Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson

Maura Jane Farrelly

Professor Maura Jane Farrelly, Brandeis University

Notes on the State of Virginia is the only book Jefferson ever published.  It is a response to questions he received about the culture, history, and environment in Virginia from French diplomats who were working in the new United States.

Jefferson initially published the book in France – and in French – in 1785; in 1787, then, a book publisher in London released an English edition of the tome.

The English edition came out one year after Virginia’s General Assembly enacted a “Statute for Religious Freedom,” a bill that Jefferson had authored in the midst of the Revolutionary War.  The statute disestablished the Church of England in Virginia and served as the foundation for the “establishment” and “free exercise” clauses in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.


Questions to consider in this reading:

  • Does Jefferson believe the British colonies were founded by people who came here in the name of religious freedom?
  • Is Jefferson advocating religious toleration? Or religious liberty?  What do you think the difference is?
  • What is Jefferson’s response to those who would say a nation or state without an established Church is destined to fail?

Notes on the State of Virginia

Thomas Jefferson




On the different religions received into that state?

The first settlers in this country[1] were emigrants from England, of the English church[2], just at a point of time when it was flushed with complete victory over the religious of all other persuasions. Possessed, as they became, of the powers of making, administering, and executing the laws, they shewed equal intolerance in this country with their Presbyterian[3] brethren, who had emigrated to the northern government. The poor Quakers[4] were flying from persecution in England. They cast their eyes on these new countries as asylums of civil and religious freedom; but they found them free only for the reigning sect.

Because his subject is Virginia, Jefferson provides some specific examples of the ways in which Quakers were persecuted in Virginia. However, he is correct that Quakers were also persecuted in “the northern government,” by which he means New England.  The Puritans may have been great lovers of liberty, but freedom didn’t mean you had the freedom to be wrong. Dozens of Quakers were flogged, banished, and even executed in Massachusetts in the seventeenth century.

Several acts of the Virginia assembly of 1659, 1662, and 1693, had made it penal in parents to refuse to have their children baptized; had prohibited the unlawful assembling of Quakers; had made it penal for any master of a vessel to bring a Quaker into the state; had ordered those already here, and such as should come thereafter, to be imprisoned till they should abjure[5] the country; provided a milder punishment for their first and second return, but death for their third; had inhibited all persons from suffering their meetings in or near their houses, entertaining them individually, or disposing of books which supported their tenets. If no capital execution took place here, as did in New-England, it was not owing to

One of the most famous Quaker executions in New England was that of Mary Dyer, who was hanged on Boston Common in 1660.  To mark the 300th anniversary of that unfortunate event, lawmakers in Massachusetts commissioned a bronze statue of Mary Dyer. That statue sits outside the State House in Boston today.

the moderation of the church, or spirit of the legislature, as may be inferred from the law itself; but to historical circumstances which have not been handed down to us. The Anglicans retained full possession of the country about a century. Other opinions began then to creep in, and the great care of the government to support their own church, having begotten an equal degree of indolence[6] in its clergy, two-thirds of the people had become dissenters at the commencement of the present revolution.

It’s not clear that Jefferson was correct when he wrote that 2/3 of the citizens of Virginia were not members of the Anglican Church by the 1770s. However, he is correct that by the second half of the 18th century, the religious landscape in Virginia was more diverse than it had been in the 17th century.

The laws indeed were still oppressive on them, but the spirit of the one party had subsided into moderation, and of the other had risen to a degree of determination which commanded respect…

The error seems not sufficiently eradicated, that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are subject to the coercion of the laws.

This is similar to Locke’s observation that government can only ever have power over a person’s “outward worship” – i.e., how he behaves. Government cannot have power over what we believe in the deep recesses of our own minds.

But our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

This is Jefferson’s fundamental understanding of why we have government. Government exists to protect our bodies and our property – and that is it. The question of whether or what one believes about God, in other words, is simply not a political question for Jefferson.

If it be said, his testimony in a court of justice cannot be relied on, reject it then, and be the stigma on him.

Here, Jefferson is disagreeing with Locke’s assertion that atheists should not be tolerated by civil authorities, since their testimony in court cannot be relied upon.

Constraint may make him worse by making him a hypocrite, but it will never make him a truer man. It may fix him obstinately in his errors, but will not cure them. Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error. Give a loose to them, they will support the true religion, by bringing every false one to their tribunal, to the test of their investigation. They are the natural enemies of error, and of error only. Had not the Roman government permitted free enquiry, Christianity could never have been introduced. Had not free enquiry been indulged, at the era of the reformation, the corruptions of Christianity could not have been purged away. If it be restrained now, the present corruptions will be protected, and new ones encouraged. Was the government to prescribe to us our medicine and diet, our bodies would be in such keeping as our souls are now. Thus in France the emetic[7] was once forbidden as a medicine, and the potatoe as an article of food. Government is just as infallible too when it fixes systems in physics. Galileo[8] was sent to the inquisition for affirming that the earth was a sphere: the government had declared it to be as flat as a trencher, and Galileo was obliged to abjure[9] his error.

