In The Gentleman Farmer, Being an Attempt to Improve Agriculture, By Subjecting It to the Test of Rational Principles, Lord Kames (Henry Home) distinguishes between the practice and the theory of farming. The former, which concerns only effects, is rightly a branch of Natural History. The latter, which concerns causes, is rightly a branch of Natural Philosophy. Most writers treat husbandry as Natural History, because they treat only of the practice of farming. Kames aims to delve also into the causes of husbandry. While praxis deals with tools, farm-offices, types of plants cultivated (whether for fruit, roots, or leaves), types of grass, and rotation of crops, fencing, and the proper size of a farm, theory deals with chemical principles apposite to agriculture, the plasticity of plants, the need of variability in procreation of animals, and quality of soils. As Jefferson owned Kames’ book and was much influenced by Kames on numerous issues—the moral sense, the aesthetic sense, theory of criticism, theory of social evolution, law, natural religion, and education—we might profitably assume that he made ample use of Kames’ thoughts on farming fields and gardens in a gentlemanly manner. A letter to President George Washington (14 May 1794), for illustration, on use of dung in fields is clearly drawn from chapter 11 from Kames’ book.

Husbandry for a Thriving Republican Nation

Husbandry had an especial place in Jefferson’s political philosophy—his notion of thriving republican government. The life of a farmer, he thought, was suited superlatively to promote large-scale human flourishing by enhancing independency of all citizens, by allowing both for some measure of political participation through the leisure provided by scientific farming, and by cultivating virtue through labor, both honest and necessary. Jefferson’s ideal society, says Robert Shalhope in his essay “Agriculture,” was “the middle landscape [which] served as a guide or a model: a constant reminder of what was possible.” He aimed to ground his republicanism on “ordinary farmers,” whom he considered to be “superior citizens.”

Early in his political career, Jefferson considered the life of agriculture and the life of manufacture in some sense as contending, mostly mutually exclusive alternatives—that is, a society could be predominantly one of manufacture or one of agriculture—and the former was life-affirming, while the latter was life-mephitic.

That sentiment comes out neatly in Query XIX of his Notes on the State of Virginia, published while he was minister plenipotentiary to France (1784–1789). Virginians have been largely wedded to agriculture but only to manufacture of such items, clothing especially, that are “most necessary” (sic). They appeal to foreign manufacture for unneeded finer items, often worthless “kickshaws.”

Yet Europe’s political economists, he adds, have mandated that each state engages in its own manufacture. Jefferson accepts the principle, but he adds this caveat: Different circumstances often produce different results. In Europe,

manufacture must … be resorted to of necessity not of choice, to support the surplus of people.

Farmed goods are, thus, to be mostly imported. In America,

we have an immensity of land courting the industry of the husbandman.

Consequently, there certainly is no rush for Americans to resort to sterile manufacture.

Jefferson then offers two options for Americans in the form of a dilemma. All citizens can be involved in improving the land or half can be involved in its improvement and half can be involved in manufacture.

The dilemma is flimsy, however, because Jefferson nowise genuinely considers the viability of having half of America’s citizens engaged in manufacture. He instantly offers, in an oft-quoted passage, an account of the sacrosanctity of the agricultural lifestyle.

Those who labor 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.

Husbandry is the most virtuous profession. History has failed to record an instance of a facinorous husbandman. It is unclear, if we here take Jefferson literally, just how the etiology works. Does husbandry bring about virtue or are the virtuous merely drawn to husbandry? Or—egad, this is the first time I have ever begun ungrammatically a sentence with a disjunction!—is there etiological reciprocity: Farming causes virtue and the virtuous are drawn to it.

Moreover, farmers are independent. They need not depend on the “casualties and caprice of customers,” whose wants are unpredictable, as do manufacturers, who must look up to heaven for help.

Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.

With reference to the subservience and venality that it engenders, manufacture is not an option. Farmers, preoccupied with their land and crops, have not the time to occupy themselves with seedy ventures and get-rich-at-the-expense-of-others schemes. Instead, they work, and in Jefferson’s eyes, improve the land and growing food, and so their livelihood contributes immensely to human betterment and happiness. There is no reason for scheming when their goods come to market. Food is not an extravagance; it is needed. Manufacturers, in contrast, make an abundancy of products: some, genuine goods (clothes and tools); most, unneeded furbelows. Consequently, they must scheme or consort with schemers to market and sell most of their manufacture—hence, subservience and venality. Success in scheming creates motivation for greater, ever clever scheming. Much wedded to algorithms, Jefferson sums:

The proportion which the aggregate of the other classes of citizens bears in any state to that of its husbandmen, is the proportion of its unsound to its healthy parts, and is a good-enough barometer whereby to measure its degree of corruption.

Americans ought never to occupy a work-bench or twirl a distaff, but ought to farm while there are aplenty fields.

Jefferson is certainly moved by an economic vision of a stable and thriving country, but agrarianism, for him, is chiefly a moral, not an economic or political ideal: The more a husbandman benefits himself, the more he benefits others. That is consistent with the sentiment of others of his day—e.g., Lord Kames, who says:

Agriculture justly claims to be the chief of the arts: it enjoys beside the signal pre-eminence of combining deep philosophy with useful practice.

As a moral ideal, it is not just a Southern thing; it is to be an ideal for all Americans.

Husbandry is also most productive of contentment, the sweetest sort of happiness and it is unrivaled for linking private interest with public wellbeing.

How appealing to think, that every step a man makes for his own good, promotes that of his country!

Benjamin Franklin states that agriculture is “the only honest way” to acquire wealth, for

A man receives a real increase of the seed thrown into the ground, in a kind of continual miracle, wrought by the hand of God in his favor, as a regard for his innocent life and his virtuous industry.

Working the land, Jefferson says in Query XIX of Notes on the State of Virginia and in numerous letters,[1] conduces to virtue and human happiness. Virtue and happiness are the first rewards, and immeasurable, and the secondary rewards of economic and political stability are a consequence of working within the frame of human nature, not against it.

In a letter to Benjamin Austin (9 Jan. 1816), Jefferson gives what might be dubbed the argumentum sequi natura (follow-nature argument) for the preferability of husbandry to manufacture. Manufacture is fruitless, while husbandry is cornucopian. He writes:

Agriculture is productive, manufacturing is sterile, and it is nature that makes this so. To the labor of the husbandman, a vast addition is made by the spontaneous energies of the earth on which it is employed: for one grain of wheat committed to the earth, she renders twenty, thirty, and even fifty fold, whereas to the labor of the manufacturer nothing is added.

Thus, American citizens ought to pursue careers that are by nature cornucopian and ought to eschew occupations that are by nature sterile.

Moreover, husbandmen have a link to the land that manufacturers, tradesmen, and merchants do not. In times of economic distress or war, the latter can liquidate their assets and abandon the state; husbandmen cannot. Husbandmen have an investment in the land, and thus, an investment in their state and country that others do not have. In times of war, a husbandman readily marches to defend his motherland, as

every man being at his ease, feels an interest in the preservation of order, and comes forth to preserve it at the first call of the magistrate.

Why? Invaders threaten to take away his land and his way of life.

We must not think of Jefferson’s arguments as being only provincial. They are catholic. Husbandry for Jefferson is not just a Southern ideal, but ought to be an American, even global, ideal. The manufacture that predominates in parts of Europe comes at the expense of human happiness.[2] He writes John Jay (23 Aug. 1785):

I consider the class of artificers as the panders of vice & the instruments by which the liberties of a country are generally overturned. Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, & they are tied to their country & wedded to it’s liberty & interests by the most lasting bonds.

An Arithmetical Approach to One’s Fields

The key to successful husbandry Jefferson, ever arithmetizing, also reduces to an algorithm. He says to C.W. Peale (17 Apr. 1813):

Your position that a small farm, well worked and well manned, will produce more than a larger one ill-tended, is undoubtedly true in a certain degree. There are extremes in this as well as in all other cases. The true medium may really be considered and stated as a mathematical problem. “Given the quantum of labor within our command, and land ad libitum offering its spontaneous contributions: Required the proportion [sic] in which these two elements should be employed to produce a Maximum?” it is a difficult problem, varying probably in every country according to the relative value of land and labor. The spontaneous energies of the earth are a gift of nature, but they require the labor of man to direct their operation, and the question is, so to husband his labor as to turn the greatest quantity of this useful action of the earth to his benefit.

The essence of sound farming for Jefferson is a matter of labor and yield. A good husbandman will know how to maximize yield with a minimum of labor, and part of his labor is planning through knowledge of land and of climate as well as agricultural techniques. Though the algorithm is simple, the problem is complex, as there are many variables that need to be plugged into the algorithm and it is not trouble-free to ascertain numbers for them.

In Query IV of Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson turns to Virginia’s native vegetables and proffers a classification and list of them. “A complete catalogue of the trees, plants, fruits, &c. is probably not desired,” he begins, and so he proffers an account of “those which would principally attract notice.”

Those he divides into Medicinal, Esculent, Ornamental and Useful, and lists 24 Medicinals (e.g., Arsmart or Cassia ligustrina,  Virginia Marshmallow or Napæa hermaphrodita, and Virginia Snake-root or Aristolochia serpentaria),  35 Esculents (e.g., Jerusalem artichoke or Helianthustuberosus, Sugar Maple or Acer saccharinum, and Black Raspberries of Robus occidentalis), 44 Ornamentals (e.g., Poplar or Liriodendron tulipifera, catalpa or Bignonia catalpa, and Candleberry Myrtle or Myrica cerifera), and 28 Usefuls (e.g., Cypress or Cupressus disticha, Juniper or Juniperus virginica, and Black Jack Oak or Quercus aquatica).

