The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 20, 2019

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Jeremy Beer - 12/23/11

Agrarianism posits that the practices associated with the agricultural life are particularly—and in some cases uniquely—well suited to yield important personal, social, and political goods. The precise character of these goods—and the respective roles of government, society, and individuals in procuring them—varies according to which school of agrarian thought one wishes to consider. The first school important to postwar conservatives is that promoted, in various degrees, by the “Old Whig,” Anti-Federalist American founders. The second strand of agrarianism with particular importance for conservatives is that found running through the work of various antimodern thinkers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

John Taylor of Caroline, Thomas Jefferson, and their fellow Old Whigs, such as Edmund Ruffin, self-consciously sought to retrieve the classical agrarian tradition represented by Hesiod, Cato the Elder, Varro, and Vergil, who like them were concerned about the relationship between politics and farming. These ancient thinkers celebrated the personal and civic virtues associated with farming—economic independence, willingness to engage in hard work, rural sturdiness, hatred of tyranny—that the old Whig founders saw themselves as protecting through the Revolution.

Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian observations are scattered throughout his letters and other documents. “Those who labour 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. . . .” he declaims in Query XIX of Notes on the State of Virginia (1781–82). “Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example.” Jefferson and the other Anti-Federalists believed that yeoman farming nurtured a spirit of self- reliance that made economic—and therefore genuine political—independence possible. In that fact lay farming’s principle value.

Jefferson was a reliable spokesman for republican agrarianism, but John Taylor of Caroline was its most dogged and insightful defender. His Arator, first published as a series of newspaper articles in 1803, consists of Taylor’s practical suggestions, based on his own analysis, observation, and experiments, for improving American agriculture, the condition of which he lamented. Taylor’s defense of republican agrarianism rests on much the same ground as Jefferson’s. Political independence, Taylor agrees with Jefferson, cannot be secured by “bankers and capitalists.” But not only does Taylor place more emphasis than does Jefferson on the role of agriculture as “the mother of wealth” as well as “the guardian of liberty,” he also goes further in articulating the personal benefits afforded by life on the land. Farming, he maintains, brings more pleasure than other modes of employment. It provides continual novelty and challenges to the mind. It meets the physical needs of the body. It promotes the virtue of liberality and rewards almost every other virtue. It is an aid in the quest for eternal life, for it feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, and gives drink to the thirsty. And because it is a vocation inevitably more concerned with practical affairs than abstract speculations, it is the “best architect of a complete man.” Virtually every claim for the farming life to be made by American agrarians in the following centuries is anticipated here.

Republican agrarianism permeated American politics and literature for many years—indeed, it continues to find resonance in recent works such as Victor Davis Hanson’s influential The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization (1995). But in the mid- to late 1800s defenses of agrarian ways became entangled with populist politics. During this period, agrarian arguments were less explicitly focused on the goods of the farming life per se than on the economic interests of farmers. However, with the closing of the frontier at the end of the nineteenth century, and with the concomitant slow but steady decline in the proportion of Americans living on farms, a new generation of self- consciously agrarian thinkers began to emerge. These included economist Ralph Borsodi, the Iowa priest and Catholic Rural Life activist Luigi Ligutti, and Harvard sociologist Carle Zimmerman, all of whom—along with several others—are profiled in Allan Carlson’s indispensable history, The New Agrarian Mind: The Movement toward Decentralist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (2000).

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