"Much misunderstanding has always surrounded agricultural fundamentalism and the role it has played throughout our nation's history, thus making it important that we carefully examine the thought process of its mentor." -- Thomas Jefferson
While Jefferson's idea of the "chosen people of God" has been both exalted and decried in our technological and urban age, the basic concepts behind his ideas have been either conveniently ignored or often forgotten.
Jeffersonian thought, as William B. Wheeler notes in his perceptive essay, "Jeffersonian Thought In An Urban Society," can be divided into three basic categories:
First, faith -- Jefferson's beliefs, from which he derived his basic arguments; second, ends -- goals that he reasoned to be the timeless aspirations of human beings worthy of pursuit; and third, means -- the plans and programs designed by each generation to achieve the desired ends of their common faith.
Thus, the three central articles of faith for Jefferson were: a) a belief in the basic goodness and worth of human beings, who were not only reasonable and generally just, but also compassionate and intelligent; b) that the Creator had bestowed on each person natural rights, which might on occasion need to be defended but never earned, and which came to them regardless of earthly condition; and c) that these new United States of America were unmatchable and a unique opportunity for human beings to exercise their God-given rights, to live in peace and human goodness.
For Jefferson the constant and changeless ends of any human society were clear -- liberty and human progress.
His concept of liberty included broadly defined concepts of independence, individualism and freedom of the human mind, and, because he accepted the concept of human goodness, the idea that liberty would not be abused and thus societies would be judged by how much freedom each citizen was able to exercise.
Human progress was defined rather generally by Jefferson, sometimes even in different ways. On occasion he saw, as later expressed by Frederick Jackson Turner, self-reliance, hard work, independence, equality, love of nature and other like virtues as part, if not the product, of the push West and a basic ingredient in the formation of the American character.
On other occasions, Jefferson expressed the idea that human progress was an individual affair, each person improving him- or herself economically and culturally until Americans collectively would form the most advanced, finest civilization in which any human being could hope to live.
As a practical thinker and a politician, however, Jefferson knew that each generation had to formulate for itself the means to achieve these goals of liberty and human progress. For Jefferson and his time, an agrarian republic, a society of family farmers, was the best way to achieve such ends. As Wheeler explains:
"Not only was he convinced that the pastoral life was a better means to pursue man's constant searching for liberty and human progress, but the Virginia planter further believed that his faith could not be maintained nor his ends achieved in a non-agrarian society. When one examines his anti-urban writings, it is clear that it was not the city per se to which Jefferson objected but rather that urban living was a poor (perhaps impossible) method of meeting human needs."
In Jefferson's time, three factors made the family farm a popular idea: It was a familiar unit, it made economic sense and it coincided well with the then current accepted beliefs about the nature of democratic political power.
When we reflect on Jefferson's preference for the rural life, we see him arguing simply for a means by which human beings could pursue liberty and human progress. To believe that Jefferson saw in the agrarian republic a goal in and of itself would be to misunderstand the meaning of his work.
For over two centuries we have witnessed the evolving industrialization, urbanization and commercialism of our nation's "family farm system" (as Jefferson forecast would most certainly happen). By understanding that process we can begin to see how the Jeffersonian ideal has been corrupted and misinterpreted.
Jefferson saw four basic qualities inherent within the agrarian life as vital to any community or society, namely, retaining control of one's life while nurturing the principle of self-sufficiency, and maintaining a homogeneity of interests, a love of naturalism and the prizing of creativity.
Throughout our nation's history no one element has traditionally projected an image of people having more fundamental control over their own lives as have our farm families. Such control is reflected in many ways, not the least of which is the degree of personal self-sufficiency so often exhibited by farmers and rural people.
Because they have the means to produce their own food and the security provided by the land, farmers have frequently seen themselves as being relatively independent of the industrial/commercial world. This degree of genuine and/or imagined independence has had not only curious economic, political and psychological overtones, but it has also fueled the notion that farming is, indeed, uniquely "a way of life."
Such an acceptance has also always made farmers doubly distrustful of urban life, characterizing it as highly centralized and the antithesis of independence where individuals have little or no control over their own lives and are far removed from the land and the majesty of nature.
Aside from the hoped for wealth from the goods produced each year on their land, the earth itself has always given farmers a sense of oneness, that they truly share not only in nature's abundance, but in the rewarding task of taming it for a common purpose. This shared homogeneity in pursuit of common interests among farmers is often seen through cooperative efforts (such as participating in the legendary barn buildings) where each individual in the community seeks ideally to complement rather than compete with another, simply because they so often share common goals.
The paradox here is that individuals in our farm communities have espoused this ideal of solidarity, believing that because farming is the community's major economic activity, they as farmers nevertheless seek a large measure of control over their own lives. Yet, despite that fact, large, impersonal corporate agribusiness interests continue to wield highly concentrated economic and political power throughout many of our rural communities.
Jefferson also believed that farmers were more attuned to the rhythms of nature than their urban neighbors. For Jefferson, creativity was a basic quality of agrarian life, desirable both in the pursuit of liberty and human progress. In that, farmers have been unique in our society; they have had the opportunity on an almost daily basis to be a part of -- - as well as a witness to -- - creation, growth, realization and the enjoyment of the fruits of their own labor.
It is important to remember that these four qualities and ideals (retaining control, homogeneity of interests, naturalness and creativity) often overlap in Jeffersonian thought. Whether such qualities were actual components possessed by all or even a majority of farmers in Jefferson's day or since, as Wheeler notes, is almost beside the point: "The repetition of them by Jeffersonians and farmers alike made them real in the minds of Americans from that day to this. Indeed, they have become real, and have been seen as the components indispensable to any realization of the Jeffersonian creed."
A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, PO Box 2201, Everett, WA 98203. He publishes a free email newsletter, The Agribusiness Examiner; email email@example.com; Web site www.electricarrow.com/CARP/.