Agrarianism is a social, economic, and political system that promotes the values associated with agriculture and the proximity to the land. Many of the parables within the Bible present spiritual lessons in the language of farmers, thereby providing a moral and ethical basis for agriculture that is absent from other pursuits in commerce or industry. In U.S. history, agrarian values are associated with Thomas Jefferson's veneration of the yeoman farmer and Frederick Jackson Turner's influential frontier thesis.

With the founding of the nation, the tenets of agrarianism were set in place, only to be expanded as the population moved west into the nation's expanding hinterland. The course of westward expansion was influenced by the desire to expand the agricultural economy. In the official instructions issued to Meriwether Lewis, the Lewis and Clark expedition was ordered to examine the soils, vegetation, and climate of all unknown territories encountered in their exploration. Lewis and Clark, as well as other explorers over the course of the early nineteenth century, found many opportunities for the expansion of an agricultural economy west of the Mississippi. Subsequent legislation directing the settlement of the public's western domain followed the appearance of Jefferson's yeoman farmer ideal. However, Jefferson's idealism was not universally accepted and in many cases did not reflect economic reality. One version of the Homestead Act was vetoed in 1860 by President Buchanan for the express purpose of preventing the spread of agrarian thought and ideas of public ownership of unsettled territory in the West. Even after the enacting of the Homestead Act in 1862, much of the most agriculturally viable lands in the Great Plains and the West were granted to railroads or sold for cash by the federal government.

The agrarian ideal gained another spokesman in the person of Frederick Jackson Turner. Writing in the 1890s, Turner wrote that the expanding frontier provided a safety valve that allowed the United States to avoid many of the class problems that plagued Europe by providing a forum for the continuous renewal of the United States’ democratic institutions. Turner reflected on the contributions of Jefferson, citing Jefferson as the John the Baptist of American democracy for his dedication to promoting the interests of small farmers at the expense of the moneyed classes of society. For Turner, only the presence of free land for farmers in the West reinforced the democratic impulses of the United States. Turner believed that the experience of settlement allowed settlers to recreate American democracy as each wave of settlers in the West was required to recreate the institutions of government isolated from outside influences. The frontier experience encouraged individualism, economic equality, and upward mobility; in short, the frontier promoted the individual characteristics that Turner believed were essential for the survival of democracy. With the closing of the agricultural frontier in the 1890s, the United States suffered from the monopolistic concentration of capital and political influence of corporations that did not promote the growth of the democratic spirit. This concentration of wealth in industry and commerce stifled democracy by denying social and economic mobility to the masses, just as both Jefferson and Turner feared that it would.

Patrick Callaway

See also: Agricultural Issues, Regional ; Homestead Act (1862) ; Jefferson, Thomas (1743–1826)


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Jackson, Donald. Thomas Jefferson and the Rocky Mountains: Exploring West from Monticello. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.

Vogeler, Ingolf. The Myth of the Family Farm: Agribusiness Dominance of U.S. Agriculture. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1981.

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Turner, Frederick Jackson. “Contributions of the West to American Democracy.” In George Rogers Taylor, ed. The Turner Thesis Concerning the Role of the Frontier in American History. Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1956.