Jefferson is being sarcastic here when he says government is “infallible” and that Galileo had committed an “error” when he insisted that the earth was a sphere. It was actually his support for the idea that the earth travels around the sun that Galileo was forced by the Catholic Church to recant – not his insistence that the earth was round.

This error however at length prevailed, the earth became a globe, and Descartes[10] declared it was whirled round its axis by a vortex. The government in which he lived was wise enough to see that this was no question of civil jurisdiction, or we should all have been involved by authority in vortices. In fact, the vortices have been exploded, and the Newtonian[11] principle of gravitation is now more firmly established, on the basis of reason, than it would be were the government to step in, and to make it an article of necessary faith. Reason and experiment have been indulged, and error has fled before them. It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity. But is uniformity of opinion desireable? No more than of face and stature. Introduce the bed of Procrustes[12] then, and as there is danger that the large men may beat the small, make us all of a size, by lopping the former and stretching the latter. Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of a Censor morum[13] over each other. Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth. Let us reflect that it is inhabited by a thousand millions of people. That these profess probably a thousand different systems of religion. That ours is but one of that thousand. That if there be but one right, and ours that one, we should wish to see the 999 wandering sects gathered into the fold of truth. But against such a majority we cannot effect this by force. Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments.

Notice that Jefferson does not say – as Roger Williams said – that “spiritual artillery” should be used to persuade people.

To make way for these, free enquiry must be indulged; and how can we wish others to indulge it while we refuse it ourselves. But every state, says an inquisitor, has established[14] some religion. No two, say I, have established the same. Is this a proof of the infallibility of establishments? Our sister states of Pennsylvania and New York, however, have long subsisted without any establishment at all.

New York and Pennsylvania were the most ethnically and religiously diverse colonies. They were also incredibly prosperous colonies. Jefferson is implying – not without reason – that there is a direct connection between prosperity and pluralism.

The experiment was new and doubtful when they made it. It has answered beyond conception. They flourish infinitely. Religion is well supported; of various kinds, indeed, but all good enough; all sufficient to preserve peace and order: or if a sect arises, whose tenets would subvert morals, good sense has fair play, and reasons and laughs it out of doors, without suffering the state to be troubled with it. They do not hang more malefactors[15] than we do. They are not more disturbed with religious dissensions. On the contrary, their harmony is unparalleled, and can be ascribed to nothing but their unbounded tolerance, because there is no other circumstance in which they differ from every nation on earth. They have made the happy discovery, that the way to silence religious disputes, is to take no notice of them…

  1. By “country,” Jefferson means Virginia, not the United States.
  2. The Church of England or Anglican Church – the head of which was England’s monarch.
  3. Presbyterians were English-speaking Calvinists.  In England, the three biggest groups of Calvinists were the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists.  The differences between and among the three groups were subtle – and, with the exception of the Baptists’ posture against infant baptism, primarily ecclesiastical, rather than theological.  The subtlety of the differences may be why Jefferson errs in referring to the Puritans who had “emigrated to the northern government” (i.e., New England) as Presbyterians.  Most of the Calvinists who settled New England were Congregationalists, not Presbyterians.  A sizeable minority of those early New England settlers were Baptists.  Presbyterians came over later, and they tended to settle in Pennsylvania.
  4. “Quakers” were members of the Society of Friends, a religious movement that started in England in the mid-seventeenth century.  Quakers believed it was possible to have a direct experience of Christ without the aid of ordained clergy – or even Scripture.
  5. “abjure” = renounce; in this instance, Jefferson means Quakers often had to agree to leave Virginia before they were released from prison
  6. [6] “indolence” = laziness; Jefferson, like many critics of state-supported churches, believed that ministers became lazy when their salaries were guaranteed by the government.
  7. “emetic” = a substance that causes vomiting
  8. Galileo Galilei was a late 16th- and early 17th-century Italian astronomer and physicist.
  9. “abjure” = renounce
  10. René Descartes was a 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician.
  11. Isaac Newton was an English philosopher and mathematician who identified and defined the laws of universal gravitation in the 1680s.
  12. In Greek mythology, Procrustes would either stretch people or cut off their arms and legs to make them fit the dimensions of an iron bed.  The word “procrustean” describes a situation in which various sizes are forced to conform to an arbitrary standard.
  13. “censor morum” = examiner of morals
  14. An “established” church was a denomination that enjoyed the sanction and financial support of the government.  In colonial Virginia, the House of Burgesses (which was the local assembly) had established the Church of England.
  15. “malefactors” = criminals


Collaborative Curriculum: Bill of Rights Copyright © by Maura Jane Farrelly. All Rights Reserved.

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