Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath


Essay Read By Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner


In 1785, in his book Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson wrote in Query XIX, “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 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.” In similar tone, in a passage in a letter to John Jay that same year, Jefferson effusively tied together all of the notions American agrarians held dear: “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, & they are tied to their country & wedded to its liberty & interests by the most lasting bonds.” He repeated similar sentiments throughout his life.

Jefferson was not alone in these adulatory opinions. Americans, whose beliefs otherwise might be quite heterodox about the nature of virtue or the best government or economic system, broadly shared his views. Nor was this mindset restricted to Americans, who occupied—rather sparsely, on the whole—a large tract of land and whose nation was overwhelmingly agricultural. The French physiocrats of the mid-18th century endorsed agricultural production as the true measure of a nation’s wealth, and land combined with agricultural labor as its only source. Going back further, Aristotle had extolled the virtues associated with agrarian society. But it was Roman writers such as Cato, Cicero, and Virgil whose works most influenced Enlightenment agrarians. Roman republicanism exalted land ownership to the point that senators were formally prohibited from engaging in any but agricultural endeavors, a restriction the senators avoided through various artifices as Rome became a more commercial society. The ideal of the Roman statesman was told in the story of Cincinnatus, the nobleman who was called from his pastoral existence to lead Rome in a time of crisis, only to lay down his office and return to his small farm when the crisis ended. For Americans, the resemblance to George Washington was not a coincidence.

But the most immediate influence on Americans’ exaltation of the yeoman farmer was a school of British Whiggism, the so-called country party. The 17th-century political philosopher James Harrington had penned Oceana, his description of an ideal commonwealth based on roughly equal holdings of land by its citizens. The land must be enough, unencumbered by debts, to provide for himself and his family. Only in this manner could he avoid dependence on another, his would-be master. That independence was crucial to cultivating the virtue necessary for self-government. English essayists of the 18th century, such as John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, writing in Cato’s Letters, and Henry St. John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke, with whose works Americans were quite familiar, also advocated the necessary relationship among ownership of an adequate estate in land, independence, virtue, and liberty.

Perhaps the single most influential philosopher for Americans of the Founding was John Locke. As with other political principles, Locke’s ideas on property, virtue, and limited government resonated in Jefferson’s writings. Locke posited that God gave the world to mankind in common. But man had the right to his own labor and could claim as his own both the land with which he mixed his labor and the fruits of his labor in the crops the land produced. At least implicitly, this required a plentiful supply of land that would be available for future generations.

Not surprisingly, Locke’s views found favor among Americans, who saw a virtually limitless bounty of land in their world. Although some areas along the Atlantic seaboard were becoming more populated, it was always possible to decamp for a tract unsettled, at least by Europeans, just a few dozen miles farther west. Various plans of settlement were grounded in the easy availability of land. There was the almost feudal system of land ownership designed for the Carolinas by John Locke, the secretary for one of the proprietors of that colony. Fortunately, his Fundamental Constitutions were substantially amended by the proprietors and then suspended after two decades, in 1690. More consistent with Locke’s other writings was the project of the proprietor of Georgia, James Edward Oglethorpe, in 1733. Oglethorpe designed a plan of economic and social development founded on land grants of equal size. Acquisition of additional land by marriage or purchase was prohibited. Likewise, slavery was prohibited as immoral, but also to prevent the emergence of large plantations as had happened in other colonies.

There was plenty of land in Georgia, as well as in the country west of the Allegheny Mountains. But there was a catch. After the end of French rule in North America, the British government signed treaties with the Indians to end Pontiac’s Rebellion and issued the Proclamation of 1763 to prevent western settlement. Existing settlers were ordered to abandon their tracts. Americans considered this to be a blatant attempt to prevent an increase in the population. The Proclamation was immensely unpopular among all classes, from the land speculators and investors in land syndicates with their fortunes now at risk, to the settlers looking for cheap and plentiful land. It became a major contributor to the ill will emerging against the British government.

Once American independence was achieved, settlers poured through the mountain passes into the western lands of the states and then into the unorganized areas of the Old Northwest. The Confederation Congress adopted the Land Ordinance of 1784, drafted by Jefferson, and the implementing Land Ordinance of 1785 to survey the lands and prepare them for sale.

