Thomas Jefferson on Sustainability

Images from lcm1863 ( and Gilbert Stuart [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (

Images from lcm1863 ( and Gilbert Stuart [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (

Guest post by Paul Thompson

In The Agrarian Vision: Sustainability and Environmental Ethics, I rely heavily on Jefferson’s example for my basic model of sustainability, and I write that Jefferson’s views on farmers and farming are the key to his views on sustainability. To my knowledge, Jefferson never used the word ‘sustainability’ and it would have been extraordinary if he had. But Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton can be styled as engaged in a debate over economic development within the new republic, and sustainability was at the heart of it. Succinctly, Hamilton was pressing two points that would be familiar to contemporary ears: advanced technology and jobs. Hamilton wanted the Federal government to adopt policies that would support the acquisition of industrial methods for the manufacture of textiles. This was going to be a good thing because British dominance in that industry was placing it the forefront of the economic development curve during the last decade of the 18th century, and because building textile factories would provide employment for many people in the East Coast population centers of the American republic.[i]

Jefferson was advocating Federal investment in what even then might have been regarded as a declining industry (e.g. agriculture), especially given that the post-revolutionary years had been marked by farmers’ inability to generate a return on their activity that was sufficient to repay their indebtedness to merchant suppliers. Shay’s Rebellion had only recently been one fruit of agriculture’s economic weakness, and Hamilton’s approach must seem the more rational to anyone equipped with a 21st century sense of the way politics, public investment and economic growth are connected. Jefferson won the debate, however, and not solely (or even primarily) because Hamilton was killed by Aaron Burr in 1804. Relations with France and England are part of the back-story, to be sure, but for present purposes, it was Jefferson’s view on the bonds of citizenship that tells the tale.

In a time when the right to vote (and hence full citizenship) was tied to ownership of property, Jefferson believed it crucial to create a broad class of citizens. Voting was tied to property because finance—public or private—issued from property, and one could not trust a property-less person to make a responsible decision. The “great mobs” who would work in Hamilton’s factories would “add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.”[ii] Taking this as an article of faith, Jefferson could make two crucial claims. First, among property owners, it is farmers who are “tied to their country & wedded to its liberty & interests by the most lasting bonds,”[iii] because difficult though it might be for a merchant or manufacturer to pull up stakes and move elsewhere, at the end of the day their capital was portable while the farmer’s land was not. The basic economic interest of a land-owner is more firmly affixed to the continuance and stability of the polity in which his land would be located. For that reason, we may count on his loyalty. Excuse the sexist pronouns, but recall that we are in 18th century America.

Jefferson’s second line of reasoning reflected his relatively radical notion of democracy. The goal in the new United States was to spread power as broadly as possible. Today we might quibble with Jefferson’s visions of possibility and breadth but within his own time what was remarkable was that anyone willing to include the homesteaders who had fought in Shay’s Rebellion against the merchant class could become President in 1801. Jefferson’s conduct of political office and his primary political writings—the Declaration, the Virginia Statute, and countless lesser tracts—attest to his view that liberty is threatened by concentration of political power. If one asks what it was that Jefferson hoped to sustain with his agrarian ideals, the answer is a viable state (one with adequate taxing authority and defense capability) with a maximal amount of personal liberty for its citizens. The ability to raise an army (and the taxes needed to pay for it) calls for more citizens, rather than fewer, but those citizens must have “the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor.”[iv]

Contemporary discussions of sustainability revolve around the rubric of economic, environmental and social domains. Sustainability, it is said, involves regard for all three Ps: profits, planet and people. Given this framework, it is clear that Jefferson’s concerns fall squarely in the domain of social sustainability, the people P.  He is acknowledging a vulnerability in democratic political institutions: the tendency to be swayed by the passions of the moment. He is then arguing that the same reasoning aristocrats had used to oppose democracy—the alignment of political power with economic control of the nation’s geographic territory—can actually support democracy if that economic control can be broadly distributed among the people. This will provide resilience to democratic social institutions at the same time that it tempers the excesses of a broad distribution of political power. My argument in The Agrarian Vision is that this is, in fact, one of the most coherent and plain spoken statements of social sustainability that we have ever had.[v]

Jefferson opposed Hamilton by arguing that too much focus on competitiveness and jobs would undermine the social institutions crucial to the social and political viability of the new republic. Today’s debates focus more on the threat that too much focus on competitiveness and jobs poses to the environment. An occasional voice will be heard on behalf of the poor, but even these voices usually fail to articulate the link between egalitarian democracy and social sustainability as clearly as Jefferson did. Simply advocating for the poor does not amount to an adequate account of social sustainability, and for all his other faults (some of which are legion) we can look to Jefferson for a model.



[i] The analysis developed in this section is adapted from John M. Brewster, “The Relevance of the Jeffersonian Dream Today,” in Land Use Policy and Problems in the United States, Howard Ottoson, Ed. Lincoln: 1963, University of Nebraska Press, pp. 86-136.

[ii] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, in Writings. Merrill D. Peterson, Ed. New York: Literary Classics of the United States/Library of America, p. 291.

[iii] Jefferson, Letter to Jay, August 23, 1785, Op. cit. p. 818.

[iv] Jefferson, Notes, Op. Cit. p. 291.

[v] Paul B. Thompson, The Agrarian Vision: Sustainability and Environmental Ethics, Lexington: 2010, The University Press of Kentucky.