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  • Founding FarmersJefferson, Washington, and the Rhetoric of Agricultural Reform
  • Mark Sturges (bio)

From the 1780s to the 1820s, American political leaders often responded to problems of soil exhaustion and western emigration by promoting a dual program of agricultural reform and domestic manufacturing. They believed that a better system of land management and a more self-sufficient domestic economy could ensure social and political stability while still allowing for national progress and prosperity. Combining economic and ethical modes of improvement, they urged American farmers to stay put, to adopt more efficient practices of soil conservation, crop rotation, and livestock production, and to develop a more permanent sense of place. While establishing a number of agricultural societies and engaging in their own personal experiments, these leaders also harnessed the written word, cultivating a vision of enlightened agriculture in a variety of literary genres, from natural history to georgic poetry, travel narratives to agricultural addresses, private letters to public reports. Such writings demonstrate an incipient ecological awareness and express a growing anxiety about the political and environmental durability of the United States. If Americans elevated personal profit above the common good, these leaders feared, then the fragile ecosystem of their republican empire would decline into ruin.1

Thomas Jefferson was among the figures who preached this message of agricultural reform. In Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), his first and second inaugural addresses (Portable 290–95, 316–21), and much of his personal correspondence, Jefferson described his ideal nation as a loose confederacy of states united in a republic and rooted in the soil. He imagined that available lands in the West would allow a majority of citizens to participate in agricultural labor, preferably as small farmers who sold their surplus produce to the market while still maintaining a degree of [End Page 681] self-sufficiency. Alongside this agrarian ideal, however, Jefferson voiced an anxiety about tobacco culture, soil exhaustion, and the curse of slavery, while in his Farm Book he recorded an ambitious effort to restore the fields of Monticello through a seven-year cycle of crop rotation. He designed a new moldboard plow and imported new varieties of seeds and sheep in an effort to improve American agriculture. Likewise, in a collection of letters written to the English agronomist Arthur Young and published in 1801, George Washington complained that American farmers had ruined the land base that defined their cultural identity. He worked to diversify his crops at Mount Vernon and made plans to rent his lands to English farmers schooled in the art of soil improvement.2

The agricultural writings of these “founding farmers” represent a form of early American environmental activism that invites our critical attention. As Andrea Wulf argues in her recent study of Jefferson, Washington, and their contemporaries, “The founding fathers have often been cast as the haloed demigods of the American Revolution … but what has long been missing from this picture is their lives as farmers and gardeners, which both reflected and influenced their political thinking and patriotism” (103).3 Typically, historians have traced the roots of American conservation to a much later date, often to the work of George Perkins Marsh (in the 1860s) or Gifford Pinchot (in the 1900s), but a similar commitment to environmental management also existed in the early national era.4 For Jefferson and Washington, the success of the US nation-state depended on the scientific study and sustainable harvest of its natural resources, and in their arguments for agricultural reform they advanced a doctrine of efficiency that anticipated the conservation movement of the early twentieth century. These early American writers embraced a vision of sustainable agriculture that inspired the Populist Party of the late nineteenth century; in the twentieth century, their ideas resurfaced among neoagrarian writers who began to challenge industrial agriculture; and today, the same core values have shaped the contemporary local-foods movement. Their work provides not just an insight into the past, then, but a model for a more durable future.5

In recent years, a handful of scholars in the field of agricultural history have turned their attention to the farming practices of the early national era, where they have found an instructive tension...


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