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Agrarianism, Jefferson, and Westward Expansion

Updated: Feb 22, 2021

In Thomas Jefferson’s book, "Notes on the State of Virginia", he argued for a United States founded on an agrarian ideology. But just what is Agrarianism? Why did Jefferson value the agrarian ideal and what impact did it have on the expansionist policies of the early United States? Why did James Madison imply at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that agrarianism was a dangerous doctrine that must be guarded against, a product of the “leveling spirit” that had already appeared in Shay’s Rebellion.


Agrarianism, in social and political philosophy, stresses the primacy of family farming, widespread property ownership, and political decentralization. Proponents justify agrarian ideas in terms of how they serve to cultivate moral character and to develop a full and responsible person. Advocates of agrarianism believe that when individuals attach themselves to farming and a rural way of life, the required labor enhances their existence. Family and locale are rooted, allowing stable associations to develop that enable people to experience the benefits of a grounded community, including leisure, friendship, love, art, and religion.

Cato the Elder
Cato the Elder

In Greece, Hesiod, Aristotle, and Xenophon promoted agrarian ideas. Even more influential to Enlightenment philosophers were such Roman thinkers as Cato, Cicero, Horace, and Virgil, who all praised the virtues of a life devoted to the tilling of the soil.

Physiocracy was a French agrarian philosophy that originated in the 18th century. The Physiocrats were partially influenced by Chinese agrarianism; and leading physiocrats like François Quesnay were avid Confucianists that advocated China's agrarian policies.

Borrowing from the French Physiocrats the idea that all wealth originates with the land, making farming the only truly productive enterprise, and combining that with the agrarian ideas of the Roman philosophers, European Agrarianism claims that agriculture is the foundation of all other professions and reflects many of the ideas of John Locke.

François Quesnay
François Quesnay

As a liberal political philosopher during an era of absolute monarchies, John Locke looked to set limits on the power of government. A critical part of that undertaking was articulating a theory of private property grounded in natural law. Locke started from the Biblical premise that God gave the world to all mankind in common. Next, Locke asked in his Second Treatise on Government, under what circumstance one could justify enclosing a piece of that common heritage and claiming private ownership?

John Locke
John Locke

The answer he proposes is that since a person rightfully owns his own labor, he has a legitimate claim to whatever piece of the commons he mixes his labor with. In other words, a farmer could legitimately claim as much land as he could improve, and no more. The doctrine was incomplete, however. Locke added a qualification and then dismissed it as quickly as he raised it: the taking of common land as private property is justifiable only when “enough and as good” is left over for others to use. Locke took it for granted that the supply of good land was virtually unlimited.

Agrarianism Comes to America

Locke’s ideas particularly appealed to English America’s early settlers. There was an entire New World of supposedly “unimproved” land of decent quality for the taking by hard-working colonists. The agrarian ideals of Enlightenment philosophers influenced the development of specific agrarian designs for the colonies of Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. James Edward Oglethorpe, who founded Georgia in 1733, implemented a comprehensive physical, social, and economic development plan organized around the central concept of "agrarian equality." The Oglethorpe Plan offered land in grants of equal size, prohibited acquisition of added land through marriage or acquisition, and prohibited slavery for moral reasons as well as to prevent the formation of large plantations like those that existed in neighboring South Carolina.

James Edward Oglethorpe
James Edward Oglethorpe

Locke’s labor theory of value influenced the thinking of Thomas Jefferson, a representative agrarian who built Jeffersonian democracy around the notion that farmers are the cornerstone of a representative government and the truest republicans. Jefferson wrote in a 1785 letter to John Jay that:

“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."

James Madison
James Madison

This, in turn, shaped the way many 19th-century American homesteaders understood ownership of their farms. However, in 1787, while debating the details of how to structure the US government at the Constitutional Convention, James Madison warned of the potential problems that unrestricted agrarianism could create.

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 in this Country, but symtoms, 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.?”

The “symtoms of a leveling spirit” that Mr. Madison referred to was Shay’s Rebellion.

