Jeffersonian Democracy

May 30, 2010

Thomas Jefferson wrote that farmers make “the best citizens”, but this claim is poorly understood. Cruising the Internet I found a page where someone had asked for an explanation. All the explanations offered were wrong. The one that got the most votes for being “helpful” stated that Jefferson meant to say that farmers are naturally honest and “pure.”

As a farmer himself, Jefferson had no end of trouble with scurrilous neighbors (also farmers). He was under no illusion that farmers as a group tend to be either honest or pure (whatever that means). What Jefferson meant was that since farmers had their wealth and livelihood invested in their land, they could be counted on to come to the defense of their country. They would be good citizens, though not necessarily morally good people.

But not everyone who gets Jefferson wrong is deeply confused. Some misunderstandings are creative. Wendell Berry, for example, refers to Jefferson to support his own view that modern life encourages a mentality of specialization that prevents people from seeing the way that things are connected. In the specialized lifestyle of the urban household, the home itself has no purpose except as a place to sleep and store one’s swag. Livelihoods are produced by work outside the home.  This situation is especially destructive for children, according to Berry, who correctly perceive that nothing of importance hinges on how well they work: whether they do well in school or are diligent in performing their chores. This leads children to see themselves as nothing but a drain on their parents’ lifestyle, or even worse as the entire purpose of the household and their parents’ work.

On the farm, chores matter, and it is obvious that chores matter. The feedback from work poorly done is more immediate, and the household and productive unit are unified in the form of the family farm. As such, every member of the farm household comes to see himself or herself as having responsibilities that, if not loyally discharged, lead to the dissolution and decline of the farm. This mentality, this seeing work and living as a unified and systemic whole, can, according to Berry, encourage virtues of industry and stewardship. Berry thus suggests that virtue comes more readily to farmers, but this is still a long way from saying that they are more honest and pure.

Another author who mis-reads Jefferson in a creative way is Jim Hightower. Hightower argues that farms were important until recent times at least because they provided a safety valve against the worst excesses of capitalism. Democracy requires that people who work for wages and follow the orders of bosses must do so of their own free will. But this is not possible in a society where the only way to subsist is to hold a job for pay. Hightower argues that farming was crucial for American democracy because policies like the Homestead Act (enabled by Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase), allowed people the option of striking out on their own as farmers, resisting and rejecting a situation of dependency on the availability of paying work. Farming is thus crucial to political freedom, and the availability of the farming option is what protects American democracy from charges of injustice leveled by socialists and communists.

I read a paper discussing these themes at a meeting on democracy this week that was attended by many philosophers from former Soviet-block countries. One said that my paper was important for him because Eastern Europeans tend to see democracy as a phenomenon of cities, as something that becomes both possible and necessary only as a result of industrial relations between workers and bosses. Seeing these three ways of understanding Jeffersonian democracy (Berry’s, Hightower’s and Jefferson’s own) made him understand that in the American tradition, democratic ideals can actually be grounded in rural society, and in a people’s relation to the land.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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