Q1: The Difference Jefferson Makes

Transcript (Full text)

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Query 1: The Difference Jefferson Makes

Host(s): Deborah E. McDowell; James Perla

Publication date: 2019-02-19

Episode Summary: Thomas Jefferson makes some controversial claims about race and racial difference in his first and only book, Notes on the State of Virginia. How do we reconcile Jefferson’s racist theories with his ideals of liberty, equality, and individual freedom? What do these tensions in Jefferson’s work tell us about belonging and citizenship today? Find out in our first query: “The Difference Jefferson Makes.”

Guests [in order of appearance]: Niya Bates, Brad Pasanek, John O’Brien, David Thorsen, Kwame Otu, Deborah McDowell, Mia Bay.

Full interview(s): John O’Brien and Brad Pasanek



I’m Deborah McDowell and this is “Notes on the State.”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident … Is there anyone who doesn’t recognize these words? I would guess that most members of our listening audience not only know these words, many could likely complete the sentence of “The Declaration of Independence” in which they appear: “that all men are created equal.”

Thomas Jefferson is widely regarded as the architect of this ideal this guiding principle of our nation–its civil religion, if you will.

A mere few years after gathering with the other Founding Fathers to craft and hammer out the details of the Declaration—just as the republic was beginning to take shape—Jefferson turned to a new project, one that would absorb his attention for several years to come: his first and only book, Notes on the State of Virginia.

In what would become the most memorable sections of this dense, complicated, and often vexing book, Jefferson openly contradicts his lofty democratic ideals, most especially in his theories about race and racial difference.  Perhaps he needed these theories to rationalize and live with the fact that he owned and enslaved hundreds of people, whom he did not see as equals, hundreds of people, whom he could not bring himself in life to free.

It is now taken for granted that those enslaved neither factored into Jefferson’s conceptions of equality nor ultimately in his conception of humanity. According to Niya Bates, Public Historian of Slavery and African-American Life at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello:

[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.]

Notes on the State of Virginia book spine
Spine of Notes on the State of Virginia (Notes on the State of Virginia. A 1787 .J45. Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.)

Although some scholars—Michael Hardt, for example—considered race one of “the greatest stumbling blocks of [Jefferson’s] thought,” as well as the greatest challenge to his concept of democracy, his ideas have proven powerfully resilient for over two centuries, perhaps none more resilient than those articulated in Query 14, arguably the book’s most famous section. And the focus of this, our first episode.

Query 14 is but one chapter in an otherwise rambling and meandering book. The query entitled “Laws” describes the proposal for the emancipation of slaves in Virginia. But this point is sometimes lost on readers because of the tedious details at the front end of the query. Most readers tend to skip right to the section, describing to quote Jefferson, that “other race,” that race stamped with the “immovable veil of black,” that race, in Jefferson’s, words: “inferior to the whites the endowments both of body and mind.” But in skipping to that section of the query, it’s easy to miss the fact that these claims about racial difference occur at a moment in the text in which Jefferson is contemplating the possibility of emancipation.

Like so much in Jefferson’s writings, this query is plagued with contradictions and equivocations. At points in the query, it is as if he is actually quarreling with himself about a range of questions about race, and specifically about black people:

  • Are black people human?
  • Are they a separate species, a distinct race?
  • Do they feel? Do they love?  Can they grieve?
  • Do the “physical distinctions” between blacks and white prove a “difference of race?”
  • And if so, are these distinctions fixed and immutable?

Of course, these questions lead inevitably to THE BIG question, the brooding question, the one favored by proponents and detractors of Jefferson alike:  how do we reconcile his defense of liberty and equality with this racist claptrap masquerading as science contained in Query 14?

Let’s see if we can work our way through the muck and messiness of these ideas. But before we do, we need to take a few minutes to provide a bit of background

Let’s get started—Query 1: The Difference Jefferson Makes”

The 'States' and Stakes of Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia


Notes on the State of Virginia has its genesis in a set of questions—or queries—from Francois Marbois, a French diplomat—I concede I speak magnolia French—French with an Alabama. So this French diplomat is curious about this new nation, which had declared its Independence from Great Britain but a few years before. In his questions to Jefferson, Marbois asks for basic information about the topography, the geology, the flora, the fauna, charters of the state, the population, commerce, currency, religion.

