fragments of an attempted writing.
Thomas Jefferson to James Madison

28 Oct. 1785 Papers 8:681--82

Seven o'clock, and retired to my fireside, I have determined to enter into conversation with you; this [Fontainebleau] is a village of about 5,000 inhabitants when the court is not here and 20,000 when they are, occupying a valley. ...The king comes here in the fall always, to hunt. His court attend him, as do also the foreign diplomatic corps. ...This being the first trip, I set out yesterday morning to take a view of the place. ...I fell in with a poor woman walking at the same rate with myself and going the same course. Wishing to know the condition of the labouring poor I entered into conversation with her, ...her vocation, condition and circumstance. walk led me into a train of reflections on that unequal division of property which occasions the numberless instances of wretchedness which I had observed in this country and is to be observed all over Europe. The property of this country is absolutely concentered in a very few hands, having revenues of from half a million of guineas a year downwards. These employ the flower of the country as servants, ...They employ also a great number of manufacturers, and tradesmen, and lastly the class of labouring husbandmen. But after all these comes the most numerous of all the classes, that is, the poor who cannot find work. I asked myself what could be the reason that so many should be permitted to beg who are willing to work, in a country where there is a very considerable proportion of uncultivated lands? These lands are kept idle mostly for the aske of game. It should seem then that it must be because of the enormous wealth of the proprietors which places them above attention to the increase of their revenues by permitting these lands to be laboured. I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. The descent of property of every kind therefore to all the children, or to all the brothers and sisters, or other relations in equal degree is a politic measure, and a practicable one. Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour and live on. If, for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be furnished to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not the fundamental right to labour the earth returns to the unemployed. It is too soon yet in our country to say that every man who cannot find employment but who can find uncultivated land, shall be at liberty to cultivate it, paying a moderate rent. But 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.

Italic emphasis mine.  I'm inclined to think that the texts of the founders are a lot like the scriptures in this regard - there is enough varied textual material to argue for a wide variety of policy positions.  Discerning the founders' intent(s) in such a way as to provide clarity with regard to a contemporary policy matter is a dog that don't hunt so well.

I've seen this quote tossed around the internet over the years, by agrarians, distributivists, leftists of various sorts, and even libertarians (stressing the last line).  Setting aside that modern technologies wide and far (including those in the realm of agriculture) are such that we will never live in a state wherein a majority or even a plurality of households are made up of small landowners (if we mean by 'landowner' more than just the land upon which a house sits anyway), one can play fanciful little imaginary games whilst thinking through the dilemmas of actually trying to make the political and social sentiments expressed here become applicable.  

The "small landowner" today, if he attempts to farm, faces regulation and subsidy ordos which heavily favor corporate ag in terms of access to loans, per acreage transportation subsidy advantages (if you transit 5000 acres of soybeans from one location you end up with a greater transport subsidy per acre than if you transit 5 acres of soybeans from one location), and cost of regulations per acre (a diary farmer with a 30 head dairy pays a hell of a lot more in certified equipment and the auditing/inspection of equipment and processes than does a dairy with 800 head of cattle), and with states greatly reducing the state ag extension offices (which in many states have come to really focus upon efforts concerning the support of small farming operations), the free and cheap resources available to small farmers are becoming harder to get access to.

And then our poor little farmer faces intellectual property fascism from the likes of Monsanto, wherein even if this small landowner starts with non-GMO seed and tries to store and use his own seed from original crops, because of cross pollination he stands to be sued by a Monsanto over independent property rights issues.  If he starts with GMO seeds, he must buy seeds direct from a corporate entity each year, and is thus subject to price fluctuations in seed.  Price fluctuations in seed are greatest when you are buying smaller amounts of seed - the huge hundred thousand plus acre corn and soybean corporate farm operations in the plains states can negotiate seed prices in a manner which, relatively speaking, levels their pricing through market fluctuations in a way that a guy growing 10 acres of corn or soybeans never can. The small landowner, if he is given access to his land because of inheritance laws or a redistribution of wealth along the lines Jefferson promotes here, might, in today's world, have no choice but to contract with an outfit like Tyson, which will build a chicken operation on the property, and which will insist upon contractual terms which result in just over 50% of those small farm operations eventually losing their land to Tyson, as we see in the non-corporate contractors Tyson uses today (Tyson also subcontracts to larger corporate outfits, and these fare better as they are big enough to get better terms, and they generally have lawyers who prevent them from signing stupid contracts).  I just mention these sorts of things as a few examples.  The people who are "making it" in small farming today are almost always financing their small farming via income previously made, or income concurrently made by one family member with an "outside job."  The prospects for a small landowner today who does not have capital in hand are very bleak.  

There is no way Jefferson could ever have imagined the complexities facing small landholders today.


  1. Also, since Jefferson's day, the primary means of wealth generation is industrial/technological, as opposed to agricultural. This creates entirely different schemata of the ownership and distribution of that wealth. Discuss.

  2. "This creates entirely different schemata of the ownership and distribution of that wealth. Discuss."

    Yes: what is the equivalent of the small landholder in modern industrialized society?

  3. Probably a lower middle class person with a mortgage on a modest house (if they live in the Midwest, the Rust Belt, or the South) or a renter on the coasts, and fairly stable job with insurance.

  4. My assumption, perhaps mistaken, was that Jefferson upheld the small landowner because he could work for himself and provide for himself from his land.

    So perhaps the modern equivalent is someone who can work and provide for himself outside of a master-servant relationship, if not from land, then from some other property or special skills?

    A "lower middle class person with a mortgage on a modest house ... or a renter on the coasts, and fairly stable job with insurance" might fit the bill if he's a true independent contractor, but if he's a regular wage employee (or one of those "independent contractors in name only), then he doesn't seem very equivalent to the small landowner in terms of independence.


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