The Agrarian-Commerce Debate

Jefferson vs. Hamilton

Country (1984) HERE

“Omaha” Counting Crows HERE

By contrast, HERE and HERE


In Thomas Jefferson’s book, Note on the State of Virginia, he argued for the United Stated to be founded on an agrarian ideology. In the excerpt we read for class today, Jefferson called for an American economy built on agriculture and to “let the work-shops” remain in Europe” (Jefferson, 18). He recognized the need for some domestic industry, but believed the vast land of America could be utilized by farming. Alexander Hamilton’s views contradicted Jefferson’s and his views on manufacturing and industry prevailed; consequently, America has progressed into a state of manufacturing rather than an agrarian state. This trend has become increasingly evident over time. Today, less than 2% of Americans farm. “Even though everyone still eats, taking part in the practice of growing food has less direct influence on people’s lives than at any point in our history (Hagenstein et al 3). Thus, we see the prevailing view of Alexander Hamilton as having profound impacts on the American economy and the global environment.

Thomas Jefferson adamantly advocated for the founding of this country to be based on agriarian ideals. Agrarianism supports working on land in ways that can last (Freyfogle xvii) due to its focus on the interconnectedness of life (Freyfogle xix). Agrarians are sustainable and understand that humans need the Earth, land, and animals for our very subsistence. In the agrarian mindset, the health of humans is dependent in the long run on the well being of the larger land community (Freyfogle xix). Clearly, agrarian views dissent greatly from the views of the majority of modern people, especially those living in urban or suburban settings in the United States. Agrarians “believe that those who buy products are implicated morally in their production, just as those who discard waste items are morally involved in their final end… Producers and sellers, too, are morally responsible for their work, and in ways the market cannot absolve or cleanse when their products are sold” (Freyfogle xx). Of course, one cannot live in a place without altering it, however, agrarians are about harmonizing their relationship and effect on nature, not exploiting it. From these readings, I came to be constantly asking myself the same question, “If Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian ideology prevailed, would we still be in the current state of environmental degradation we are currently in?

To reflect on these readings, I must say that I do believe that had Jefferson’s vision of an agrarian America prevailed over a state of manufacturing, we may not have gotten to the point of being one of the global leaders in global degradation. As we discussed last class, manufacturing and industry has lead to the creation of massive cities and consequently, an immense disconnect between people and the natural world. I also believe this disconnect is a key reason for the current state of the world. Proximity is important here. For instance, if I go fishing, I am much more likely to care about the health of fish and rivers. If I farm, I am also very likely to care about the land as that is my very subsistence. Conversely, if I live in a city, say New York City, and the closest I can get to nature, for the most park, is Central Park. I am distanced from the natural world and considerably less directly impacted by the environmental degradation. Therefore, I do believe if America had become a more agrarian state in its earliest days, a greater connection to nature and the land may have been founding principle this country was based on. We may never know for certain, but thinking about what could have been is quite an interesting thought.

Notes on Virginia Thomas Jefferson

QUERY XIX. (174-176)

        THE present state of manufactures, commerce, interior and exterior trade?

        We never had an interior trade of any importance. Our exterior commerce has suffered very much from the beginning of the present contest. During this time we have manufactured within our families the most necessary articles of cloathing. Those of cotton will bear some comparison with the same kinds of manufacture in Europe; but those of wool, flax and hemp are very coarse, unsightly, and unpleasant: and such is our attachment to agriculture, and such our preference for foreign manufactures, that be it wise or unwise, our people will certainly return as soon as they can, to the raising raw materials, and exchanging them for finer manufactures than they are able to execute themselves.

        The political œconomists of Europe have established it as a principle that every state should endeavour to manufacture for itself: and this principle, like many others, we transfer to America, without calculating the difference of circumstance which should often produce a difference of result. In Europe the lands are either cultivated, or locked up against the cultivator. Manufacture must therefore be resorted to of necessity not of choice, to support the surplus of their people. But we have an immensity of land courting the industry of the husbandman. It is best then that all our citizens should be employed in its improvement, or that one

half should be called off from that to exercise manufactures and handicraft arts for the other? Those who labour 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. 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 phænomenon 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 subsistance, depend for it on the casualties and caprice of customers. Dependance begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition. This, the natural progress and consequence of the arts, has sometimes perhaps been retarded by accidental circumstances: but, 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 unfound to its healthy parts, and is a good-enough barometer whereby to measure its degree of corruption. While we have land to labour then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a work-bench, or twirling a distaff. Carpenters, masons, smiths, are wanting in husbandry: but, for the general operations of manufacture, let our work-shops 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. The loss by the transportation of commodities across the Atlantic will be made up in happiness and permanence of government. 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 is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigour. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution.

Works Cited

Freyfogle, Eric T. The New Agrarianism: Land, Culture, and the Community of Life. Washington, DC: Island, 2001. Print.

Hagenstein, Edwin C., Sara M. Gregg, and Brian Donahue. American Georgics: Writings on Farming, Culture, and the Land. New Haven: Yale UP, 2011. Print.

Jefferson, Thomas, and Frank Shuffelton. Notes on the State of Virginia. New York, NY: Penguin, 1999. Print.

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

Lisi Krall

Journal of Economic Issues

Vol. 36, No. 1 (Mar., 2002), pp. 131-150

Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.

© Hank Edmondson 2012