Painting of Marbois
Painting of François, marquis de Barbé-Marbois by Jean François Boisselat, 1812 (oil on panel)

Marbois actually sends the same questionnaire to representatives in all of the thirteen original American colonies… But only Jefferson seizes the opportunity to write a detailed book-length set of answers.

[Brad]: it doesn’t answer the questions–at least not in the mode Marbois would expect–He gets a questionnaire and he returns a book.

[John] and, it gets associative. Like he starts off on one topic and that leads him to something else.

This is Brad Pasanek and John O’Brien—two professors in UVA’s English department—whom we interviewed about Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. They point out how Jefferson attempts to be meticulous in his response to Marbois, but his tendency to stray into territory of his own choosing results in a complicated and meandering book. One very hard to make sense of, says John O’Brien

[JOHN O’BRIEN] It’s not a friendly or readable book. Because it doesn’t have a narrative. It’s almost like a statistical summary turned into prose. It has accounts of the flora and fauna, the native tribes, the chief exports of various regions of Virginia. It also is a book that quite deliberately puns. The “state” of Virginia, the state, the entity of Virginia. But also trying to use the pages of a book to capture the “state” of Virginia at a particular moment. And that moment is right at the cusp of nationhood.

They consider Notes on the State of Virginia, one of the most important books written by an American in the eighteenth century.

What makes it so important? For one reason, despite America’s victory and independence, it is struggling at this moment for economic and political viability and stability.  And at the same time, it is struggling—in both explicit and implicit ways—to define its position as a newly independent state vis a vis its Old World European counterparts, who are busy ranking, measuring, and sizing up this brash new republic.

[O’BRIEN] Jefferson drawing on his own library and a part of the goal… I think is not only the to assert the American nation of Virginia, but also to put it in dialogue with European writers [13:00]. You know, he’s writing partly because he wants to assert his own position as a writer in the community of letters.

Buffon's Book
“Histoire Naturelle,” by George-Louis Leclerc Comte de Buffon (1749–1804)
Painting of Buffon
Painting of Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon’ by François-Hubert Drouais, 1753.

But because he likes to stray—and, because this text is so associative…– Jefferson sets out to answer Marbois’s queries, but ends up engaging with a different Frenchman—here goes… George Louis-Leclerc Comte De Buffon.

Considered Europe’s premier naturalist, Buffon has some preposterous theories that Jefferson is determined to rebut. Most especially, a theory called “New World Degeneracy.”

Let’s let David Thorsen, a guide at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, explain:

[Thorsen]: he’s in a competition with a Frenchman named the Comte de Buffon advances the idea that not only animals but human beings in North America because of North America’s temperature climate and geography will degrade over time and become shorter and less intelligent than Europeans. And what does he do to disprove this idea? He collects all these plants and animals to show Buffon that animals are as big or bigger than those in Europe.

Birds of Virginia
“Birds of Virginia.” Page image of p. 73 from Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1853.

Through the power of his prose and purse strings, Jefferson indulged his obsession with debunking Buffon’s crackpot idea. Not only does he bring to this obsession an impressive display of reading and knowledge, derived from his extensive library, he actually gets literally down and dirty, digging in mounds of soil, excavating indigenous burial grounds, unearthing evidence that “our animals are every bit as big as theirs.”

Again, if you can believe it, Jefferson sends animal heads, “cougar skins, elk horns, and whole moose carcasses across the Atlantic” (Waldstreicher, “Introduction”) to Buffon.

[BRAD PASANEK] I mean some of this is our groundhogs are just as big as their groundhogs.


But I mean there’s another way in which right so he gets a questionnaire from this Diplomat Marbois. But in fact, he’s answering questions that he’s imagining Buffon is asking him about what happens when you take a European you transplant in into the new world? So, but I think there’s a there’s an effort on almost every page to sort of say “we’re not degenerating.” Where I’m using the white “we”  [18:00] yeah the European we that that we’re not going to become corrupted by the airs of the new world or the soil of the new world…

Map of Virginia
Map of Virginia from page 14 of “Notes on the State of Virginia : with an appendix” (1801)

As Jefferson is answering Marbois’s queries, he is simultaneously attempting to rebuke Buffon’s outlandish ideas about “New World Degeneracy.” In the process, and indirectly, Jefferson arrives at some of his most controversial claims about race and racial difference.

