Thomas Jefferson was a philosopher of agrarianism. Notes on Virginia remains the bible of his ideal fee-simple republic. "Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God," he wrote famously, "whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue." Many rural Americans still believe this nonsense; their association leaders still spout it. It gets worse: "Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example." Jefferson believed in a nation of small farmers, owning enough land to guarantee economic self-sufficiency and personal independence. Independence, political and personal, was the hallmark of republicanism, for "Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition."
Jefferson hated cities. Except for a few artisans, who owned their own tools and thus were personally independent and virtuous, "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." It's why he disliked Federalists: "They all live in cities."
Jefferson probably sketched this crop rotation plan sometime during his post-presidential years at Monticello. The columns probably represent fields, the rows, years. The phrase "folded off" means grazed by a fold of sheep. We are indebted to historian Ron Hatzenbuehler of Idaho State University for help in transcribing Jefferson's handwriting.
The necessity for land to sustain Jefferson's agrarian republic built in contradictions that not even the master fully understood. First, the small farmers of Jefferson's South were not virtuous yeomen who industriously tilled their fields by day and read Homer at night in the original Greek. In the backcountry they were lazy, sensuous, ignorant, illiterate, violent, poverty-stricken trouble-makers.
Second, most "farmers" in Jefferson's universe were not small landholders raising the necessities of life but large plantation owners using slave labor to grow tobacco for sale on the world market. They were at the mercy of supply and demand and commodity prices and the very money-lenders that Jefferson despised. Moreover, their rapacious planting patterns cleared forests, drained nutrients from the soil, exposed the ravaged land to fierce erosion, and yielded progressively lower profit margins. Always the impetus was to move on–to Kentucky, to Tennessee, to the Mississippi Territory. But the Creeks lived there, and the Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Cherokees. Commercial agriculture in Jefferson's America led inexorably to Indian removal.
Third, Jeffersonian agrarianism was imperialistic. Jefferson opposed urban manufacturing: "While we have land to labour then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a work-bench, or twirling a distaff . . . for the general operations of manufacture, let our workshops remain in Europe. It is better to carry provisions and materials to workmen there, than bring them to the provisions and materials, and with them their manners and principles." America would buy its manufactured goods from Europe, paying for them by selling surplus agricultural commodities. But a growing population and a consumer ethos meant more imports, more surpluses, and therefore more land. In his First Inaugural Jefferson praised his "chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation." It was not enough.
His purchase of Louisiana added millions of acres to the national domain. It was not enough. His successors grabbed California, the southwest, and Oregon. By then a market revolution offered increasing numbers of Americans like Abraham Lincoln occupational choices other than dirt-farming. "Manifest Destiny" was a conscious attempt by Jefferson's political descendants to prolong the agrarian present and deny the industrial future.
Finally, new lands for farmers meant new lands for slaves. Jefferson's "Empire for Liberty" risked an "Empire for Slavery." Every sectional quarrel between the Revolution and the Civil War originated over the question of slavery in the territories. When the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 18541 opened land that Jefferson had bought to possible slavery expansion, the Jeffersonian conundrum had come full circle.
Thomas Jefferson survives. He gave us our ideals, and it is in the nature of an ideal that it can never be perfectly realized, but must be constantly sought and approximated. The great historian C. Vann Woodward wrote that "It fell to the lot of one Southerner to define America." The struggle of the United States to achieve Jefferson's ideals defines American history. And no life is perfect, seamless. The contradictions and pitfalls of Jefferson's life also define America. He embodied the best and the worst of us; the highs and the lows. We live with him still.
1. With the Kansas–Nebraska Act, in order to formally organize the lands west of Missouri for territorial status and eventual statehood, the U.S. Congress explicitly repealed the Missouri Compromise, which had banned slavery in upper Louisiana.
Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Committee for the Humanities.