Q0: Introducing “Notes on the State”

Introducing: Notes on the State

Is it enough to say Thomas Jefferson is a paradox? “Notes on the State” explores Jefferson’s contradictions, the limits of his writings and the legacy of his ideas for our nation today. Produced at the University of Virginia’s Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, the series launches Presidents’ Day, February 18th 2019.


I’m Deborah McDowell and this is “Notes on the State,” a podcast about Thomas Jefferson. So, why Jefferson? You might ask…

DAVID THORSEN: Jefferson leaves us a dual legacy

When it comes to Jefferson, we seem inevitably to swing between two poles: Jefferson was either a great man or a monster.

LISA WOOLFORK: When I think about Jefferson, I think about someone who wrote about liberty and equality. And believed in that but only to a point.

He was either Jefferson a hero or a hypocrite.

LISA WOOLFORK: Someone who also believed in a form of scientific racism and eugenics

He was either a slaveholder or a statesmen.

NIYA BATES: But we can’t tell the story of a president, of a person who served without talking about the institution of slavery

But it’s not “either-or.” Because Jefferson was all of these things. And at one and the same time! 

This is the history we inherit. And the challenge we must confront: to reconcile our foundational myths and ideals with the realities of their limits and failures. These realities represent the perpetual paradoxes of our nation’s history: equality amid inequality, independence amid bondage…

LISA WOOLFORK: I mean if you peel back the thinnest layer of American history, you get a revolution. That did not happen because people politely wrote to the king and said, “Hey we’d like to get our freedom right now.” Instead, they rose up!

Over the coming episodes, we will hear from a variety of voices. All with their minds on Jefferson, but especially on the only book he ever wrote: Notes on the State of Virginia

DAVID THORSEN: How many of you have read  the only book Jefferson ever wrote: Notes on the State of Virginia

The book reads in places like the stuff of a dry and arid almanac, but then it explodes in other places with some of the most racist, rabid, offensive, and ultimately indefensible claims, especially about black folks.

NIYA BATES: he writes in his only book Notes on the State of Virginia about racial hierarchy, sort of pseudoscientific racist beliefs that black people are inferior.

A.D. CARSON– “Too” [Produced by Truth]

In titling our series, “Notes on the State,” we are obviously riffing on the title Jefferson gave his book. And we’re also borrowing the concept Jefferson used to structure this 1781 book: the query.

We know it may sound a bit corny–we really want do query Jefferson… we want to wrestle with Jefferson.  

NOELLE HURD: how did we get here? Right? Why do we still have so many people who think black people are inferior?

If you look at the roots of Jefferson’s racist ideas you can see a through-line from the Enlightenment to our very own time, and you can watch as these ideas take on more extreme and egregious manifestations, such as we witnessed in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017.                 

DENNIS CHILDS: The real point here is not to exceptionalize these moments in Jefferson. Not to exceptionalize what happened in 2017 in Charlottesville. And also not to exceptionalize the South. What are the groundings for these practices? Is the question. And I think Jefferson helps us to illuminate that.

Tune in for Query 1 of Notes on the State. Coming Presidents’ Day, February 18th, 2019. Subscribe wherever you get your podcast. For further information about the series, visit our website: notes.woodson.virginia.edu

A.D. CARSON- “Too” [Produced by Truth]