Jefferson may have insisted that Europeans transplanted to America, are not in danger of degenerating.  He may have insisted that they are no different from those Europeans on the other side of the Atlantic, and certainly not inferior to them.  But the descendants of Africa, now captive in Virginia? Maybe they were different, and maybe their difference was fixed in nature. At least that’s what Jefferson claims at first, but in the end, he can’t really make his mind up here; he can’t settle the question.

When it comes to the Marbois’ questions about the animals and plants of Virginia, Jefferson is scrupulous… measuring and grafts, packing animal skins and horns to ship across the Atlantic… and he even going so far as to “display his findings,” as it were, in the entrance hall of his home.

Entrance Hall of Monticello
View of Entrance Hall of Jefferson’s home (Photo: Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello)

But when it comes to the questions Buffon prompts about whole groups of people… Jefferson’s commitment to rationalism and empiricism seems to break down. Here’s David Thorsen again:

[Thorsen]: Take a look around, what do you see? Jefferson is a man of the enlightenment. Knowledge is power. That’s why the antlers are there… the fossils.

He’s also going back to Greek and Roman history as the cradle of Western Civilization as a resource… but if you read Notes on the State of Virginia what does Jefferson say about his interest in African culture and history? Does he expressed any desire to know about Mali about Timbuktu about the empires of Africa? He completely ignores any evidence of black culture and achievement and says he’s going to deal with blacks as he observes them where they are. Where are they in Virginia? What is he observe? People who are enslaved not their cultures. So, Jefferson is not interested in that. A man of the Enlightenment. What’s he doing? Is he rejecting knowledge because it doesn’t fit the narrative?

This reasoning, Brad Pasanek argues, is one of the most confounding aspects of Notes on the State of Virginia, but also why it’s such a compelling representation of Jefferson’s inconsistencies:      

[BRAD PASANEK] One of the things that I find interesting about Jefferson is a particular kind of game that he’s playing always. That he wants to not say what he means. Or he wants to not be held accountable. He’s kind of a moving target. This is the way the Notes on the State of Virginia works. His discourse is written against Buffon in a kind of, I don’t know, I want to say, seemingly anti-racist mode, but what he does is produce a new kind of racism. That is quintessentially Jeffersonian. Or as one of my mentors pointed out. This is a guy who sleeps in the wall. He’s neither in his office nor in his room. He’s always trying to find some liminal space to inhabit.

So how did Jefferson even get here in the first place? To this “new form of racism.”

The moment in the text in which Jefferson outlines his most controversial and bedeviling ideas about race… is actually when he’s contemplating emancipation… and the terrifying question of what would happen were enslaved people ever to be emancipated?

Jefferson fixates on the inferiority of blacks to justify why the enslaved should not be emancipated.

It’s interesting, to me, that Jefferson, even when he retracts, he continues to return to variations on the following quotation: “this unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.” He goes on to elaborate why the formerly enslaved, if emancipated would need to be removed in his words “beyond the reach of mixture”

Now, as we know, this is the same man who asserted that slavery was and I quote him cruel war against human nature… But of course, even when Jefferson seems completely unambiguous in his condemnation of slavery. It is not attached to a notion that blacks are equal.

It is this quintessential character of Jefferson, the tensions, the equivocations, the contradictions that helps to explain his shifting stances on slavery itself.

[BRAD PASANEK] if the British had shot Jefferson in 1782, we would remember him as one of the great sort of opponents of slavery, as a powerful American voice against racism. But that he continued to work on the Notes of the State of Virginia and sort of work out in letters his sort of perverse way of thinking about the different peoples of the world, we see something else. Like, you can watch him sort of work his way to a stranger and stranger more pathologically racist place, if you follow him through the “states” of the Notes on the State of Virginia.

Throughout this series, we will follow Jefferson through the “states” of the Notes on the State of Virginia… Our ultimate aim is neither to glorify or demonize him; neither to cement him to his pedestal nor topple him to the ground.  Rather, we want to make “the sage of Monticello,” as he is known in these parts, touchable for our times. That may not be easy but we want to try anyways.

To make Jefferson touchable for our times, we have to go right to the crux of Jefferson’s contradictions… the distance Jefferson creates between equality and difference… And we’ll go there… right after this.

