The following post is part of a series on the self-made man in American history.
For all his accolades, George Washington never became the patron saint of the self-made farmer. Thomas Jefferson did. This is somewhat curious, given that Washington was a more attentive and successful husbandman than Jefferson ever was. But here as in so many other ways, Jefferson managed to embody contradictions.
Like Washington, Jefferson was born into second-tier gentry. His father, also like Washington’s, was a tobacco planter. Unlike Washington, however, Jefferson received a first-rate education that included multiple languages the study of the classics at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. By trade, Jefferson was not a farmer; he was a lawyer. (Of course to put it this way is a bit misleading: Jefferson was a gentleman. Eighteenth century politics was predicated on leisure, as was science, two of his most notable passions.) Nor was Jefferson ever a soldier. He served as governor of Virginia during the American Revolution, and was forced to flee Williamsburg in 1781 during a British raid (a fact for which he was unfairly maligned by his political enemies for decades afterward). But this experience is one more illustration of the way in which he represented a different model of Founding Father, one who relied more on the pen than the sword or the plow.
In the late 1760s, Jefferson began work on the house he dubbed Monticello, a project that would occupy him for the rest of his life. The grand residence sat on a large estate, which, combined with other holdings, made him the owner of over ten thousand acres and as such one of the largest landholders in Virginia. But while Jefferson engaged in farming and showed at least as much interest in the latest agricultural techniques as Washington, he was never as successful in implementing them. According to one biographer, this was partly a matter of bad luck. But here as in so many other ways, one surmises that at the end of the day Jefferson was more of a dabbler than a farmer. Mount Vernon was a working enterprise; Monticello was a hobby.
And yet no man in American history championed farmers more than Jefferson did -- and, more specifically, championed the independent yeoman he considered the foundation for the nation’s success and future. The most famous expression of this idea can be found in his 1785 book Notes on the State of Virginia, in which he exults that “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.” It’s worth going a bit further into this quotation to probe the source of Jefferson’s confidence: “It is the focus in which he keeps alive the 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 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.” For Jefferson, the independent farmer is the quintessential expression of the self-made man, who is virtuous precisely because he free of the snares of commerce, which tangle men in webs of compromise.
There are, of course, all kinds of holes one could poke into Jefferson’s logic here. Even in this short chapter we’ve seen cases of cultivators whose greed has provoked or aggravated social conflict. Moreover, farmers—particularly Virginia farmers, among the most likely to participate in international commodities markets—were hardly insulated from the vagaries of global capitalism. Indeed, Jefferson himself was hopelessly enmeshed in those markets himself, and deeply in debt at the time of his death (unlike Washington, Jefferson had no option to free his slaves, which had to be sold to pay off those debts). Such facts can at least partially explain his passion as a form of longing to escape his own dilemmas.
What matters here, however, is not so much the accuracy of Jefferson’s assertions than the ardor with which he expressed them, and how, in turn, substantial numbers of his fellow Americans accepted his sincerity and pledged their allegiance to him. Beginning with his election to the presidency in 1800, Jefferson became the standard-bearer for the small farmer, and remained an iconographic figure in this regard for well over a century. One reason this is important, though, is because Jefferson and supporters were increasingly aware that they faced challenges in their affirmation of the yeoman from political opponents who saw the future of the country elsewhere. Jefferson needed to assert the primacy of the self-made farmer because even as the yeoman was in political ascendance there were intimations of his mortality.
One intriguing hint of this comes from a 1785 letter Jefferson wrote to John Jay, who collaborated with Jefferson’s close friend James Madison in writing The Federalist Papers in support of the U.S. Constitution, but who would later drift into an opposing faction headed by Madison’s other writing partner, Alexander Hamilton. “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens,” Jefferson told Jay. “They are the most vigorous, the most independant, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to it’s liberty and interests by the most lasting bands. As long therefore as they can find emploiment in this line, I would not convert them into mariners, artisans, or anything else.” Jefferson conceded that Americans would nevertheless find jobs in such trades, and that the day might come when they would outnumber farmers. However, “this is not the case yet, and will probably not be for a considerable time.” Jefferson made clear that in the case of such an eventuality, he would much prefer Americans became fishermen rather than engage in manufacturing. But, he noted, “we are not free to decide this question on principles of theory only.”