John Taylor of Caroline
John Taylor of Caroline

John Taylor (usually called John Taylor of Caroline) was a close friend of Thomas Jefferson and influenced by his writings and those of other agrarians in the South. He was also a scientific agriculturist, and in 1811 was first president of the Virginia Agricultural Societies. His little book, Arator, being a series of agricultural essays, practical and political (1814), was one of the first American books on agriculture. Out of this body of writing, a form of agricultural fundamentalism developed, to the point that American politicians, boasted of their agrarian or log-cabin origins, and praised the republicanism of the yeoman farmers.

J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur
J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur

Other figures in the early history of America who were important spokesmen for agrarianism include Benjamin Franklin, and J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur. Proponents of agrarian ideals often invoked the memory of George Washington as an ideal agrarian.

Jefferson’s Agrarian Beliefs

Jefferson’s ideas of what mattered most in life grew from a deep appreciation of farming, in his mind, the most virtuous and meaningful human activity. As he explained in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785),

"Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God . . . . whose breasts he has made his particular deposit for substantial and genuine virtue."

Since farmers were an overwhelming majority in the American republic, one can see how his belief in the value of agriculture reinforced his commitment to democracy.

Jefferson's thinking, however, was not merely celebratory. He saw two dangerous threats to his ideal Agrarian Democracy. To Jefferson, financial speculation, and the development of urban industry, both threatened to rob men of the independence that they kept as farmers. Debt, on the one hand, and factory work, on the other, could rob men of the economic autonomy essential for republican citizens.

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson

As Thomas Jefferson saw it, the political ideal of a democratic and self-governing nation, is best entrusted to a society that is predominantly agrarian—in other words, a community of small, self-sufficient family farms. In Query XIX in Notes on the State of Virginia, a discussion of the advisability of establishing manufacturing in the new nation, Jefferson stated his conviction that agriculture, not manufacturing, should be the primary economic base of the country, not because it would be beneficial economically --he knew it could not be-- but because it would assure the best kind of society.

“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.”

Thaddeus Kosciusco
Thaddeus Kosciusco

In April of 1811, Jefferson, in a letter to General Thaddeus Kosciusco, wrote of his ideas for how to restrain the tendency for manufacturing to concentrate wealth and encourage corruption, dependence, and servility among the population.

"....we shall soon see the final extinction of our national debt, and liberation of our revenues for the defence and improvement of our country. These revenues will be levied entirely on the rich, the business of household manufacture being now so established that the farmer and laborer clothe themselves entirely. The rich alone use imported articles, and on these alone the whole taxes of the General Government are levied. The poor man who uses nothing but what is made in his own farm or family, or within his own country, pays not a farthing of tax to the general government, but on his salt; and should we go into that manufacture also, as is probable, he will pay nothing. Our revenues liberated by the discharge of the public debt, and its surplus applied to canals, roads, schools, etc........."

After the War of 1812, during which the colonies' trade with Europe was disrupted, Jefferson would change his mind about the need to establish a manufacturing base in the new nation but his faith in the special virtue of agricultural occupation remained with him to the end of his life.

Westward Expansion

According to the thinking of early politicians, the vision of a nation of independent farmers was possible due to a vast expanse of territory that would absorb the expansion of an agricultural community for centuries to come. This immense territory would not only assure economic security to all who settled on it but would be a safeguard against the kinds of economic and social inequities that were characteristic of the European experience. Where land was always available to anyone willing to put his labor into it, no one would ever need to give in to exploitation by anyone else.

However, during the period right before the American Revolution, the thirteen colonies began to feel penned in. They were bounded by British Canada in the north and Spanish Florida in the south. In the west, a loose confederation of Native American tribes, primarily from the Great Lakes region, the Illinois Country, and Ohio Country, who were dissatisfied with British postwar policies in the Great Lakes following the French and Indian War had launched an uprising known as Pontiac’s Rebellion. The resulting war, generally considered a military stalemate, caused people on both sides of the conflict had concluded that colonists and Native Americans were inherently different and could not live with each other. As a result, Britain issued The Proclamation of 1763 that limited colonial expansion at the Appalachians and ordered those settlers already there to withdraw in an effort to keep the peace with the Natives. The colonial resentment of the proclamation contributed to the growing divide between the colonies and the mother country. Some historians argue that even though the boundary was pushed west in later treaties, the British government refused to permit new colonial settlements for fear of instigating a war with Native Americans, which angered colonial land speculators and those seeking cheap land on which to settle. The American Revolution eliminated British authority to dictate the terms of American settlement on western lands.

