December 8, 2023

Thomas Jefferson’s Aim for an Agrarian Society

Author: Rich Bernett
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By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

Thomas Jefferson’s political philosophy as a Republican was to stress on keeping the American republic an agrarian society. In Jefferson’s mind, there was an intimate and unbreakable link between political virtue and the independence enjoyed by the cultivator. Read on to know whether that came to pass, and also the reasons for emerging commercial capitalism.

Image of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C.
According to Thomas Jefferson, “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.” (Image: IkeHayden/Shutterstock)

Jefferson’s Favor for Agricultural Society

President Thomas Jefferson was critical to the development of a republican society due to the dependence on markets and customers, which he believed were fit tools for the designs of ambition. Jefferson wrote, “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people.”

On the state of Virginia, he said, “It is in the breasts of the agriculturalists, that he has made his peculiar deposit for a substantial and genuine virtue. It is 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. The farmer who owned his own land and raised his own subsistence did not need to depend on the casualties and caprice of customers.”

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Jefferson’s Idea of Mass Cultivation

America never developed great merchant cities or manufacturing centers, but according to Jefferson, “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.” Jefferson’s praise of the mass of cultivators and willingness to bypass commercial wealth in favor of republican virtue sounded unusual and unrealistic.

But in the 1790s, the confidence with which Jefferson spouted those opinions about farming and agriculture was rooted in hard fact, rather than just mere private Republican fantasies.

Increased American Agrarian Population

Image of farmers working on a field near Mississippi.
The American population in 1800 was a mass of cultivators. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Despite Alexander Hamilton’s successes in founding a Bank of the United States, sponsoring the development of American finance and manufacturing, the American population in 1800 was a mass of cultivators; Jefferson did nothing to alter that fact as president.

In 1800, England had only 36 percent of its population engaged in agriculture, while the American Republic had between 75 to 90 percent. Even in Delaware River Valley and New England, up to 70 percent of the people were still farmers. By contrast, America had only 33 towns with a population of more than 2,500, and only five of those in Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, Boston, and Charleston held more than 20,000 people. Philadelphia, the largest city in the American Republic at 70,000 people hardly counted as a city in comparison to London with its one and a quarter million inhabitants.

Image of a farmer ploughing the fields with a horse-drawn plough.
The British wanted their North American colonies to remain their suppliers and not a competition. Thus the US remained mainly an agrarian society. (Image: Probably McCormick Harvester Company advertisement/Public domain)

The people whom Jefferson had the most to thank for this situation were the British, or at least the former British colonial administrators of North America. This was because during the 1700s Britain emerged from a century of economic turmoil and political upheaval as one of the most successful examples of commercial capitalism in the world. It was determined to treat its colonies in North America as suppliers for that success, not as the rivals.

Learn more about Alexander Hamilton’s idea of developing the republic’s system of finance, manufacturing, and commerce.

Commercial Capitalism

Capitalism was the most natural and spontaneous of all economic relationships, which meant the exchange of goods at a profit to oneself and the conversion of those profits into more goods for exchange for more profits. No one did better in the practice of commercial capitalism than the English. They had the advantage of geographical position, favorable politics, and an impressive merchant marine that carried the products of capitalism abroad to bring materials for its further support from far away.

The English greased the wheels of commercial capitalism by simplifying the process of economic exchange by converting most of their currency into easily portable paper money. This took the form of either the bills of exchange issued between merchants or banknotes issued by the Bank of England.

Benefits of Paper Money

The great thing about using paper money was its impersonal character. An economic transaction involving cash was conducted at a distance, whereas a transaction involving farmed goods could not be carried out at a distance. If someone wanted to trade a cow, they had to get that cow elsewhere, which took time and was expensive, whereas when trading in paper money that was not a problem. It was light, portable, and could be easily traded back and forth. Cash always meant the same thing no matter who they were dealing with, be it a friend or a stranger. They could disagree about the value of a cow, but couldn’t disagree with the number marked on paper money. Cash was also exact with the abstract numerical value that could be computed precisely, apart from any sentimental or personal value.

Learn more about the Second Bank of the United States.

Commercial Capitalism: Britain Versus America

The success of the British in the development of commercial capitalism was only the beginning as the sale of goods at a profit depended on supply and demand. There would be no goods sold at a profit, whether for cash or anything else, unless there was a guaranteed source of those goods, and at a price that a merchant could be sure would be attractive elsewhere.

America was not permitted to develop any significant commercial mechanism for itself, which would otherwise make it the rival of Britain. As a result, the American colonies were deliberately kept agricultural. Colonial merchants were severely restricted by taxes, navigation acts, and the whole litany of legislation. America never came close during the colonial era to developing the grand commercial enterprises of their British counterparts, which was a deliberate policy.

Common Questions about Jefferson’s Aim for an Agrarian Society

Q: What was Thomas Jefferson’s vision of the ideal economy?

Thomas Jefferson‘s vision of the ideal economy was an agrarian society led by cultivators. According to him, those who labored in the earth were the chosen people of God, and the farmer who owned land and raised his own subsistence did not need to depend on the casualties and caprice of customers.

Q: Why did Thomas Jefferson believe in agriculture?

Thomas Jefferson believed in agriculture because he thought commercialization and dependence on markets and customers begot subservience and prepared fit tools for the designs of ambition.

Q: What kind of society did Thomas Jefferson want?

Thomas Jefferson envisioned an agrarian society where a farmer who owned land would raise his own subsistence without a need to depend on the caprice of customers.

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