[Credits: This podcast is supported by UVA Bicentennial with funding provided by the Alumni Board of Trustees. It’s produced at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies]

The Difference Jefferson Makes


So, clearly there are a lot of moving parts to Notes on the State of Virginia… Jefferson is thinking about the new nation, trying to document for a diplomat in France laws, customs, and geography of Virginia, all the while quarreling with Buffon’s crazy theory about “New World Degeneracy.”

For sure, the dustbins of history are full of crazy theories about race.  What, if anything, is new or distinct about what Jefferson has to say? We’re going to take up this question by focusing in more closely on the text.

Well, for one, there is the pseudoscientific language to lend his ideas about racial difference the air of authority. All this stuff about the physiological sources of blackness, references to “skin and scarf-skin,” to secretions, “reticular membranes,” the “colour of black blood” of black bile, and so on and so on.

Again we should note that the stakes are high—to say the least—when it comes to Jefferson’s ideas. Because these ideas about race and racial difference are emerging at this founding moment for the nation… At the moment he must determine, along with others, what constitutes an American citizen? Who belongs to this nation?

As we were working on this episode, we heard that Kwame Otu, Assistant Professor of African-American and African Studies, was discussing Notes on the State of Virginia in his introduction to African American Studies course.

And so, we sent our producer, James Perla to attend the lecture… in an auditorium filled with two-hundred or so students.

JAMES PERLA: Professor Otu begins the class by reading from the famous—or infamous–Query 14, where Jefferson begins to spin his theory of racial difference, his theory of what separates whites from blacks.

[KWAME OTU] “The first difference which strikes us is that of colour.  Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us….

Here he’s actually trying to make a distinction between black and white. Right? And this distinction he imagines as immutable, fixed, immovable. So what is really going on here? Why is he really feeling compelled to make these distinctions…

Professor Otu puts this question to his students and their responses get right to the core of the issue. So, I’ll let the tape run:

[STUDENT 1] He’s trying to go back in his word in what he said in the Declaration– and trying to support how the economy is sustained by slavery and the need to have one race beneath the other and creating this pseudoscience to support that…

Otu Photo
Kwame Otu, Assistant Professor of African American and African Studies, UVA. (Photo: Malia Dinko)

Professor Otu keeps reading, letting Jefferson’s passages, which grow stranger and stranger, speak for themselves.

[KWAME OTU] Add to these flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favor of the whites, declared by their preferences for them as uniformly as in the preference of the orangutan for the black women as for those over their own species.

The circumstance of superior beauty is thought worthy of attention in the propagation of horses, dogs and other domestic animals. Why not in that of man? So, what’s going on here?

So, for Jefferson, the quintessential factor is whiteness, right? Color. Color is a definitive figure. It’s a key distinguishing factor that separates white people from black people. Based on color, we are completely biologically different. We have different mental states that separation for him is perpetual.

Laws page
“LAWS” Manuscript page 79 (Massachusetts Historical Society, Thomas Jefferson Papers)

Up to this point, Jefferson bases his claims that black people are inherently inferior to white people in his observations—bad observations, unreliable observations—about the black bodies of those he has enslaved.

[DEBORAH MCDOWELL] But he went much further than that because he even suggested that their emotional capacities were different. So, you know, when he says, in particular, even the capacity to grieve in the face of loss. He says, the griefs of these people, this species that is so different from us, their griefs are transient. Right? He’s saying that whatever it is that defines a human being: the capacity to feel, the capacity to think, that black Americans are always outside those definitions.

To repeat, Jefferson sees race as something “fixed in nature,” and he uses this claim to propose two contradictory ideas: that white Europeans in America are free of the badge of inferiority– the kind that Buffon talked about in his theory.  And two, that at the same time, however, enslaved people of African descent are somehow defined by inferiority, immutably so.

As we have tried to point out, Jefferson is not the founder of these ideas alone… but his contributions to the history of racist ideas are significant and influential, particularly when it comes to the American context. This is according to Mia Bay, an historian at the University of Pennsylvania.

