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

Article excerpt

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. …