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On Race (1785)

FROM Notes on the State of Virginia

Despite Thomas Jefferson’s voluminous writings, he authored only one book, Notes on the State of

Virginia, which he had privately published in 1785. In the course of discussing Virginia’s climate,

geography, population, and history, Jefferson also commented on education, agriculture, and slavery. By

far the most controversial portion of the Notes on the State of Virginia was Jefferson’s thoughts on race.

Jefferson, like many of his contemporaries, was both uneasy with the practice of slavery and dependent

on its survival. Although in the Notes Jefferson vaguely hoped for a “total emancipation,” it was slave labor

that created Jefferson’s fortune and sustained his family, and it was slavery that allowed him the leisure to

read and write, to participate in public affairs, and, most ironically, to contemplate human rights.

Jefferson understood the contradiction, but throughout his career, his opposition to slavery in principle

never translated into actual practice. One crucial reason for this inactivity was Jefferson’s belief that

peoples of African ancestry were naturally inferior to people of European ancestry, as the following

excerpt makes abundantly clear.

From Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (Boston: Lilly and Wait, 1832), 144–150.

he 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,1 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. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share

of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every

passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which

reigns in the countenances, that immovable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other

race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of

the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan2

for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought

worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that

of man? Besides those of colour, figure, and hair, there are other physical distinctions proving a

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difference of race. They have less hair on the face and body. They secrete less by the kidnies, and

more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour. This greater

degree of transpiration3 renders them more tolerant of heat, and less so of cold than the whites.

Perhaps too a difference of structure in the pulmonary apparatus, which a late ingenious

experimentalist4 has discovered to be the principal regulator of animal heat, may have disabled them

from extricating, in the act of inspiration, so much of that fluid from the outer air, or obliged them in

expiration, to part with more of it. They seem to require less sleep. A black after hard labour through

the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing

he must be out with the first dawn of the morning. They are at least as brave, and more

adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their

seeing a danger till it be present. When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or

steadiness than the whites. They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be

more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are

transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us

in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears

to participate more of sensation than reflection. To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep

when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labour. An animal whose body is at rest,

and who does not reflect, must be disposed to sleep of course. Comparing them by their faculties of

memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in

reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending

the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous. It would

be unfair to follow them to Africa for this investigation. We will consider them here, on the same stage

with the whites, and where the facts are not apocryphal on which a judgment is to be formed. It will

be right to make great allowances for the difference of condition, of education, of conversation, of the

sphere in which they move. Many millions of them have been brought to, and born in America. Most

of them indeed have been confined to tillage, to their own homes, and their own society: yet many

have been so situated, that they might have availed themselves of the conversation of their masters;

many have been brought up to the handicraft arts, and from that circumstance have always been

associated with the whites. Some have been liberally educated, and all have lived in countries where

the arts and sciences are cultivated to a considerable degree, and have had before their eyes samples

of the best works from abroad. The Indians, with no advantages of this kind, will often carve figures

on their pipes not destitute of design and merit. They will crayon out an animal, a plant, or a country,

so as to prove the existence of a germ in their minds which only wants cultivation. They astonish you

with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, their

imagination glowing and elevated. But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above

the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture. In music they

are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been

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found capable of imagining a small catch.5 Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more

extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved. Misery is often the parent of

the most affecting touches in poetry.—Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry.

Love is the peculiar cestrum6 of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the

imagination. Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately;7 but it could not produce a poet. . . . The

heroes of the Dunciad are to her, as Hercules to the author of that poem.8 Ignatius Sancho9 has

approached nearer to merit in composition; yet his letters do more honour to the heart than the head.

They breathe the purest effusions of friendship and general philanthropy, and shew how great a

degree of the latter may be compounded with strong religious zeal. He is often happy in the turn of

his compliments, and his stile is easy and familiar, except when he affects a Shandean10 fabrication of

words. But his imagination is wild and extravagant, escapes incessantly from every restraint of reason

and taste, and, in the course of its vagaries, leaves a tract of thought as incoherent and eccentric, as is

the course of a meteor through the sky. His subjects should often have led him to a process of sober

reasoning: yet we find him always substituting sentiment for demonstration. Upon the whole, though

we admit him to the first place among those of his own colour who have presented themselves to the

public judgment, yet when we compare him with the writers of the race among whom he lived, and

particularly with the epistolary class, in which he has taken his own stand, we are compelled to enroll

him at the bottom of the column. This criticism supposes the letters published under his name to be

genuine, and to have received amendment from no other hand; points which would not be of easy

investigation. The improvement of the blacks in body and mind, in the first instance of their mixture

with the whites, has been observed by every one, and proves that their inferiority is not the effect

merely of their condition of life.

*  *  *

The opinion, that they are inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination, must be hazarded

with great diffidence. To justify a general conclusion, requires many observations, even where the

subject may be submitted to the anatomical knife, to optical glasses, to analysis by fire, or by solvents.

How much more then where it is a faculty, not a substance, we are examining; where it eludes the

research of all the senses; where the conditions of its existence are various and variously combined;

where the effects of those which are present or absent bid defiance to calculation; let me add too, as a

circumstance of great tenderness, where our conclusion would degrade a whole race of men from the

rank in the scale of beings which their Creator may perhaps have given them. To our reproach it must

be said, that though for a century and a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red

men, they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history, I advance it therefore as a

suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and

circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.

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Study Questions

1. How and why, according to Jefferson, are people of African origin distinct from people of European


2. At several points, Jefferson ascribes social and cultural characteristics to genetic origins. What are

some examples?

3. A decade before the publication of Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson wrote in the Declaration

of Independence that “All men are created equal.” Is it possible to reconcile these two documents?

How do you think Jefferson would answer such a question?

4. How would you characterize the tone of Jefferson’s writing in Notes on the State of Virginia? Who

are his intended readers?