- Subterraneous Virginia: The Ethical Poetics of Thomas Jefferson
Whatever turns the soul inward on itself, tends to concenter its forces, and to fit it for greater and stronger flights of science.—Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry
In defending the vigor of colonial culture against the disparaging assessments of European critics, Thomas Jefferson asserted, in 1782, that America had already begun to show “hopeful proofs of genius,” both in the “nobler” and in the “subordinate” arts. The nobler arts, Jefferson believed, were directly or indirectly didactic. They tended to effect change or to promote virtue, to “arouse the best feelings of man,” to “call him into action” in defense of freedom or to “conduct him to happiness.” The subordinate arts—though not without importance in a matter of national vanity—merely “amuse.” 1 This distinction is central to the literary apologia of Jefferson’s generation. It forms a key element in what G. J. Barker-Benfield characterizes as a century-long struggle, in English literary culture, to reform public manners in general and male character in particular—a campaign to arouse man’s best feelings, rather than his most venal ones. 2 But Jefferson makes his case for the nobility of the didactic arts in one of the most troubled, and troubling, American books of the late eighteenth century, Notes on the State of Virginia.
Mitchell Breitwieser has scrupulously explored the extent to which formal and ethical discrepancy, rather than didactic prescription, forms “the compositional center” of Notes on the State of Virginia. It is a book, Breitwieser contends, that fuses the analytical planner—the Jeffersonian Head—with “the observer who knows the [End Page 233] limits and frailties” of human plans. 3 A “proper complication of principle,” Jefferson thought, might be able to contain the engimas of human experience and human character within a stable political framework. His critique of the Virginia Constitution, in Query XIII of the Notes, is directed toward establishing that principled complexity in the structures of government. But the broad implications of the Notes on the State of Virginia are, finally, less amenable to strategies of amelioration than the Virginia Constitution. Cultural discrepancies (as Breitwieser notes) may perhaps be accommodated (or disguised) in the design of one’s mountaintop estate. But they prove intractable when one detects them in what Edmund Burke might term the soul’s inward flights. Those inward flights form the psychological underworld that Jefferson sought to expose in his book. Notes on the State of Virginia dramatizes the subtle and pervasive intersections between interior and exterior life, between psychology and history, that preoccupied eighteenth-century moral philosophy. Burke’s optimistic reformulation of the Socratic imperative to know oneself—his faith in a rejuvenated science, emerging from its Platonic cave—receives a severe test in Jefferson’s pages.
In an essay on “The Intellectual Reconstruction of Virginia in the Age of Jefferson,” Jack P. Greene identifies Notes on the State of Virginia with the efforts of a number of Jefferson’s contemporaries to establish “a positive sense of collective self for Virginia and Virginians” in the years immediately following the American Revolution. 4 As Greene observes, Virginia had been an ethical problem for its historians and interpreters at least since Robert Beverley chastised his neighbors, in 1705, for their economic addiction to tobacco and for the laziness that led them to “spunge upon...the Bounties of the Earth.” 5 Though Virginia is richly forested, Beverley disdainfully notes, its inhabitants import from England virtually every wooden manufactured article that they possess—even their brooms. 6 Virginians were, in Beverley’s view, a morally and physically unpromising people planted in a natural paradise. Jefferson sought to renovate that long-standing image, out of what Greene terms Jefferson’s “deep loyalties to the local and provincial peculiarities that gave Virginia its distinctive shape—including even slavery.” 7
But Jefferson’s loyalties were unlikely to blind him to what he repeatedly recognized as the stubborn partiality of men, the fallibility of human judgment, and the futility of all intellectual construction or reconstruction that was not founded upon truth and reason. The cultural artifact that was Virginia—like any product of what Jefferson called, with...