Thomas Jefferson's agrarian vision and the changing nature of property.

Author:Krall, Lisi

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. This inquiry reveals that the intellectual roots that guided Jefferson in his effort to create the institutional framework for the unfolding of his vision are found in the tradition of natural law and economic liberalism which he wholeheartedly supported. (1) It is crucial to understand, however, that these pillars of his agrarian vision were themselves grounded in a world of petty commodity production. Here the purpose of unfettered trade and a market economy was to engage the productive potential of specialization and facilitate the exchange of one use value for another. The farmer might produce a surplus which could then be traded to more fully reproduce his life by giving him access to a greater variety of useful goods, consistent with the productive potential of society at the time. But this productive potential was modest without the benefit of the in dustrial revolution, and in its modesty reigned the supremacy of use value over exchange value. But before Jefferson's vision had the opportunity to unfold, the meaning and purpose of property changed and this is the key to explaining the divergence between Jefferson's vision and the reality of our economic development. (2) With the advent of the industrial revolution, property became the handmaiden of exploitation, the vehicle for participating in the imperative and dynamic of capitalization and the cornerstone of our alienation from community and place and not the reward for labor, the source of our independence, and the grounding of our democracy as Jefferson would have it. In this new world the institutional framework Jefferson helped to establish would take on new meaning as the production of use value would recede into the background and be replaced by the imperative to make money and the dominance of exchange value. In Veblenian language, business would come to dominate industry. (3)

Indeed in the end the reality of our economic development stands in dramatic contrast to Jefferson's vision and his expectations. Thus despite our tendency to think of Jefferson as forward looking, he had little understanding of the evolving nature of capital and the way in which it would alter the meaning and purpose of property. Jefferson was never confronted with the daunting task of reconciling his vision in all its institutional glory with the actual course of our economic development. Rather he was confronted with the practical problem of charting the course of agricultural and economic development of America, and he embarked on this task mindful of the past. Jefferson's preoccupation with the past is made clear in his statement: "We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain even under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors" (1816, 291). Jefferson's appeal to natural law and the economic liberalism of his time were translated into th e laws and policies he helped to establish to discredit and dislodge past institutions and replace them with new ones. More specifically, Jefferson helped to put in place the legal basis of land ownership and establish a systematic method of surveying land to augment it. Moreover, he worked to displace precapitalist land institutions embodied in the economies and cultures of Native Americans, and he fully supported economic liberalism and its prescripts for trade, specialization, and the rights of individuals to pursue their interests. Clearly he did not anticipate the unintended consequences of the institutional framework he helped to indelibly imprint on our history. Indeed the reality of our economic development is in dramatic contrast to Jefferson's vision and leaves us to wonder: What would Jefferson have thought if he were standing with us looking back?

Natural Law

Locke, Jefferson, and the Natural Right to Property

Jefferson played a pivotal role in setting the stage for the economic development of the United States, which he perceived to be agricultural. Although Jefferson is not noted for contributing to economic thought, his agenda was embedded in economic principles. Natural law was the light which illuminated his way.

John Locke's emphasis on the natural rights of property is a well-known influence on Jefferson. As A. Whitney Griswold has pointed out, "whether consciously or indirectly and unconsciously borrowed from Locke, Jefferson's theory of property is essentially Locke's." In fact, Griswold found remarkable similarities to Locke in Jefferson's words: "The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on...a right to property is founded in our natural wants" (1946, 673).

The thought experiment that Locke invoked to uncover the order which God had set in motion was to imagine a world and humanity in a "natural state." In his "Treatise of Civil Government" Locke said:

Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided and left it in, he has mixed his labour with and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property...God gave the world to men in common; but since he gave it them for their benefit and the greatest conveniences of life they were capable to draw from it, it cannot be supposed he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the industrious and rational--and labor was to be his title to it-. (1690, 71)

This philosophical basis of property provided justification for replacing past institutional arrangements and introduced an evolutionary notion that some uses of property are clearly superior to others. Hunters and gatherers who harvest the "fruits" of the land can exercise this right as long as more "industrious and rational" uses, like agriculture, are not forthcoming. In agriculture, labor is mixed with nature and this bestows a right to property which overrides less industrious uses. Locke stated, "If we will...

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