Jefferson was not implacably opposed to the manufacturing economy promoted by Hamilton (though he was implacably opposed to the brand of finance capitalism Hamilton also promoted). Ever the technologist, he imagined nascent industries emerging down on the farm, integrated—on a secondary basis—into the operations of agricultural enterprise as part of a broader yeoman self-sufficiency that was central to his vision of the country. That vision got him into trouble when he imagined that the embargo he imposed on French and British goods during the Napoleonic military upheavals of his second term would actually prove salutary to the American economy (it almost wrecked that of New England). It nevertheless remained his most fond hope for the country to the end of his life. “We are infinitely better off without treaties of commerce with any nation,” he told James Madison in 1815, an assertion which the facts would appear to have contradicted, as he sometimes conceded.
Indeed, even during his presidency, Jefferson was adjusting his hopes in the face of evolving realities. In an 1804 letter to French economist Jean-Baptiste Say, Jefferson recognized that for a European population that appeared to be growing faster than its food supply, the imperatives of industrial production were pressing. In a United States whose extent had just doubled as a result of the Louisiana Purchase, however, “the immense extent of uncultivated and fertile lands enables every one who will labor, to marry young, and raise a family of any size.” Jefferson acknowledged cutting-edge thinking in political economy suggested that “the best distribution of labor is supposed to be that which places the manufacturing hands alongside the agricultural; so that the one part shall feed both and the other part furnish both with clothes and other comforts.” A mixed economy was best.
“Would that be best here?” Jefferson asked. “Egotism and first appearances say yes.” On further examination, however, he claimed the answer was no. If Americans stuck to farming, then “a double or treble portion of fertile lands would be brought into culture; a double or treble creation of food would be produced, and its surplus go to nourish the now perishing births of Europe, who in return would manufacture and send us our clothes and other comforts.” If he had his druthers, Jefferson would rather have outsourced the industrial revolution. Ever the diplomat, he floated such notions in the spirit of an untested hypothesis. But in weighing the question, “we should allow its just weight to the moral and physical preference of the agricultural, over the manufacturing, man.”
By the end of his life, Jefferson realized his vision of a nation populated by yeoman farmers was receding. “You tell me I am quoted by those who wish to continue our dependence on England for manufactures,” he wrote a New England supporter in 1816. “There was a time when I might have been so quoted with more candor, but within the thirty years which have elapsed, how are circumstances have changed!” Jefferson explained his shifting perspective less in terms of his own thinking than what he regarded as the irresponsible behavior of the British government, whose high-handed behavior on the high seas had provoked the recently concluded War of 1812. “Experience has taught me that manufactures are now as necessary to our independence as to our comfort."
For Jefferson, however, the lessons of experience could be bitter. His last years alternated between expressions of soaring hope (“the general spread of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth—that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs”) and more dour forebodings. Much of his angst focused on the burgeoning sectional crisis surrounding the admission of Missouri to the Union, and at the heart of that crisis was the question of whether to allow the expansion of slavery (Missouri would enter the Union as a slave state.) In this final phase of his public life, a Jefferson who had always been deeply conflicted about slavery, and who had made some half-hearted attempts to end, it now swung decisively to the side of the pro-slavery advocates to the point of secession. One suspects his passion on the question was less directly racial, per se, than a feeling that slavery was an indispensable pillar to the maintenance of the national agricultural equilibrium. Jefferson believed that elite planters like himself were less of a threat to the yeoman than the factory owner who longed to wrap his tentacles around the farmer. In the decades to come, even some small farmers would come to the conclusion that he was wrong on this count, and form part of the political coalition that would lead to the founding of the Republican Party a generation later.
History textbooks typically present Jefferson as an eighteenth century man of the future: the revolutionary who boldly declared a nation into existence, and a democratically-minded president who overthrew a would-be Federalist aristocracy headed by Alexander Hamilton and Jefferson’s erstwhile friend John Adams (with whom he would later reconcile). There are good reasons to see Jefferson this way. But viewed through the lens of the self-made man, he represented not the start of something, but rather the beginning of the end of something. Farmers certainly weren’t going anywhere. And the self-made farmer would not only remain cherished icon in American politics, but feature prominently in a series of political movements for the rest of the nineteenth century. But the very centrality of the yeoman farmer in the nation’s lexicon and iconography belied the fact that he was facing increasingly assertive challenges in the form of dramatic social and economic changes, as well as a new version of the self-made man who drew his vitality and legitimacy from city and factory instead of the farm.
Next: Andrew Jackson as self-made plowman