The Age of Federalism

By Stanley Elkins; Eric McKitrick | Go to book overview
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Jefferson and
the Yeoman Republic

"Those who labor in the earth," wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1783, "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." This might be read, as it frequently is, simply as a benign ceremonial affirmation in praise of husbandry. But in view of the thoughts that follow, it cannot be left it at that. The existence of that virtue which resides in agriculture and in its practitioners seems to depend, in an almost mathematical way, on a corresponding lack of it in everything and everyone else. That is, "generally speaking, the proportion which the aggregate of the other classes of citizens bears in any State to that of its husbandmen, is the proportion of its unsound to its healthy parts, and is a good enough barometer whereby to measure its degree of corruption." The point is an arresting one, and needs pursuing. Had Jefferson the ordering of things, he would have no more to do with commerce or industry than he could help ("let our workshops remain in Europe"), and he reaches the climax of this train of thought with a passage on cities which borders on the visceral. "The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body." Thomas Jefferson's view of the city -- here expressed in the only formal work he produced -- as embodying forces which were foreign, unnatural, and corrupting to the morals of his fellow-citizens -- was one to which he would hold throughout the remainder of his life. It was, moreover, a formulation that would exercise a special influence on both popular and intellectual culture in America, long after the passing of its most distinguished exponent. 1

There is every reason for taking these sentiments at face value, and a review of Jefferson's career as a whole can strengthen rather than weaken the conclusion that he meant, and would continue to mean, exactly what he said. But the career itself may be read in more than one way, and the many contradictions and ambivalences in it have created a variety of obstacles to finding the most plausible one. With regard to the instance just noted, an inordinate number of Jefferson's most


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