“ONE OF AMERICA’S FIRST PERMANENT LITERARY AND INTELLECTUAL LANDMARKS”: RARE FIRST AMERICAN EDITION OF JEFFERSON’S NOTES ON THE STATE OF VIRGINIA, 1788, EXCEEDINGLY SCARCE IN CONTEMPORARY SHEEP
JEFFERSON, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Philadelphia: Prichard and Hall, 1788. Octavo, contemporary full brown tree sheep, burgundy morocco spine label. $12,000.
Rare first American edition of the only book-length work by Jefferson to be published in his lifetime, with a preface written expressly for this edition, a seminal work that “laid the foundations of Jefferson’s high contemporary reputation as a universal scholar and of his present fame as a pioneer American scientist,” with folding chart listing Indian tribes and eight full-page charts. An exceptional copy with a rare provenance featuring a gift inscription on the title page, “John Henry, the Gift of Colonel Willett,” exceedingly scarce in contemporary tree sheep.
"During the American Revolution, when Jefferson said 'my country' he meant Virginia" (Malone I:xiii). "Notes on the State of Virginia laid the foundations of Jefferson's high contemporary reputation as a universal scholar and of his present fame as a pioneer American scientist… this extraordinarily informing and generally interesting book may still be consulted with profit about the geography and productions, the social and political life, of 18th-century Virginia. With ardent patriotism as well as zeal for truth Jefferson combated the theories of Buffon and Raynal in regard to the degeneracy of animal and intellectual life in America, and he manifested great optimism in regard to the future of the country, but he included strictures on slavery and the government of Virginia" (ANB). "Modeled on Enlightenment philosophy, Notes is one thing on the surface— geography, products of nature, customs and manners of the inhabitants— and quite another as one reads into it: an inquiry into the human condition, an exploration of social policies, a work meant to illuminate. It captures Jefferson's obsession with detail and marks his desire to pronounce the merits of the part of America that he was proud to call home… It was regarded at the time as a celebration of America's attributes as much as Virginia's and as a defense of republicanism… the Virginia of his imagination was indisputably his idealized America" (Burstein and Isenberg, 120-21).
Written in the form of answers to questions about Virginia, the book was largely written in 1781 and first published in Paris in 1785 (in only 200 copies, with 1782 on the title page), then in French translation in 1786 (with Neele's map of Virginia), and again in English in London in 1787 (also with Neele's map). This first American edition was issued with neither a map, nor the plate of the "Natural Bridge," both of which appeared in later American editions. This features eight full page charts (one folding), including Madison's Cave, listings of Indian tribes, quadrupeds, birds, wind speeds, the number of settlers, the size of the militia, the criminal code, the commercial products, and the weights and measures of currency, all of Virginia. With four pages of publisher's advertisements at rear. Sabin 35897. Howes J78. ESTC W28796. Adams, 57. Evans 21176. Verner 1788. See Sowerby IV:301-30. Early owner signature of Louis Bache, likely the grandson of Benjamin Franklin—Colonel Louis Bache—son of Franklin's daughter Sarah and Richard Bache, and younger brother of famed Philadelphia printer Benjamin Franklin Bache, founder of the Aurora and a passionate supporter of Jefferson. This provenance is enhanced by the title page, which contains the gift inscription, "John Henry, the gift of Colonel Willett"—with the recipient possibly the U.S. Senator and Governor of Maryland, John Henry. Governor Henry and Louis Bache, in turn, share an association to Jefferson and his Notes that might have been forged when Benjamin Franklin Bache was asked by Jefferson to publish, for private circulation only, a December 31, 1797 letter from Jefferson to Governor Henry (Evans 48485). Jefferson had written Governor Henry after learning of the governor's December 24 letter to a Henry Tazewell over charges made by Maryland District Attorney General Martin Luther, which accused Jefferson of deliberately misrepresenting, in his Notes, the murder of Chief Logan by Captain Cresap—Luther's father-in-law. Jefferson's description of Cresap as "infamous of the many murders he had committed" (67), targeted by Luther, set off a political firestorm that Jefferson sought to quell by responding to Henry in a lengthy December 31 letter. In addition to Benjamin Franklin Bache's printing of Jefferson's December 31 letter to Henry, Jefferson had it featured as the Introduction to the separately issued 1800 Appendix to the Notes on Virginia relative to the murder of Logan's family, and it was also "appended to the 1800 and all later editions of the Notes on Virginia" (Sowerby 3225).
An additional gift inscription to the verso of initial blank also offers pertinent information on this provenance with its inscription: "Brookfield, Aunt Mary Paxsen [sic] gave me this book saying—'You will care for this more than anyone I know of'—Katharine T [?] Paxsen, 1877." This copy might have come into the Paxson family through Pennsylvania Quaker John Paxson of Bensalem, a prominent farmer who was one of the executors named in the will of Colonel Augustine Willett of Bensalem, who fought in the battles of White Plains, Trenton, Brandywine and Germantown before his death in 1825. The Willett-Paxson association indicates the title page gift inscription to "John Henry" from "Colonel Willett" is likely from Colonel Augustine Willett. Also with penciled sketch in an unidentified hand to blank front fly leaf showing "Side View of Chimney," with penciled notes on the "Chimney Back," "House Wall," "Front of the Chimney" and "Ceiling of the Room." Early inked "1788" in an unidentified hand beneath the printed publication date on title page.
Text generally fresh with only light scattered foxing, minor marginal dampstaining. Contemporary tree sheep with expert restoration.