While the peace treaty with Britain opened up potentially vast tracts of land for sale or, more frequently, squatting, some of the most committed ideologues of American agrarianism were still ill at ease. In particular, the rise of manufactures and merchant commerce troubled them. They saw in England the fate that awaited Americans of future generations. As the population there grew and the supply of land became filled, people were forced into wretched conditions in cities to labor for others. Adam Smith had described their condition in 1776 in Wealth of Nations: Farming required a variety of knowledge and practical understanding; not so factory work. “The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps always the same…has no occasion to exert his understanding …. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.” This was hardly the stuff of the virtuous and enlightened citizen, jealous of his liberty, but ready to sacrifice for the well-being of the community, the free yeoman farmer or artisan suited to self-government in a republic.

Jefferson needed no convincing. He agreed with Smith that the division of labor in the emerging capitalist manufacturing sector produced significant material benefits. But he was also convinced that the nascent banking system with its creation of debt, as well as the monotony of factory work, created a dependency that robbed ordinary citizens of the autonomy needed for republican government. Regardless of material wealth produced by manufacturers and “stock jobbers,” a nation of farmers was better suited for a republic. Writing in Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson declared, “Manufacturing, and its attendant commerce, as European evidence had so graphically shown, distorted relationships among men, bred dependence and servility, and spawned greed and corruption which became a canker on the society. A nation of farmers, on the other hand, each of whom owned his own plot of land, who was free and beholden to no one, would assure the preservation of those qualities on which the strength of a republic depended.”

It was important, therefore, to provide land for as many as possible, including future generations. Echoing Locke, Jefferson wrote in a letter to James Madison on October 28, 1785,

“The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on. If for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be provided to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not, the fundamental right to labor the earth returns to the unemployed… It is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state.”

Jefferson’s advocacy for the Land Ordinances of 1784 and 1785 reflected his eagerness to promote widespread land ownership. But his most edifying moment was the stroke of good fortune in the form of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. For a bargain price of $15 million, or an estimated $350 million in today’s money, the territory acquired from France almost doubled the size of the United States. More accurately, the United States acquired the exclusive right to deal with the American Indian tribes that occupied most of the land. While there were other benefits, commercial and military, sufficient to overcome whatever constitutional scruples President Jefferson voiced to others about his authority to make the treaty, he was most gratified that the purchase achieved his goal of plentiful land for his republic of farmers and artisans: “The fertility of the country, its climate and extent, promise in due season important aids to our treasury, an ample provision for our posterity, and a wide-spread field for the blessings of freedom.” By this action, he could assure himself, he had guaranteed a republican future for generations of Americans to come, where the plenitude of land made certain that no one would have to subject himself to exploitation or domination by another.

Whereas Jefferson returned to the theme of his republic of farmers and artisans in frequent correspondences, he was not a systematic theorist of American agrarianism. That description best fits John Taylor of Caroline County, Virginia. Taylor was a lawyer, planter, military officer, and politician. He engaged in scientific agriculture, becoming a leader in promoting crop rotation, and published pamphlets and a book about those endeavors. He also wrote several books about political economy and the connection among land ownership, private happiness, independence defined as republican self-government, liberty, a limited and decentralized political system, division of political powers, and the laissez-faire economics of a free market. He vigorously opposed wealth and political power from the emerging capitalist manufacturing enterprises fueled by burdensome protective tariffs. But his most fervent denunciations were of banks, the paper issued by them unbacked by sufficient specie, and their practice of patronage and lobbying which according to Taylor, secured them unnatural privilege and wealth.

Taylor’s five books, especially his 1814 work, Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States, brought philosophical discipline to the agrarian mythos among Americans. His contributions to political theory have been declared among the best that Americans have produced. Taylor’s adoration of agrarian republicanism at times took on a religious tone. He tied the story of the Garden of Eden to an agrarian social order and was convinced that an agrarian republic would allow man to regain his lost paradise.

