally absorbed the costs of printing, which amounted to about 1,100 livres, one-fourth the estimate he had been given in the United States. The day after he received copies from Pierres, he began distributing them, sometimes apparently unbound, to selected friends and acquaintances.4

Although the publication of Observations was an important event for Jefferson during his sojourn in France, it has received little attention. A reconsideration seems overdue. At the least, it may shed light on one of Jefferson's most formative periods, years marked by learning and significant personal development but also fraught with frustration, failure, and disillusionment in diplomatic negotiations. His knowledge and views of politics, agriculture, industry, architecture, and art evolved remarkably.5 This period also permitted him to recover from the bleak years of the early 178Os, marked by his evacuation of the Virginia capital, the death of his daughter, and the failing health of his wife and her death on 6 September 1782.

In addition to enhancing understanding of Jefferson, his achievements, and the recognition of him by his contemporaries, renewed focus on the first appearance of his book in the public domain may help to explain why Observations has received so little attention compared to the English editions of his Notes.6 Interest in Notes at the time of its publication was followed by a rich and enduring scholarship.7 The English edition became recognized as a significant early American literary production, an important treatise on the politics and society of Revolutionary America, and an indication of Jefferson's thought. In contrast, discussion of Observations has been almost conspicuous by its absence in the historical literature, despite the fact that one scholar argued cogently that it was not a poor translation.8 The scant attention given the French edition is especially puzzling in view of the argument that Observations precipitated the first offering of Notes in English to the public. Those who have regarded it as a botched edition must acknowledge its significance in this regard.

Another reason to revisit Observations is that assessing its reception may improve understanding of the influence of New World politics and development on Europe, an issue of concern to both American and European scholars. In an era when revolutionary ideas in science, industry, and human affairs swept the Atlantic World, Jefferson, next to Benjamin Franklin, was the American best positioned to transmit American thought to Europe. During much of the crucial 1784-89 period, Jefferson was the principal intermediary between France and America. …

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