[BAY] He was really the first American to write much of anything. . . more of his generation about race. And he also kind of set this scientific tone. He talked about race in the context of this naturalist report on America, its environs, and politics. And tried to sound very dispassionate. And like a man of the enlightenment thinking these things through carefully. So all of that I think makes it something that is going to capture people’s imagination, something that’s going to be quoted…

And Jefferson’s writings in Query 14 have been quoted time and time again—both by those advocating similar ideas of racial difference and by those contesting these very notions!

But regardless of the influence of Jefferson’s writing, it’s important to underscore that there is also no factual or scientific truth—none whatsoever—to Jefferson’s claims about race and racial difference… Or as Deborah says…

[DEBORAH MCDOWELL] The tone, the kind of affectation of detachment, of “objectivity.” That all of this is to grant some kind of quote-on-quote: scientific authority. But there is nothing in science to ratify or support or reinforce anything Jefferson is saying. He is not himself confident of his claims, because there are many internal contradictions to the query: “well I believe, maybe it could be advanced.” And so, there’s quite a bit of equivocation. There’s assertion and then as we would say in our contemporary language a walking back of those assertions.

Of course, the irony in all of this is that whatever their presumed inferiority, the very people Jefferson characterizes as inferior are indispensable to the wealth-building economy of slavery. These assertions essentially lay the groundwork for a whole series of justifications and evasions that ultimately work to rationalize the inequalities at the foundations of our nation. As Mia Bay observes, this is a key reason why Jefferson actually needs to make these claims about race and racial difference in the first place!

[BAY] And Jefferson also talks about race in Notes on the State of Virginia to resolve the problem he helped set up. Which is that if you are going to create this society founded on the notion that all men are created equal and you are going to have slavery, you might have to qualify the “all men are created equal” by having suspicions that maybe some are not created equal.

Popular opinion reads Jefferson’s writings about race as inconsistent with his writings on equality, considers these ideas as irreconcilable with his racist ideas about black inferiority and racial difference. But Mia Bay helps us to return to one of our guiding questions in this episode: who belongs? And what do we do with these contradictions in Jefferson—foundational to our nation’s history—the contradictions between equality and difference?

And, part of the answer to that question is that it’s the limitations of Jefferson’s thoughts about equality lead directly to his racist ideas… Jefferson’s inability to see people of color as human or capable of equality results in or perhaps even fuels his claims about racial difference. Here’s Professor Otu again:

[KWAME OTU] The very idea of language of equality is so racialized. It’s a language that does not recognize black people as equal to whites. As is the notion of the human. And why is that? Because the notion of the human is a very western Christian conception. And again, these notions around the human are the same notions that color how Jefferson sees the world. So you need to think about the fact that when he’s talking about “man” the very idea of man excludes all other races… we are not within this classificatory schema as humans it does not apply to us…

Because in Jefferson’s mind emancipation is unimaginable. On the one hand, he knows slavery is immoral. But for Jefferson emancipation poses many challenges: Jefferson is fearful of “racial mixing”, both the very literal mixing—miscegenation—or interbreeding of people considered to be of different racial types—which, is something that’s already occurring, as Jefferson knows intimately—and also “racial mixing” in terms of what the possibility of emancipation portends for the masters and enslavers… that formerly enslaved will take up arms to exact retribution for what Jefferson describes as…”ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained…”

Not to mention, emancipation is an economic issue, too! An economic issue masquerading as a moral issue—how do you redistribute property?—at the time, property included enslaved peoples as well—And how do you solve this equation while still holding on to all your power, property, and privilege?

And, Jefferson turns to enlightenment principles—his rational thinking and desire for order—He opts for hierarchy and subordination—a hierarchy based in race… instead of a more lofty ideal of equality and justice… And here, again, the limitations of Jefferson’s vision of equality comes into focus…his project breaks down because of self-interest.

And these blind-spots, these limitations, these fictions of racial difference based in willful misperception and studied reluctance are still with us today.

This is something Kwame Otu also encourages his students to think about. Jefferson’s writings on equality and his racist pronouncements work hand in glove….

[KWAME OTU] These are the entangled ways that I want you to think about. These fictions which are violent and very toxic. How are they repurposed and reproduced in the current moment? Because they effectively shape and design how policies are enacted and implemented and how black people are perceived on a daily basis. Right? Which is why i push you to think about what does it mean to be human? And why is it that we are continually saying that Black Lives Matter? And that’s why this is important.

