Thomas Jefferson's Agrarian Vision and the Changing Nature of Property

By Krall, Lisi | Journal of Economic Issues, March 2002 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Thomas Jefferson's Agrarian Vision and the Changing Nature of Property


Krall, Lisi, Journal of Economic Issues


The great frozen ice-caps of the world's traditional agrarian systems and rural social relations lay above the fertile soil of economic growth. It had at all costs to be melted, so that the soil could be ploughed by the forces of profit-pursuing private enterprise.

--Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution

Thomas Jefferson is recognized as the foremost proponent of the agrarian ideal which he eloquently articulated in the well-known passage from the Notes on Virginia:

Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever He had a chosen people, whose breasts He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. Iris the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. It is the mark set on those, who, not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry, as does the husbandman, for their subsistence, depend for it on casualties and caprice of customers. Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition. (Jefferson 1781-1785, 678)

Historians generally agree that this passage offers a vision of a nation of independent farmers who would provide the bedrock on which to build our republic. Agriculture would assure virtue, morality, and independence of its citizenry, the necessary ingredients for a sound democracy. For example, Henry Nash Smith stated that Jefferson "saw the cultivator of the earth, the husbandman who tilled his own acres, as the rock upon which the American republic must stand... such men had the independence, both economic and moral, that was indispensable in those entrusted with the solemn responsibility of the franchise" (1950, 128). Donald Worster offered this explanation: "Jefferson is saying that it is impossible to corrupt an entire nation so long as the majority of its citizens are small landowners, dispersed across the landscape, dependent on no one but themselves for their livelihood" (1993, 100). Daniel Kemmis explained further: "Farmers who were primarily engaged in feeding, clothing and housing their own famil ies had no choice but to depend on their own skill and industry... In the hard, direct necessities of such agriculture, Jefferson saw the roots of a plain honesty, industry, and perseverance he saw, in other words, the roots of those 'civic virtues' upon which real citizenship depended" (1990, 21).

We know in retrospect that Jefferson's vision did not materialize and, in fact, bears scant verisimilitude to the experience of nineteenth and twentieth century agricultural development nor the general course of our country's economic development. Compare Jefferson's ideal with Thorstein Veblen's description of the nineteenth century farmer. According to Veblen,

[the farmer] is commonly driven by circumstances over which he has no control, the circumstances being made by the system of absentee ownership and its business enterprise... In the American tradition, and in point of historical fact out of which the tradition has arisen, the farmer has been something of a pioneer... and it has been an essential trait of this American pioneering spirit to seize upon so much of the country's natural resources as the enterprising pioneer could lay hands on, in the case of the pioneer-farmer so much of the land as he could get and hold possession of. The land had, as it still has, a prospective use and therefore a prospective value, a 'speculative' value as it is called; and the farmer-pioneer was concerned with seizing upon this prospective value and turning it into net gain by way of absentee ownership, as much as the pioneer-farmer was concerned with turning the fertile soil the present use in the creation of a livelihood for himself and his household from day to day. (1923, 130-134)

This stark contrast between Veblen's description of the nineteenth century farmer and Jefferson's ideal warrants a more robust look at Jefferson's vision.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Thomas Jefferson's Agrarian Vision and the Changing Nature of Property
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?