The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

I. Travellers and Observers, 1763–1846

§ 9. Notes on the State of Virginia

Crèvecœur’s pretext of an inquiring foreigner mirrored the curiosity of Europe respecting the colonies, and the way in which that curiosity was satisfied, not merely through the multiplying books of travel, but also through the exchange and publication of formal letters. Such was the origin of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia; Written in the Year 1781, Some-what Corrected and Enlarged in the Winter of 1782, for the Use of a Foreigner of Distinction, in Answer to certain Queries Proposed by Him. This serious piece of scientific writing, perhaps the most frequently printed treatise that has emanated from the South, was compiled by Jefferson while he was Governor of Virginia, and sent to M. Barbè de Marbois, Secretary of the French Legation. It was first issued at Paris (1784–85). The arid statistics, the details of agriculture, and the generally dry geography, important in their time, now mean less to the reader than do Jefferson’s occasional flights in a loftier style, represented in the following:

  • The Natural Bridge, the most sublime of nature’s works, though not comprehended under the present head [Cascades and Caverns], must not be pretermitted.… Though the sides of this bridge are provided in some parts with a parapet of fixed rocks, yet few men have resolution to walk to them and look over into the abyss. You involuntarily fall on your hands and feet, creep to the parapet, and peep over it. Looking down from this height about a minute gave me a violent headache. If the view from the top be painful and intolerable, that from below is delightful in an equal extreme. It is impossible for the emotions arising from the sublime to be felt beyond what they are here; so beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light, and springing as it were up to heaven!
  • The influence of the Notes, of their author, and of Jeffersonian ideals, is constantly met in other works of description. The allusions to Washington himself are scarcely more frequent. In 1794 Henry Wansey, an English manufacturer, breakfasted with Washington, and “was struck with awe and admiration”; but about the same time, Thomas Cooper, who, in a flying visit, found “land cheap and labour dear,” remarks that “the government is the government of the people and for the people.” And when John Davis, the Pedestrian, had from 1798 to 1802 “entered, with equal interest, the mud-hut of the negro and the log-house of the planter,” he dedicated his book to Jefferson. Isaac Weld the Irishman, author of a widely read book on the United States and Canada, wrote one of his thirty-eight letters from Jefferson’s then unfinished establishment at Monticello. He made mediocre pencil sketches of Niagara Falls, and the “Rock Bridge” of Virginia, but secured a picture of Mount Vernon from a friend. He visited the Dismal Swamp, saw Washington in a cheerful mood at a reception in Philadelphia, and culled observations on the Indians, helping himself at need from Carver and Jefferson. In Weld’s account, the backsliding of the educated savage Joseph Brant became heroic.

    With Weld, the strictures of the British travellers upon American life become sharp. A mild rejoinder to foreign depreciation soon appeared in the fictitious Letters of the British Spy by the American jurist William Wirt, which purported to derive from the abandoned manuscript of “a meek and harmless” young Englishman of rank who was travelling incognito. Composed in a formal Addisonian manner, this defence of American statesmen and American eloquence is overcharged with allusions to Cicero and Demosthenes. Never-theless, some of the descriptions cling to the mind. It is easy to perceive why the booklet went through so many editions, when one finds in it the leading men of the nation in 1803 under a thin disguise. Here, for example, is President Jefferson:

  • The … of the United States is in his person tall, meagre, emaciated; his muscles relaxed, and his joints so loosely connected as not only to disqualify him, apparently, for any vigorous exertion of body, but to destroy everything like elegance and harmony in his air and movement.