Professor Otu observes that we’re still trying to reconcile ourselves to the legacy of Jefferson’s thought to this very day. Even though these ideas change form and shape over time, the underlying meanings and intentions persist.

This, Deborah says, is because these assumptions about racial difference are so resilient:

[DEBORAH MCDOWELL] So, those assertions do a lot of cultural work. They do the work of rationalizing structures of inequality. And basing those structures of inequality on ideas of racial difference. And that every age does its own bit of that work. We’re dealing with this in our age. Every age has its own way of defining who qualifies for citizenship. So, Jefferson is doing for his era what every era does is to find its own way to justify the principle that we are not all created equal, right?

And so part of reconciling with Jefferson’s history is about taking stock of the lasting power of his ideas. According to Professor Otu, this is the challenge that we inherit: to redefine for our times the fictions that justify structures of inequality… the fictions of racial difference at the foundations of our nation’s identity.

Our work, is not simply to “debunk” or attempt to disprove the legacies of Jefferson’s thought in contemporary forms of racism, but to dismantle the structures and systems of exclusion. And to act! As Jefferson never could:

[KWAME OTU] So we need to think about the fact that we’re still reeling from these legacies of Jefferson. In our world today, we might not hear people use the kind of language that he’s using, but it’s filtered everywhere in the policies we make. He’s the founder of our institution. For example, look at this, when a school like UVa talks about diversity and inclusion, right? And you guys know where I’m going to go with this. One you are saying that “oh, well we’ve now realized you guys are human so you can join us.” But again, the very language of “inclusion” somehow privileges whiteness as exclusive, right?

And it’s as if you have to walk on shards of glass to beg people to become human. To beg white people to join the community. But then, that shouldn’t be the case. We shouldn’t use the language of inclusion because we are already here. We already belong.

[musical flourish]

Jefferson Beyond Jefferson

But do we belong?  And who is this “we?”  As we know, the “we” is always exclusive, is always formed and solidified by abjecting or expelling something, someone some bodies.  Who, then, belongs? And on what terms? On whose terms?

We know that both before and since Jefferson wrote Query 14… we have debated this question of who belongs? And continue to debate the question of whether the black people in this nation—brought here against their will, to build its wealth, fortune, and influence in the world—have a place as American citizens…not as 3/5th human beings, but full-fledged citizens.

And so, Jefferson makes a difference. And the difference Jefferson makes is to inscribe for American posterity a lasting fiction: that race not condition is the differentiating factor. And we have been debating this myth, we have been debating this fiction ever since, in order to determine who among American citizens has the right “to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Given this fact… what do we do? what can we do with Notes on Virginia?

After we have meditated on its contradictions, its inconsistencies, its equivocations.  After we have condemned and dismissed his pseudo-scientific thinking, what is left? Can anything be salvaged from this book? Can anything be salvaged for our times from Jefferson’s thought?

One thing we haven’t mentioned is that the subtitle of our podcast series is “Jefferson beyond Jefferson.” This comes from the political theorist, Michael Hardt (whom we quote at the beginning of this episode.) Hardt makes a critical point in his essay “Jefferson and Democracy”, Hardt says…  there are times whe “the project of a philosopher breaks down and needs to be carried beyond where it was left.”  Hardt then urges us to “carry Jefferson’s thought beyond his own limitations.”

As we have seen in this episode. Those limitations are legion those limitations abound, but there is at least one place in Query 14 where the project breaks down, opening an opportunity for us to extend it beyond the break… to make it live again, to move it beyond its limitations. And this clip comes from our conversation with John O’Brien and Brad Pasanek.

And actually takes us back to one of those moments of rupture in Jefferson. There are always these moments of rupture. He’s moving along, quite dispassionately. Then suddenly seemingly out of nowhere comes this very passionate language.

[DEBORAH MCDOWELL]:  I love those sections where you see Jefferson actually stepping out from behind the protections of this pseudo-scientific detached commentary on race to actually provide us glimpses into his moral sensibility.  I’m referring to that section where he writes, “I shudder that God is not sleep.”  Where he talks about the “boisterous passions” that are developing between these two groups of people, one held in bondage by the other, you know.  “I shudder at” because he is really imagining a kind of justice that will await those people like himself, who have enslaved people and refused to set them free.  You don’t see that very much in the work, but it’s very firm and thus stands out for that reason, you know.  I shudder . . . a person who hasn’t been ambivalent relationships at best with religion.  I shudder that God is not asleep.  You know that there is this force that will bring down the kind of judgment, the wrath of God such as we see in the Old Testament.

