Thomas Jefferson to Wythe, 13 August 1786

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Thomas Jefferson wrote a book called Notes on the State of Virginia in 1785 in French in response to François Barbé-Marbois's questions about America. It was initially written in French, but in his letter to Wythe, Jefferson mentions it being translated into English. Jefferson tells Wythe that he will send him a copy. Wythe had written Jefferson on January 10 and February 10 asking for Jefferson to get him an engraving plate for books and it is in this letter that Jefferson has finally been able to get back to him. He includes a copy of the answer he received recently from the contact Wythe had in Florence and tells Wythe that the engraving should be ready any day, but it will likely take Jefferson a little while to be able to send it to him. Jefferson goes on to talk about having heard through European newsletters that the Virginia General Assembly has been revising their Code of Laws and tells of its ability to convince the people of Europe that Americans are not anarchists, but instead tranquil and sensible people. Jefferson also says that the act for the freedom of religion is applauded by the Europeans and he thinks that it will ultimately help other countries that are full of ignorant, superstitious, poor, and oppressed people. Jefferson tells Wythe that he thinks that, had it not been for America being separated by the Atlantic, America would not be at the level of freedom it has achieved.

"Thomas Jefferson to Wythe, 13 August 1786, page one." Image from the Library of Congress, The Thomas Jefferson Papers.
"Thomas Jefferson to Wythe, 13 August 1786, page two." Image from the Library of Congress, The Thomas Jefferson Papers.
"Thomas Jefferson to Wythe, 13 August 1786, page three." Image from the Library of Congress, The Thomas Jefferson Papers.
"Thomas Jefferson to Wythe, 13 August 1786, page four." Image from the Library of Congress, The Thomas Jefferson Papers.

A line from the fourth page of this letter to Wythe was used for the third panel of quotations in the Jefferson Memorial, Washington, D.C.: "Establish a law for educating the common people."[1]

Letter text

Page 1

Dear Sir     Paris Aug. 13. 1786
    Your favors of Jan. 10. & Feb. 10. came to hand on the 20th & 23d of May. I availed myself of the first opportunity which occurred, by a gentleman going to England, of sending to mr. Joddrel a copy of the Notes in our country, with a line informing him that it was you who had emboldened me to take that liberty. Madison, no doubt, informed you of the reason why I had sent only a single copy to Virginia. Being assured by him that they will not do the harm I had apprehended, but on the contrary may do some good, I propose to send thither the copies remaining on hand, which are fewer than I had intended, but of the numerous corrections they need, there are one or two so essential that I must have them made, by printing a few new leaves & substituting them for the old. This will be done while they are engraving a map which I have constructed of the country from Albemarle sound to Lake Erie, & which will be inserted in the book. A bad French translation which is getting out here, will probably oblige me to publish the original more freely, which it neither deserved nor was ever intended. Your wishes, which are laws to me, will justify my destining a copy for you. Otherwise I should as soon have thought of sending you a horn-book; for there is no truth there that is not familiar to you, and it’s errors I should hardly have proposed to treat you with.
    Immediately on the receipt of your letter, I wrote to a correspondent

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-ent at Florence to enquire after the family of Tagliaferro as you desired. I received his answer two days ago, a copy of which I now inclose. The original shall be sent by some other occasion. I will have the copper plate immediately engraved. This may be ready within a few days, but the probability is that I shall be long getting an opportunity of sending it to you, as these rarely occur. You do not mention the size of the plate but, presuming it is intended for labels for the inside of books, I shall have it made of a proper size for that. I shall omit the word αριςος, according to the license you allow me, because I think the beauty of a motto is to condense much matter in as few words as possible. The word omitted will be supplied by every reader.     The European papers have announced that the assembly of Virginia were occupied on the revisal of their Code of laws. This, with some other similar intelligence, has contributed much to convince the people of Europe, that what the English papers are constantly publishing of our anarchy, is false; as they are sensible that such a work is that of a people only who are in perfect tranquility. Our act for freedom of religion is extremely applauded. The Ambassadors & ministers of the several nations of Europe resident at this court have asked of me copies of it to send to their sovereigns, and it is inserted at full length in several books now in the press; among others, in the new Encyclopedie. I think it will produce considerable good even in these countries where ignorance, superstition, poverty & oppression of body & mind in every form, are so firmly settled on the mass of the people, that their

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their redemption from them can never be hoped. if the almighty had begotten a thousand sons, instead of one, they would not have sufficed for this task. if all the sovereigns of Europe were to set themselves to work to emancipate the minds of their subjects from their present ignorance & prejudices, & that as zealously as they now endeavor the contrary, a thousand years would not place them on that high ground on which our common people are now setting out. Ours could not have been so fairly put into the hands of their own common sense, had they not been separated from their parent stock & been kept from contamination, either from them, or the other people of the old world, by the intervention of so wide an ocean. To know the worth of this, one must see the want of it here. I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and happiness. If any body thinks that kings, nobles, or priests are good conservators of the public happiness, send them here. It is the best school in the universe to cure them of that folly. They will see here with their own eyes that these descriptions of men are an abandoned confederacy against the happiness of the mass of people. The omnipotence of their effect cannot be better proved than in this country particularly, where notwithstanding the finest soil upon earth, the finest climate under heaven, and a people of the most benevolent, the most gay, and amiable character of which the human form is susceptible, where such a people I say, surrounded by so many blessings from nature, are yet loaded with misery by kings, nobles and

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and priests, and by them alone. Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish & improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils, and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests & nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance. – The people of England, I think, are less oppressed than here. But it needs but half an eye to see, when among them, that the foundation is laid in their dispositions, for the establishment of a despotism. Nobility, wealth, & pomp are the objects of their adoration. They are by no means the free-minded people we suppose them in America. Their learned men too are few in number, and are less learned and infinitely less emancipated from prejudice than those of this country. An event too seems to be proposing, in the order of things, which will probably decide the fate of that country. It is no longer doubtful that the harbour of Cherburg will be completed, that it will be a most excellent one, & capacious enough to hold the whole navy of France. Nothing has ever been wanting to enable this country to invade that, but a naval force conveniently stationed to protect the transports. This change of situation, must oblige the English to keep up a great standing army, and there is no king, who, with a sufficient force, is not always ready to make himself absolute. – My paper warns me it is time to recommend myself to the friendly reflection of mis. Wythe, of Col. Taliaferro & his family & particularly of mr. R.T. and to assure you of the affectionate esteem with which I am Dear Sir your friend & servt

Th: Jefferson

See also


  1. "Quotations on the Jefferson Memorial," Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, accessed June 23, 2015.