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Intertwining of Nature and Culture in Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia

Originally posted on my WordPress blog.

In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson writes in Query VI:

The bees have generally extended themselves into the country, a little in advance of the white settlers. The Indians therefore call them the white man’s fly, and consider their approach as indicating the approach of the settlements of the whites. (79)

This knowledge of how bees and white settlers are linked necessarily changes how we read James’s love of bees in Letters from an American Farmer. Crevecoeur (writing as James) talks at length about his fascination with bees. His fondness for and identification with the bees demonstrates one way in which the American agrarian ideal rests on a perceived harmony between humans (read white Europeans) and the nonhuman world. James and his bees, however, also signify an invasive colonial presence that disrupts the existing ecosystem and its native inhabitants (both human and non human). The bees become harbingers of change, both ecological and social. They attest to the reality that it is impossible to entirely separate humans from nonhuman nature, and this inseparability can prove both advantageous and detrimental. Similarly, Jefferson’s Notes presents us with a several examples of how natural and cultural forces intersect and work in tandem to shape his idea of American identity. Two of these most salient examples are Jefferson’s discussions of animals in Query VI and African slaves in Query XIV.

Jefferson’s discussion of animals in Query VI is fascinating because he takes a seemingly trivial argument about which continent has bigger animals and invests it with national importance by attaching it to an assertion of national identity and progress. Early in this discussion, Jefferson, when wrestling with the distinctions between elephants and mammoths, argues that there exist innate and immutable differences between species:

When the Creator has therefore separated their nature as far as the extent of the scale of animal life allowed to this planet would permit, it seems perverse to declare it the same, from a partial resemblance of their tusks and bones. But to whatever animal we ascribe these remains, it is certain such a one has existed in America, and that it has been the largest of all terrestrial beings. (47)

While he is speaking directly about mammoths and elephants, the logic here will be used again in Query XIV to support his argument about the fundamental differences between races. For twenty-first century readers, there is a clear and obvious difference between arguing about differences in species and differences in race. Jefferson, however, does not seem to readily distinguish between the two categories. In fact, he repeatedly refers to different animals species as animal races throughout Query VI.

Jefferson positions his concern with proving the size of America’s animals in response to European natural historians accusations of America as a land that causes degeneration. Instead of concluding his argument with nonhuman animals, he shifts his focus to arguing against the belief that America was a site of cultural or social degeneration. In Jefferson’s mind, the cultural productions of a society are the result of natural or biological faculties that exist in people. Articulating a stadial theory of human progress, he argues that America has not had the same amount of time as European countries to produce works of genius:

we might shew that America, though but a child of yesterday, has already given hopeful proofs of genius, as well of the nobler kinds, which arouse the best feelings of man, which call him into action, which substantiate his freedom, and conduct him to happiness, as of the subordinate, which serve to amuse him only. (70)

Despite this optimistic belief in human progress, Jefferson’s Notes displays a more problematic attitude regarding race. This attitude comes to the fore in Query XIV. In this section, he discusses racial difference in much the same manner as he does species difference:

Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scar-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 (145)

This confusion of species and race becomes more pronounced a few pages later, when Jefferson argues that blacks are inferior to whites:

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 of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications. Will not a lover of natural history then, one who views the gradations in all the races of animals with the eye of philosophy, excuse an effort to keep those in the department of man as distinct as nature has formed them? This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people. Many of their advocates, while they wish to vindicate the liberty of human nature, are anxious also to preserve its dignity and beauty. (151)

Jefferson evokes the rhetoric of natural history to support his belief in the fundamental and naturalized incompatibility of different human races. At the same time that he reinforces this innate difference, he decries it as “unfortunate” and something that he wishes he could change. But this is immediately followed by the intimation that, if the races were allowed to mix, it would be undignified and unbeautiful.

Whereas, in Query VI, Jefferson gives social and political significance to observations of animals and the natural world, in Query XIV, he uses nature to support his socially constructed beliefs about race. These two examples demonstrate how the categories of natural and cultural were intertwined, co-constitutive forces in constructions of early American identity.

[Page numbers taken from the Penguin Classics Edition of Jefferson’s Notes.]

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