[BRAD PASANEK]:  Do you want the quotation?

Yeah, I’ll read it out. Yeah, cause it’s powerful. Yeah? “Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just that his Justice cannot sleep forever that considering numbers nature and natural means only a revolution of The Wheel of Fortune in exchange of situation is among possible events. That it may become probable by Supernatural interference.” Yeah exclamation point. yeah, but that he sees the wheel will turn. Yeah. He’s a “revolutionary.”

DMcD: Yeah. And that’s Jefferson’s long-winded way–and talk about people being long-winded– but Jefferson’s long-winded way of saying, you know, the Martin Luther King famous quote “the arc of the moral universe bends toward Justice,” right? And that is what he’s saying there. That the arc of the moral universe to restore justice and then there can be a reversal of positions.

Though, we know such a reversal in the wheel of fortune never comes… there is a kernel—a core possibility—in Jefferson’s rhetorical flourish here—one that exceeds the bound of Jefferson himself—this call to a moral urgency… is a call to action, of sorts… And to get beyond the persisting inequities, beyond the cyclical nature of racist thought, we must break the cycle.

And so, the we here, is now intentional—”we”… as individuals, as communities, as institutions, as governing bodies, as “the people”—need to get “beyond Jefferson” and beyond simply acknowledging the injustices and contradictions of our nation’s history and those persisting injustices that carry through to our very present moment.

To do that we must do what Jefferson could seldom do and that is: act!—Act, not simply disprove or debunk the history of racist ideas to which Jefferson vocally contributes, not simply to learn, or study the machinations of white supremacy and structural racism. Of course, education is essential. But we act on what we know. We must put knowledge into practice to ensure that all citizens in this republic have the right to belong and to reclaim the revolutionary potential of Jefferson’s founding ideal: to make it “self-evident that all men are created equal.” To make it “self-evident that all [human beings] are created equal.”

Sources and further reading

Buffon’s American Degeneracy:  [part 1]” The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, 1998-2004.

Dugatkin, Lee Alan. “Thomas Jefferson Defends America With a Moose.” Slate, September 12, 2012.

Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. Rev. and expanded. ed. Norton, 1996.

Hardt, Michael. “Jefferson and Democracy.” American Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 1, 2007.

Jarrett, Gene Andrew. “‘To Refute Mr. Jefferson’s Arguments Respecting Us’: Thomas Jefferson, David Walker, and the Politics of Early African American Literature.” Early American Literature, vol. 46, no. 2, 2011, pp. 291–318. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41348715.

Marbois, François. “Marbois’ Queries concerning Virginia.” November 30, 1780 [N.B. the queries to which Jefferson responds in Notes on the State of Virginia]

Reed, Annette-Gordon. “Charlottesville: Why Jefferson Matters.” New York Review of Books. August 19, 2017.

Stanton, Lucia C. “Those Who Labor for My Happiness”: Slavery At Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. University of Virginia Press, 2012.

Stein, Susan, and Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation. The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson At Monticello. Harry N. Abrams, in association with the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, Inc, 1993. Via: “Moose Antlers,” Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

“Thomas Jefferson’s Thoughts on the Negro: Part I.” The Journal of Negro History. Vol. 3, No. 1. Jan., 1918.

Waldstreicher, David. “Introduction.” Notes On the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson with Related Documents. Ed. David Waldstreicher. Boston: Bedford; New York: St. Martin’s, 2002.

Wilkins, Roger W. Jefferson’s Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism. Beacon Press, 2002.

Woodson, Carter Godwin. “The Beginnings of the Miscegenation of the Whites and Blacks.” The Journal of Negro History. Vol. 3, No. 4. Oct., 1918.

See also:

On Crazy We Built a Nation (Seeing White, Part 4).” Scene on Radio: Duke Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University. March 30, 2017

Kendi, Ibram X. “Part II: Thomas Jefferson.” Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas In America. Nation Books, 2016.

Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. W.W. Norton, 2010.

Notes on the State of Virginia. [Digital Edition] John O’Brien and Brad Pasanek, editors, et al.