Continuing in our critique of the so-called "yeoman farmer" -- that is, the virtuous independent farmer as the bulwark of our republic -- today let us consider Monticello, the home from which Thomas Jefferson so prominently theorized about the value of yeoman farmers.
The most obvious problem with Monticello is that it is built on the backs of slaves. I dare say this problem runs deeper in the agrarian movement than many would like to admit. Agrarianism often involves a romance with the South. Now let me say, I can feel some of that romance. I believe in the importance of "States' Rights" -- that is, preserving the autonomy of the local, and mediating institutions -- and I think the Civil War led to unfortunate losses in our form of republican government. As I have written before, I even think some civil-rights ideas of "integration" tend more to destroy our nation's wealth of ethnicity than to uplift anybody.
But chattel slavery -- the dehumanization of an entire class purely because of the color of their skin -- is an abomination. And, unfortunately, agrarianism's romance with the south is rooted as deeply in slavery itself as in states rights, local autonomy, or ethnic diversity. Let us consider Monticello.
Jefferson is the symbol of the gentleman farmer, a man given to the land, but high in ideals, a man who could read and write broadly and clearly because of his contemplative lifestyle. But his life was precisely not that of a farmer. Jefferson could afford his beautiful house, his great library (the foundation of our Library of Congress), his scientific experiments, his travel, and his leisure time, because he was supported by no fewer than 150 slaves. If anything, Jefferson proves that the life of the mind requires freedom from the farm.
I am not an expert on Thomas Jefferson, but in researching for this post, I found a great statement he wrote on the issue -- rich in irony:
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. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phaenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. It [i.e., corruption of morals] is the mark set on those, who not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry, as does the husbandman, for their subsistence, depend for it on casualties and caprice of customers. Dependance begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.
Let's consider this line by line.
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.
Who? Thomas Jefferson did not "labour in the earth." The people who did labor in the earth of his home were brought and held there by force, and treated, not as God's "peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue" but as people incapable of making decisions for themselves.
Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phaenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example.
It is nice that he shifts from "those who labour in the earth" to "cultivators," since the latter could conceivably describe him. Need I point out the irony? We need look no further than Jefferson's own society to find an example of "corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators": an entire society built upon desperate injustice and often sustained by horrific violence. Jefferson himself thoroughly rejected Christianity, going so far as to cut-and-paste his own anti-Christian Bible. And he seems to have fathered children with his illicit, enslaved mistress.
But did "cultivating" help the slaves themselves? This is perhaps a delicate issue, but I don't think it should be controversial to say that their morals suffered from the desperation of their situation: including their lack of leisure for contemplation and religion, a problem inherent to the agrarian position. Again, Jefferson had leisure only because he wasn't "labouring in the earth."
Dependance begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.
On the other hand, note that the supposed independence of the farmer is a myth. Jefferson was not self-supporting. Nor, even, were his slaves. Monticello was, in truth, a small city -- kept small only by the oppression of all but one of its "citizens." In order to keep itself going, Monticello needed not just gardeners, but full-time workers in the dairy and at the wash, carpenters, weavers, and even a nail factory. The "yeoman farmers" of America's West, who did not have slaves to do this work for them, could go only where roads and rivers, and later the railroad, connected them to parallel services in the city.
Given this inherent fact of human interdependence, perhaps the truer fount of virtue is in a recognition of this truth, and a seriousness about maintaining just relationships within it. Virtue is not in radical independence; to the contrary, virtue is radically undermined by the romantics who, following Jefferson, pretend they can live without other people, and then are forced to other expedients -- not always as wicked as chattel slavery -- in order to support themselves.
I think we have, in the end, two problems with Jefferson's model of the yeoman farmer. On the practical level, the problem is the sheer myth of it -- and the truth that the only people who could pursue Jefferson's model of leisure were those who enslaved others to support them. Without appreciating this truth, either leisure or work must be depreciated.
On the philosophical level, the problem is the myth of independence itself. Let Jefferson serve, not as the hero of radical atomized individualism, but of the profoundly contextualized situation of humanity. Monticello was a city (though a terribly unjust one); let it remind us that we can only live a truly human life in the city (at least in some sense) -- and that we can only live justly by making just those relationships that define the city.