Agrarian Democracy

Agrarian democracy originated in the late eighteenth century, when most Americans lived on farms. The normative ideal of agrarian democracy asserts three related propositions: that most Americans should farm, that farming is particularly important to the American democratic republic, and that public policies should be favorable to farmers’ concerns. Across two centuries, as American society transformed, becoming more interdependent, industrial, and urban, these propositions have left a legacy that influences how Americans conceive and practice governance.


As James Montmarquet observes in The Idea of Agrarianism ( 1989 ), agriculture has long been entwined with Western civilization's thought. Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, most notably Aristotle in the Politics and Cato in De Agricultura, maintained that farming was the ideal way of life and that farmers were ideal citizens. In the eighteenth century, while British and French philosophers debated the corrosive effects of wealth and luxury on society, most Americans endorsed the plain life of a farmer ( McCoy 1980 ).

Farming's positive connotations furnished key ingredients of American national identity. Freehold land ownership fostered attachment to liberty and self-government. Moreover, because farm families living on dispersed farmsteads could meet most subsistence needs while profiting from selling staple crops, an ethos of independence and self-sufficiency formed ( Eisinger 1949 ). In Letters from an American Farmer ( 1782 ), the French-born writer J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur eloquently depicted how farm ownership and life were creating a new kind of citizenry.


Jefferson's best-known statement of his vision for an agrarian republic is in his Notes on the State of Virginia ( 1787 ). In contrast to Europe, where the “mobs of great cities” were employed in manufacturing, Jefferson thought that the growth of nonfarming industries in the United States would be a useful barometer “to measure its degree of corruption.” Entering the presidency, Jefferson expressed the conviction that, with “room enough” for farming families to the “thousandth generation,” the United States was “a chosen country.” His major presidential accomplishment, the Louisiana Purchase, doubled the United States’ territory, raising expectations that the “empire of liberty” would span the continent and endure indefinitely ( Peterson 1984 ).

Whereas Jefferson prioritized farming for fostering personal independence and political virtues, Alexander Hamilton prioritized commerce for fostering national independence and prosperity. In his reports to Congress, especially the Report on Manufactures ( 1791 ), Hamilton outlined a program to promote economic growth by expanding credit and currency, subsidizing infrastructure projects, and encouraging manufacturing through protective tariffs ( Federici 2012 ). Critics as different as the radical-democrat George Logan ( 1753–1821 ) of Philadelphia and aristocratic planter John Taylor ( 1753–1824 ) of Virginia condemned Hamilton's program for favoring financiers over farmers and undermining the foundations of the agrarian republic.

In the nineteenth century, as popular participation in politics grew, the dominant political parties (Democratic and Whig-Republican) claimed to represent the good of the farmer, the people, and the nation interchangeably. Three prominent themes are evident in the years leading up to the Civil War.

First, justifications of the United States’ “manifest destiny” to subdue the continent and its Native American inhabitants called on the nation's commitments to freehold farming and republican governance. Advocates of territorial expansion and making public lands more accessible to farmers drew on John Locke's Two Treatises of Government ( 1689 ) to argue that men had a natural right to occupy and cultivate the land. George Henry Evans ( 1805–1856 ) and the National Reform Association's campaign to “Vote Yourself a Farm” carried that logic to fulfillment, laying the groundwork for passage of the Homestead Act of 1862 ( Earle 2004 ).

Second, opponents of government-aided infrastructure projects and inflationary policies invoked Jefferson's phrase “equal and exact justice to all,” on behalf of farmers and the people. Attaching to it Andrew Jackson's phrase “special privileges to none,” they decried governmental favors to bankers and investors whose practices induced economic uncertainty and change ( Howe 2007 ). Farmers’ preference for low taxes, minimal public debts, and noninvolvement of government in economic affairs was expressed in a wave of revisions to state constitutions in the 1840s and 1850s ( Keller 2007 ).

Third, advocates of progress hailed the farmer for supplying raw materials and food surpluses necessary to support other local industries and towns. Newspaper editors like Horace Greeley ( 1811–1872 ) joined agriculturists in exhorting farmers to improve their practices. Typically, the teachings of the economist Henry C. Carey ( 1793–1879 ) about the advantages of growing domestic markets reverberated in their writings, as did calls for energetic government and educational institutions ( Lauzon 2011 ). Reflecting these influences, in 1862 Congress passed legislation instituting homestead settlement, a transcontinental railroad, a Department of Agriculture, and a system of public land-grant universities ( Richardson 1997 ).

An illustration depicting farm life in the United States titled “Gift for the Grangers,” a coalition of American farmers, late nineteenth century.

An illustration depicting farm life in the United States titled “Gift for the Grangers,” a coalition of American farmers, late nineteenth century.


In the decades after the Civil War, it was increasingly difficult to be an independent farmer. Overproduction, international competition, and currency contraction deflated agricultural prices; railroad consolidations, middlemen's fees, and interest rates inflated production costs. As the ranks of tenant-farmers, sharecroppers, and those who left the farm grew, many farmers looked for relief to inflationary policies of the Greenback Party in the 1870s and free silver advocates in the 1890s. Of greater significance were the movements and organizations farmers joined to promote political and economic reform, as well as agricultural education.

The first large-scale movement of farmers centered on the Patrons of Husbandry, or the Grange. Founded in 1867 by Oliver H. Kelley as a fraternal and educational organization, the Grange grew rapidly to over 640,000 members by 1874. Farmers used the organization to sponsor cooperative campaigns against merchants and middlemen, particularly warehouse operators and railroad companies. Despite Grange strictures against involving the organization in electoral politics, grangers rallied to support “independent” and “antimonopoly” party tickets in state elections of 1873 and 1874 ( Woods 1991 ). Grangers secured state legislation to reduce grain-handling and railroad shipping rates. The Supreme Court affirmed the contstitutionality of these “granger laws” when it ruled in Munn v. Illinois, 94 U.S. 113 ( 1877 ), that private property could be regulated in the public interest by state legislatures. The Supreme Court's subsequent ruling in Wabash, St. Louis & Pacific Railway v. Illinois, 118 U.S. 557 ( 1886 ), granted Congress the exclusive authority to directly regulate interstate shipping.