After the Revolution, as European immigrants poured in to fill up the “back country” in Pennsylvania, Virginia and the Carolinas, there was a palpable sense of claustrophobia. There was, however, an unexpected solution on the horizon.

The Louisiana Purchase

At the end of the French and Indian War, New Orleans and Louisiana west of the Mississippi were transferred to Spain, and French territories east of the Mississippi, including Canada, were ceded to Britain. The young United States did not consider Spain, a weak reflection of its earlier glory, to be a significant threat and had already negotiated unrestricted use of the Mississippi and the Port of New Orleans. Change was in the wind however, and Napoleon, who took power in 1799, aimed to restore France's presence on the North American continent.

In 1800, the region again changed hands, when Napoléon negotiated the clandestine Treaty of San Ildefonso with Spain’s Charles IV. The treaty called for the return of the vast territory to France in exchange for the small kingdom of Etruria in northern Italy, which Charles wanted for his daughter.

When Jefferson heard of Napoleon’s secret deal, he recognized the threat to America’s Western settlements and its vital outlet to the Gulf of Mexico and suspected that Napoleon wanted to close the Mississippi to American use. This situation reached a crisis point in October 1802 when Spain's King Charles IV signed a decree transferring the territory to France. Shortly after, the Spanish agent in New Orleans, acting on orders from the Spanish court, revoked Americans' access to the port's warehouses. These moves prompted outrage in the United States and calls for war from the Federalist Party and some Western factions.

Robert Livingston
Robert Livingston

In France, Robert Livingston, although an inexperienced diplomat, tried to keep himself informed about the country to which he was ambassador. In March 1802, he warned Madison that France intended to “have a leading interest in the politics of our western country” and was preparing to send 5,000 to7,000 troops from its Caribbean colony of Saint Domingue (now Haiti) to occupy New Orleans. That same month Jefferson asked James Monroe, a former member of Congress and former governor of Virginia, to join Livingston in Paris as Minister Extraordinary with discretionary powers to spend $9,375,000 to secure New Orleans and parts of the Floridas to consolidate the U.S. position in the southeastern part of the continent.

By the time Monroe arrived in Paris, the situation had radically changed: Napoléon had suddenly decided to sell the entire Louisiana Territory to the United States. He had always seen Saint Domingue, with a population of more than 500,000, producing enough sugar, coffee, indigo, cotton, and cocoa to fill some 700 ships a year, as France’s most important holding in the Western Hemisphere. To Napoleon, the Louisiana Territory was useful only as a granary for Saint Domingue. With the ongoing unrest in Saint Dominique, and the colony in danger of being lost, the Louisiana territory was suddenly of little use. Additionally, Napoléon was gearing up for another campaign against Britain and needed funds for that.

French Minister Talleyrand
French Minister Talleyrand

On April 11, when Livingston called on Talleyrand for what he thought was yet another futile attempt to deal, the foreign minister, suddenly asked whether the United States would wish to buy the whole of the Louisiana Territory. Initially, the French asked $22.5 million and the Americans countered with $8 million. After some negotiations, they struck a deal for $15 million. News of the purchase reached America on July 3, just in time for Americans to celebrate it on Independence Day.

So, with that single action, the problem of good, available, land facing Jefferson’s Agrarian Ideas was resolved. It also guaranteed passage for American commerce on the Mississippi River and use of the port of New Orleans, through which the produce of three-eighths of US territory passed to market.

With this purchase Jefferson altered the shape of the nation and the course of history. The United States suddenly increased in size by 530 million acres. Our borders now stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Rocky Mountains, from Canada in the north to the boundary with Spanish Florida in the south. American expansion westward into the new lands began at once.

Louisiana Territory

The Eighth Congress of the United States on March 26, 1804, passed legislation entitled "An act erecting Louisiana into two territories, and providing for the temporary government thereof,". This act created the Territory of Orleans and the Territory of Louisiana as organized incorporated U.S. territories. The Territory of Orleans included most of the present state of Louisiana.

