Body/Land: Notes on the State of Virginia and the Rhetoric of Possession

Tom Nurmi


Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1787) is a work of both geography and political philosophy. It provided Jefferson a material base for political organization: a uniquely American geography for a uniquely American form of government. But a careful reading of Notes uncovers how the rhetorical strategies Jefferson used to describe Virginia ended up shaping policies that dictated who could and could not possess its land. For a number of reasons, bodies and landscapes became inextricably linked, usually resulting in the exclusion of Native Americans and other minorities. Following Richard Rorty’s claim that intellectual history can be viewed as the history of metaphor, this essay argues that the legacy of Jefferson’s seemingly innocuous metaphors deserves closer attention. It offers a more critical account of how landscapes are read, literally and figuratively, as texts.  These patterns of reading in turn inform how the landscape is written, surveyed, organized, and possessed – and by whom.  The aim of this essay is to demonstrate how reading, writing, and mapping were intimately bound together in the political relation between text and territory.


Jefferson; land law; slavery; spatial theory; rhetoric

Full Text: