Jeffersonian democracy refers to the principles held by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). Some of these principles, such as the belief in the inalienable rights of the individual and the hatred of despotism, can be found in the Declaration of Independence, of which he was the principal author.

Jefferson's ideal was an agrarian society, made up of self-sufficient farmers, under the leadership of natural aristocrats by means of republican institutions. Jefferson disliked industrialization and big cities. He also wanted a weak federal government, with authority vested in state and local government, as a protection against government abuse of power.

Jeffersonian democracy is the name that's usually given to one of the two dominant schools of political thought in the early days of the United States, although its roots go back much further than that. Thomas Jefferson was its foremost proponent, but other key thinkers in this vein included Benjamin Franklin and James Madison. Confusingly for modern readers, their party was called the Democratic-Republicans, while their opponents were the Federalists. The Federalists, whose foremost spokesman was George Washington, controlled the federal government until 1801, when Jefferson swept into the presidency in what he described as a "second revolution". This soaring rhetoric serves to remind us that partisanship and hyperbole is hardly a modern phenomenon. So what was it exactly that the partisans of Jefferson thought was at stake in their battle with the Federalists?

Jeffersonian democracy was a set of ideas which prescribed a certain political, social and economic situation as the best one for the United States. In an era before economics became an abstract science which aspired to remove itself from politics, the intimate connection between politics, economy and society was ruminated on in a much more integrated fashion. The basic idea of Jeffersonian democracy was that if America was going to maintain itself as a republic with a free system of government, then it had to maintain itself as a society of independent small-scale farmers who earned the United States a living by exporting their surplus abroad to the markets of Europe. An economy based on large centres of manufacturing and densely-populated cities was to be avoided at all costs, or staved off into the indefinite future by bringing more farmland under culture in the west.

There was certainly an element of romantic ideal in all this, but there was also a very sophisticated, old, and supposedly "scientific" discourse behind it. There was a remarkable consensus in the eighteenth century on an abstract theory of the development of countries which held that they went through a life-cycle which begun with stout, robust, virtuous farmers ploughing the land and keeping out of each other's business and ended with an over-populated country which vented its excess population into cities, only for the latter to become decadent, vice-ridden centres of corruption and oppressive government which reduced men to slavery.

The discourse on the stages of development did not begin in America; it was actually imported from Europe, France and Britain especially, where liberal opposition was building to forms of government still mired in feudalism and economic systems that channelled wealth to a small class of people who held political power. According to political economists in Europe, the only safe source of wealth for a country was agricultural produce and whatever basic manufactured products were necessary for common people to live a relatively untroubled existence; these were usually defined as whatever could be manufactured by farmers in their own homes.

However, the unequal distribution of wealth in European countries had generated an idle class of rich folk who had an insatiable desire for useless luxury products which had no intrinsic value. Such luxuries were made in the poorhouses and factories of large cities, where an entire class of the population was cursed to live in squalor and without independence or education in order to provide these luxury items to the rich. Thus the large-scale manufacture of luxuries produced idle decadence among the rich and servile wage-slavery among the poor, robbing society of a great deal of potentially useful energy. Unfortunately, the emergence of such a situation was viewed as inevitable once the population of a country reached the stage where it could no longer be employed solely on the land and men began to congregate in the cities.

It was clear that a republican form of government based on the independence of individuals could not survive with either a class of downtrodden, vice-ridden workers or a class of moneyed, lazy aristocrats knocking about the place. The former would be easy prey for demagogues and would-be kings because they servilely depended on whoever paid their wages for a living, and hence could be bought and sold; whereas the aristocrats would happily do this buying and selling, extending their reach into the political system and using their money to buy influence and encourage the further development of a class of wage-labourers who fed their desire for luxuries and could be easily manipulated by them. Such a system was said to already be in place in Europe, especially in France and Britain, and was supposedly planned for America by the Federalists. The Jeffersonians wanted to delay this development for as long as possible.

The Jeffersonian idea was based, hence, on three things: an economy of independent farmers who did not need government support or seek to plunder anyone else's wealth, because they created their own; sizeable export markets through which they could vent their excess produce, purchasing in return whatever manufactured products they needed from those societies unlucky enough to be afflicted with large manufacturing industries; and expansion westward across the whole American continent, allowing more yeoman farmers to cultivate the land and forestall for as long as possible the time when overpopulation would cause Americans to congregate in large cities and work for wages. Hence the Louisiana Purchase.

What is fascinating about the Jeffersonian idea for modern readers is that it makes a virtue out of a situation of under-development which is held to have cursed much of the Third World following its independence from western rule. To be stuck producing commodities and agricultural produce for export to more advanced countries was the nightmare of most post-colonial societies in the twentieth century, as they equated the development of cities and industry with the development of national power and the ability to win respect from other countries. This tells us something about changes in ideas of development since the onset of modernity. It was also the view of the Federalists, who argued that America could not really call itself independent if it continued to depend for its livelihood on exporting crops to the former mother country.

Another problem with the Jeffersonian vision was its dependence on export markets. Many Americans had convinced themselves that their role as a source of crops and commodities to Europe was much more vital for the Europeans than the American reliance on Europe for manufactured goods was for the Americans; herein is the romantic vision of the independent yeoman farmer who doesn't need anything from the outside world, and also the root of the non-importation movement during the period before the American Revolution. It was hence expected that after the revolution the markets of Europe would be flung open, and there were rather grandiose hopes for a new era of free trade. This didn't happen, and it became very difficult to find sufficient export markets for American products, leading to a sharp economic depression and unemployment in the 1780s and contributing to the temporary victory of Federalism following the adoption of the Constitution.

Thus bespoiled on the rocks of reality, Jeffersonian democracy underwent a natural process for political philosophies which find themselves in the unhappy situation of actually having to be put into practice: it was adapted. Republicans began to take an increased interest in manufacturing, and admit that perhaps the development of a home market fed by domestic factories might be necessary to maintain enough people in employment; such a situation might not be ideal but it was better than condemning the population to an even worse idleness and subservience if they sat around waiting for export markets which were never going to appear. Perhaps the worst effects of socio-economic development could be avoided in America due to the high wages that would be a natural result of the country being so sparsely populated. In this and other ways, the vision eventually had to adapt itself to modernity. But despite this, the Jeffersonian ideal of self-sufficiency, independence, and agrarian romanticism remained a part of the American psyche; it is still with us today.

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