The Grange movement failed to achieve lasting reforms, but it broadcast the seeds of organization, cooperation, and education throughout the countryside. Adapting Grange doctrine and strategies, a host of farmers' organizations formed, merging by 1890 into a 1.2 million-member National Farmers' Alliance led by Charles W. Macune ( 1851–1940 ); a separate association for African American farmers claimed roughly equivalent membership. The Farmers’ Alliance has long been recognized as the wellspring of the Populist Party and a leading source of democratic reforms, such as the secret ballot, direct election of senators, and the graduated income tax ( Hicks 1931 ). Elizabeth Sanders's Roots of Reform ( 1999 ) emphasizes the role of the Farmers' Alliance and other organizations in the creation of federal regulatory agencies and financial reforms during the Progressive Era. Also emphasizing continuities between the farmers' movements, populism, and progressivism, Charles Postel's The Populist Vision ( 2007 ) stresses the educational nature of the Farmers’ Alliance.

Addressing concerns about the quality of farm life also animated the country life movement. Originating among land-grant university educators like Kenyon L. Butterfield ( 1868–1936 ) and Liberty Hyde Bailey ( 1858–1954 ), the movement got its name from a commission appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907. In its advocacy for the fuller development of rural institutions, the movement accomplished little among farmers who resented the intrusion of outsider experts into their communities ( Danbom 2006 ). The more practical use of county demonstration agents, an idea credited to Seaman A. Knapp ( 1822–1911 ), began in the South and culminated in the cooperative extension system established by the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 ( Scott 1970 ).


The Smith-Lever Act provided for cooperation between the United States Department of Agriculture and the land-grant university experiment stations in sponsoring a county-based system of demonstration agents. To conduct their educational work, these agents organized local associations known collectively as farm bureaus. Consolidated as the American Farm Bureau Federation, this organization invoked democratic-sounding slogans, such as “Equality for Agriculture.” However, the farm bureau was not a revival of the agrarian and populist spirit that inspired the farmers’ alliance. Members of the farm bureau tended to be prosperous farmers who worked with county agents and local town-based businesses to advance the productivity and profitability of agriculture as a commercial interest. Thus, in his 1953 book The Decline of Agrarian Democracy, Grant McConnell identifies the Smith-Lever Act as the symbolic start of the era in which agriculture came to be dominated by a special interest group, acting contrary to ideals associated with agrarian democracy, particularly the Jeffersonian-Jacksonian antipathy toward centralized government and the populist critique of concentrated economic power. Throughout the twentieth century, a number of social critics were inspired by agrarian ideals and Jeffersonian democracy, most notably the Vanderbilt Agrarians (also known as the Twelve Southerners), who published I'll Take My Stand ( 1930 ) and Who Owns America? ( 1936 ), and Wendell Berry, who wrote The Unsettling of America ( 1977 ). While such social criticism ranges widely, its core is a distinctively agrarian and democratic critique that blames large-scale, corporate-owned agriculture and federal agricultural policies for undermining family farms and rural community life.

Wirzba 2003 ). This revival draws together a variety of movements, from supporting family-owned farms to advocating healthier eating through organically grown foods to promoting urban renewal through small farms and community gardens. United by a distaste for large-scale commercial agriculture, these contemporary movements reflect key ideas associated with agrarian democracy, especially the idea that agriculture is, or should be, a matter of prominent concern to the American citizenry. Whether these movements endure and have a transformative effect on large-scale commercial agriculture may well be the story of agrarian democracy in the twenty-first century.

SEE ALSO Bryan, William Jennings ; Civic Associations ; Civil Society ; Hamilton, Alexander ; Jacksonian Democracy ; Jefferson, Thomas ; Republic ; Republican Virtue ; Republicanism ; Self-Governance ; Self-Improvement .


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Berry, Wendell. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977.

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Eisinger, Chester E. “Land and Loyalty: Literary Expressions of Agrarian Nationalism in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.” American Literature 21, no. 2 (1949): 160–78.

Federici, Michael P. The Political Philosophy of Alexander Hamilton. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.

Hicks, John D. The Populist Revolt: A History of the Farmers’ Alliance and the People's Party. (1931.) Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961.

Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Keller, Morton. America's Three Regimes: A New Political History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Lauzon, Glenn P. Civic Learning through Agricultural Improvement: Bringing “the Loom and the Anvil into Proximity with the Plow.” Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2011.

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McCoy, Drew R. The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

Montmarquet, James A. The Idea of Agrarianism: From Hunter-Gatherer to Agrarian Radical in Western Culture. Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 1989.

Peterson, Merrill P., ed. Thomas Jefferson: Writings. New York: Library of America, 1984.

Postel, Charles. The Populist Vision. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Richardson, Heather Cox. The Greatest Nation of the Earth: Republican Economic Policies during the Civil War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Sanders, Elizabeth. Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State, 1877–1917. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Scott, Roy V. The Reluctant Farmer: The Rise of Agricultural Extension to 1914. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970.

Twelve Southerners. I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. New York: Harper, 1930, and Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.

Wirzba, Norman, ed. The Essential Agrarian Reader: The Future of Culture, Community, and the Land. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2003.

Wood, Thomas. Knights of the Plow: Oliver H. Kelly and the Origins of the Grange in Republican Ideology. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1991.

Glenn P. Lauzon
Indiana University Northwest