Jefferson adds that tobacco, maize, round potatoes, pumpkins, cymlings, and squashes were found in Virginia when the first English settlers arrived, but he adds that they might have come to Virginia from “southern climates”—i.e., South America. He mentions “an infinitude of other plants and flowers,” and merely refers readers to the eminent biologist Dr. John Clayton, who “passed a long life in exploring and describing its [Virginia’s] plants. After that, he offers some discussion of the productions of the farms, gardens, and orchards of Virginia—of the sorts of foods or otherwise useful plants that Virginians cultivate.

Jefferson’s approach to his land was overall metempirical, more than practical. That is because he had spent so many decades of his life in legal and political duties that kept him from Monticello. Thus, he never acquired an intimate knowledge of his fields, but was reduced to management of them from afar via letters from knowledge gleaned through books, maps, and advice from neighbors. Indirect management through overseers would prove disastrous not only for his fields at Monticello but also for those at other places like Poplar Forest in Bedford County and Pantops in Albemarle County.

Jefferson had some 5,000 acres of land around Monticello, says Duc de la Rouchefoucauld-Liancourt after a visit to Monticello in 1796. Of those, 1,120 were cultivated. Of the cultivatable, he has fashioned four farms, “every farm into six [sic] fields of forty acres,” for a total of two hundred and eighty acres” per farm.

His [Jefferson’s] system of rotation embraces seven years, and this is the reason why each farm has been divided into seven[3] fields.

Wheat is cultivated in the first, Indian corn in the second, peas or potatoes in the third, vetches in the fourth, wheat in the fifth, clover in the sixth and seventh. With each year, there is a rotation of crops to use the soil most efficiently.

Each farm, continues the duke, is directed by a steward, who oversees four male slaves, four female slaves, four oxen, and four horses. Each farm, because of the hilliness of the land, has its own barn to make easy transport of crops.

The duke’s account and numerous entries in Jefferson’s Farm Book again betrayed Jefferson’s obsession with mathematics—specifically arithmetic and geometry—when it came to farming. Most calculations, derived from personal observations or the testimonies of friends, seem to make no concessions to hands-on experience. A stubborn farm, one especially rocky, might require an extra hand, while a more compliant farm might do with one less hand.

I offer some examples of the obsession with mathematics from his Farm Book, begun in 1774 and ended just prior to his death. Jefferson frequently carefully observed the work one, two, or a few persons would do to measure with precision just how much work should be expected of any laborer in similar circumstances. On July 7, 1796, he writes:

  1. cutters x 12 day = 156. which gives near 2as. a day for each cutters, supposing 300. acres.

On July 2, 1796—and here we have an illustration of lack of hands-on experience—Jefferson writes with frustration:

we stopped our ploughs; the pickers up not keeping up the cutters.

Yet he adds that the wheat that year was especially heavy. Given his love of technological science, Jefferson was always interested in machines which could offer similar or greater yield with less human labor. In reference to threshing wheat in 1772, he states:

it would take 4. men & a girl to work, and they would get out about 4. bushels in 12 hours, when the [threshing] machine comes to work glib and smooth. one may say on the whole that it gets out double of what the same men could thresh. but infinitely cleaner. there did not appear to be 1. grain in 100. or 150. left in the straw.

Jefferson sometimes thought that if agricultural matters could be worked out mathematically on paper, they must work out in reality, and sometimes they did. His design of a plow moldboard which curves gradually from the vertical end of a right angle to the horizontal end is a fine illustration, and one worked not only beautifully on paper, but also neatly in praxis.[4]

At other times—especially when he was away from his lands—he was content that matters worked smoothly on paper, and only addressed the practical difficulties as they arose after implementation of theoretical designs.

Accompanying video (below) with Donna Vitek, along with introductory joke, very much in poor taste (which certainly would be censored by Wokeists!)….


[1] See, for example, TJ to John Jay, 23 Aug. 1785; TJ to John Blair, 13 Aug. 1787; TJ to George Washington, 14 Aug. 1787; TJ to James Madison, 20 Dec. 1787; TJ to Jean Nicholas Démeunier, 29 Apr. 1795; TJ to Jean Baptiste Say, 1 Feb. 1804; and TJ to Caspar Wistar, 21 June 1807.

[2] TJ to James Madison, 20 Dec. 1787.

[3] “Six,” above, being an obvious mistake by the duke, as 280 acres for each of four farms yields 1,120 cultivated acres and six fields of 40 acres yields 240 acres per farm, not 280. Seven is the proper number of fields.

[4] M. Andrew Holowchak, Thomas Jefferson: Psychobiography of an American Lion (New York: Nova, 2019), 247.

M. Andrew Holowchak

M. Andrew Holowchak, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and history, who taught at institutions such as University of Pittsburgh, University of Michigan, and Rutgers University, Camden. He is editor of Journal of Thomas Jefferson and His Time and author/editor of over 65 books and over 275 published essays on topics such as ethics, ancient philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, and critical thinking. His current research is on Thomas Jefferson—he is acknowledged by many scholars to be the world’s foremost authority—and has published over 200 essays and 27 books on Jefferson. He also has numerous videos and a weekly series with Donna Vitak, titled “One Work, Five Questions,” on Jefferson on YouTube. He can be reached at [email protected]

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