Regarding the Louisiana Territory, this organic act, which went into effect on October 1, 1804, detailed the authority of the governor and judges of the Indiana Territory to supply temporary civil authority over the expansive region. The Louisiana Territory included all of land bought by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase north of the 33rd parallel. The eastern boundary of the purchase, the Mississippi River, functioned as the territory's eastern limit. Its northern and western boundaries, however, were indefinite, and remained so throughout its existence. The Louisiana Territory had five subdivisions: St. Louis District, St. Charles District, Ste. Genevieve District, Cape Girardeau District, and New Madrid District. In 1806, the territorial legislature created the District of Arkansas from lands ceded by the Osage Nation.

1803 Map showing the Louisiana Territory Boundaries
1803 Map showing the Louisiana Territory Boundaries

On June 4, 1812, the Twelfth U.S. Congress enacted legislation which renamed Louisiana Territory as Missouri Territory, to avoid confusion with the recently admitted State of Louisiana. The northern boundary with the British territory of Rupert's Land was established by the Treaty known as the Convention of 1818 in which the British ceded all of Rupert's Land south of the 49th parallel and east of the Continental Divide, including all of the Red River Colony south of that latitude, while the United States ceded the northernmost edge of the Missouri Territory north of the 49th parallel. The Adams–Onís Treaty of 1819 defined the western boundary, shared with the Viceroyalty of New Spain. The treaty established the boundary of U.S. territory and claims through the Rocky Mountains and west to the Pacific Ocean, in exchange for the U.S. paying residents' claims against the Spanish government up to a total of $5,000,000 and relinquishing the U.S. claims on parts of Spanish Texas west of the Sabine River and other Spanish areas, under the terms of the Louisiana Purchase. The treaty remained in full effect for only 183 days: from February 22, 1821, to August 24, 1821, when Spanish military officials signed the Treaty of Córdoba acknowledging the independence of Mexico. The Treaty of Limits between Mexico and the United States, signed in 1828 and effective in 1832, recognized the border defined by the Adams–Onís Treaty as the boundary between the two nations.

Eli Whitney's Cotton Gin
Eli Whitney's Cotton Gin

During the early 1800s, settlers moved westward over the Appalachian Mountains into the new states and territories. By 1820, Americans had set up many frontier settlements as far west as the Mississippi River. Expansion into the rich interior of the continent enabled the United States to become the world’s leading agricultural nation. New techniques and machines boosted output from farms founded on this rich land. Eli Whitney’s Cotton Gin, invented in 1793, came into widespread use in the 1800s. It enabled cotton growers to separate cotton fiber from the seeds as fast as 50 people could by hand. The reaper, patented by Cyrus McCormick in 1834, allowed farmers to harvest grain much more quickly than before.

Jacksonian Democracy and the “Common Man”

The election of 1824 led to renewed political friction in the United States. Four Democratic-Republicans, including John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, sought to succeed James Monroe as President. Adams and all the earlier Presidents came from well-to-do Eastern families. Jackson, by contrast, was born in a log cabin to a poor family. He had won national fame as an Indian fighter and as a hero of the War of 1812. Jackson received the most electoral votes, but he did not win a majority, so it fell upon the House of Representatives to select the new President. The House chose Adams. Jackson and his followers, feeling robbed by the “eastern elite”, formed a separate wing of the Democratic-Republican Party, which soon developed into the Democratic Party.

Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson

Jackson ran for President again in 1828. He appealed for support from Western farmers and pioneers, and city laborers and craftworkers. He promised to end what he called a “monopoly” of government by the rich and to protect the interests of the “common man”. His policy of equal political power for all became known as Jacksonian democracy. Jackson’s background and policies gained him much support in the West and in the nation’s growing cities. The voters elected him President by large majorities in 1828 and again in 1832.

Some historians have questioned the validity of the term Jacksonian democracy, noting that it was not used in his time or immediately thereafter. The fact that those who lived it did not use Jacksonian democracy to describe the period does not invalidate the term. To the American of that era the difference between Jefferson and Jackson was smaller than it seems today. The average American of 1835 no doubt saw Jackson’s democratic leanings as a continuation of the earlier Agrarian democracy advocated by Thomas Jefferson.

We hope you found this post on the origins of Agrarianism and its history in Early America both informative and thought provoking. If you did, please take a moment to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post) and let us know your thoughts by posting a comment. We also invite you to return to our blog home page and sample some of our earlier posts.


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