Agriculture provided freedom which, in turn, produced private happiness. With family roots in the land, social organizations could develop organically, and people would enjoy true community through friendship, love, religion, education, and leisure. As well, agriculture provided the independence needed for republican self-government and the resulting public happiness created by wise laws. Manufacturing and capitalism had the opposite effect. In language reminiscent of Adam Smith, and to a degree of Karl Marx, Taylor denounced the emerging factory system as degrading human nature by destroying man’s freedom and happiness. The laborer was nothing more than a wage slave, paid a wage that supported him for that day and left no money for savings and improvement of his condition. Capitalists got the laborers to work for them but did not reward their efforts in commensurate manner. Like Smith and the French physiocrats, Taylor believed that true wealth ultimately was derived through the profits from land. Capitalism robbed that wealth from farmers and workers through tariffs and banks, and substituted paper wealth for true prosperity.

In all societies, some groups or classes dominate the exercise of political power at a given time. In a republic, a landed gentry was best. Perhaps not coincidentally, Taylor was among the landed gentry exercising political power in Virginia. Admittedly, a landed gentry had a degree of inherited power. The disparity in wealth and power among the agrarian class was tolerable, because these resulted from working the land. The broad availability of land and the nature of agricultural work would keep such differences within appropriate limits. On the other hand, a “paper system” of banking and commercial speculation created exorbitant wealth dangerous to society. Such a paper aristocracy relied on patronage and on taxation of productive farmers and laborers to maintain itself.

Taylor’s acceptance of inequality of landed wealth as sufficiently innocuous not to threaten personal liberty or republican self-government touched on a ticklish point for American agrarians. If republican government depended on broad participation by a politically fit and independent people, exercising their freedom through their connection with the land, was it not obligatory on republican government to assure broad equality in land ownership? Those who wrote passionately about the republic of yeoman farmers and artisans inevitably had significant land holdings themselves. Taylor, for example, at one point owned three plantations in Virginia and thousands of acres of western lands, so there was a limit to how far he was willing to press agrarian fundamentalism. There was the scent of self-interest in their discussions when they opposed proposals to redistribute land through “agrarian laws.” The only estates that were redistributed were those seized from Loyalists during the Revolutionary War, and even those were generally sold to purchasers of substantial means, often for speculation.

The opposition to such redistribution was broad and deep among those who determined policy. Jefferson may have been a supporter of the idea of equality in landed estates, but was less enthusiastic about redistributive laws. As he wrote in a letter to Joseph Milligan on April 6, 1816, “To take from one, because it is thought his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers, have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of [political] association, the guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.”

Madison devoted considerable attention to the matter in the debates over the Constitution. He was strongly critical of the more enthusiastic exponents of agrarianism and considered the whole doctrine potentially turbulent. At the Philadelphia Convention, Madison warned about the “leveling spirit” manifested in the tax rebellion of farmers in western Massachusetts in 1786, known as Shays’ Rebellion:

“An increase of population will of necessity increase the proportion of those who will labour under all the hardships of life, & secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings. These may in time outnumber those who are placed above the feelings of indigence. According to the equal laws of suffrage, the power will slide into the hands of the former. No agrarian attempts have yet been made in this Country, but symtoms [sic], of a leveling spirit, as we have understood, have sufficiently appeared in a certain quarters to give notice of the future danger. How is this danger to be guarded agst. on republican principles? How is the danger in all cases of interested coalitions to oppress the minority to be guarded agst.?”

In short, as John Adams succinctly observed in 1790, “Property must be secured, or liberty cannot exist.” People were equal in that no one should be dependent on the will of another, and property, in particular land, made this independence possible. The way to such independence was not, however, through radical redistribution schemes but through the acquisition of plentiful land. Adams observed in a May 26, 1776, letter to James Sullivan:

“The balance of power in a society accompanies the balance of property in land. The only possible way, then, of preserving the balance of power on the side of equal liberty and public virtue is to make the acquisition of land easy to every member of society, to make a division of land into small quantities, so that the multitude may be possessed of landed estates. If the multitude is possessed of the balance of real estate, the multitude will take care of the liberty, virtue and interest of the multitude, in all acts of government.”

Americans at the Founding and for several generations thereafter saw themselves and their communities as naturally fit for republicanism precisely because they were “a people of property; almost every man is a freeholder.”

Joerg W. Knipprath is an expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty. Professor Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow.

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