Jefferson’s Sons: Notes on the State of Virginia and Virginian Antislavery, 1760–1832
Rogers, Cara J.
Boles, John B.
Doctor of Philosophy
Abstract Jefferson’s Sons: Notes on the State of Virginia and Virginian Antislavery, 1760–1832 by Cara J. Rogers This dissertation examines the fascinating early life of Thomas Jefferson’s book, Notes on the State of Virginia, from its innocuous composition in the early 1780s to its appropriation as a political weapon by both pro and antislavery forces in the early nineteenth century. Initially written as a statistical introduction to Virginia for French readers, Jefferson’s book evolved into an intellectual tour de force that covered almost all facets of the state’s natural and political realms. As part of an antislavery education strategy, Jefferson also decided to include a treatise on the nature of racial difference, as well as a manifesto on the corrupting power of slavery in a republic and a plan for emancipation and colonization. In consequence, his book—for better or worse—defined the boundaries of future debates over the place of black people in American society. Although historians have rightly criticized Jefferson for his racism and failure to free his own slaves, his antislavery intentions for the Notes have received only cursory notice, partly because the original manuscript was not available for detailed examination until recently. By analyzing Jefferson’s complex revision process, this dissertation traces the ways in which his views on race and slavery evolved as he considered how best to persuade younger slaveholders to embrace emancipation. It then moves beyond Jefferson to examine contemporary responses to the Notes from white and black intellectuals and politicians, concluding with an attempt by Jefferson’s grandson to implement elements of the Notes’ emancipation plan during Virginia’s 1831-32 slavery debates.