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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

35. Commerce & Agriculture

The management of commerce is a function best left to individuals, but the regulation of commerce in the public interest, to the extent provided by the Constitution, is the business of Congress. Whereas the pursuits of agriculture are most conducive to virtue and happiness, manufacturing is necessary to preservation of the union, and to peace and independence in a contentious world.

"Agriculture, manufactures, commerce and navigation, the four pillars of our prosperity, are the most thriving when left most free to individual enterprise. Protection from casual embarrassments, however, may sometimes be seasonably interposed." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Annual Message, 1801. ME 3:337

"Encouragement of agriculture and of commerce as its handmaid I deem [one of the] essential principles of our government, and consequently [one of] those which ought to shape its administration." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural, 1801. ME 3:322

35.1 Management of Commerce

"[The] policy [of my country] is, to leave their citizens free, neither restraining nor aiding them in their pursuits. Though the interposition of government, in matters of invention, has its use, yet it is in practice so inseparable from abuse, that they think it better not to meddle with it." --Thomas Jefferson to M. L'Hommande, 1787. ME 6:255

"Private enterprise... manages so much better all the concerns to which it is equal." --Thomas Jefferson: 6th Ann. Message, 1806. ME 3:423

"A merchant is naturally a republican, and can be otherwise only from a vitiated state of things." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1803. FE 8:252

"We remark with special satisfaction those [favorable circumstances] which, under the smiles of Providence, result from the skill, industry and order of our citizens managing their own affairs in their own way and for their own use, unembarrassed by too much regulations, unoppressed by fiscal exactions." --Thomas Jefferson: 2nd Annual Message, 1802. ME 3:340

"The only condition on earth to be compared with ours, in my opinion, is that of the Indian, where they have still less law than we." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Rutledge, 1787. ME 6:251

35.2 Publicly Managed Enterprises

"Having always observed that public works are much less advantageously managed than the same are by private hands, I have thought it better for the public to go to market for whatever it wants which is to be found there; for there competition brings it down to the minimum of value. I have no doubt we can buy brass cannon at market cheaper than we could make iron ones." --Thomas Jefferson to William B. Bibb, 1808. ME 12:107

"[Ours is a] policy of not embarking the public in enterprises better managed by individuals, and which might occupy as much of our time as those political duties for which the public functionaries are particularly instituted. Some money could be lent [for private projects], but only on an assurance that it would be employed so as to secure the public objects." --Thomas Jefferson to W. C. C. Claiborne, 1808. (*) ME 12:97

"I think it material too, not to abstract the high executive officers from those functions which nobody else is charged to carry on, and to employ them in superintending works which are going on abundantly in private hands." --Thomas Jefferson to William B. Bibb, 1808. ME 12:108

35.3 The Virtues of Agriculture

"Agriculture... is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals and happiness." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1787. ME 6:277

"The cultivators of the earth are the most virtuous citizens, and possess most of the amor patriae. Merchants are the least virtuous, and possess the least of the amor patriae." --Thomas Jefferson: Answers to de Meusnier Questions, 1786. ME 17:116

"Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds. As long, therefore, as they can find employment in this line, I would not convert them into mariners, artisans, or anything else." --Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1785. ME 5:94, Papers 8:426

"The pursuits of agriculture [are] the surest road to affluence and best preservative of morals." --Thomas Jefferson to John Blair, 1787. ME 6:272

"Those who labor in 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. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIX, 1782. ME 2:229

"An industrious farmer occupies a more dignified place in the scale of beings, whether moral or political, than a lazy lounger, valuing himself on his family, too proud to work, and drawing out a miserable existence by eating on that surplus of other men's labor which is the sacred fund of the helpless poor." --Thomas Jefferson: Answers to de Meusnier Questions, 1786. ME 17:91

"Agriculture... is the first in utility, and ought to be the first in respect." --Thomas Jefferson to David Williams, 1803. ME 10:429

35.4 Advantages of Agriculture

"The wealth acquired by speculation and plunder, is fugacious in its nature, and fills society with the spirit of gambling. The moderate and sure income of husbandry begets permanent improvement, quiet life and orderly conduct, both public and private." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1787. ME 6:277

"Were I to indulge my own theory [on the expediency of encouraging our states to be commercial], I should wish them to practice neither commerce nor navigation, but to stand with respect to Europe precisely on the footing of China. We should thus avoid wars and all our citizens would be husbandmen. Whenever, indeed, our numbers should so increase as that our produce would overstock the markets of those nations who should come to seek it, the farmers must either employ the surplus of their time in manufactures, or the surplus of our hands must be employed in manufactures or in navigation. But that day would, I think, be distant, and we should long keep our workmen in Europe, while Europe should be drawing rough materials, and even subsistence from America. But this is theory only, and a theory which the servants of America are not at liberty to follow." --Thomas Jefferson to G. K. van Hogendorp, 1785. ME 5:183, Papers 8:633

"To remove as much as possible the occasions of making war, it might be better for us to abandon the ocean altogether, that being the element whereon we shall be principally exposed to jostle with other nations; to leave to others to bring what we shall want and to carry what we can spare. This would make us invulnerable to Europe by offering none of our property to their prize, and would turn all our citizens to the cultivation of the earth... It might be time enough to seek employment for them at sea when the land no longer offers it." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XXII, 1782. ME 2:241

"It is essentially interesting to us to have shipping and seamen enough to carry our surplus produce to market; but beyond that, I do not think we are bound to give it encouragement by drawbacks or other premiums." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Stoddart, 1809. ME 12:250

"The United States... will be more virtuous, more free and more happy employed in agriculture than as carriers or manufacturers. It is a truth, and a precious one for them, if they could be persuaded of it." --Thomas Jefferson to M. de Warville, 1786. ME 5:402

"With honesty and self-government for her portion, agriculture may abandon contentedly to others the fruits of commerce and corruption." --Thomas Jefferson to Henry Middleton, 1813. ME 13:203

"I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787. Papers 12:442

"A prosperity built on the basis of agriculture is that which is most desirable to us, because to the efforts of labor it adds the efforts of a greater proportion of soil." --Thomas Jefferson: Circular to Consuls, 1792. ME 8:352

35.5 City and Country

"The commercial cities... are as different in sentiment and character from the country people as any two distinct nations, and are clamorous against the order of things established by the agricultural interest." --Thomas Jefferson to M. Pictet, 1803. ME 10:356

"I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man. True, they nourish some of the elegant arts; but the useful ones can thrive elsewhere; and less perfection in the others, with more health, virtue and freedom, would be my choice." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, 1800. ME 10:173

"A city life offers you indeed more means of dissipating time, but more frequent, also, and more painful objects of vice and wretchedness." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1823. ME 15:469

"Our cities... exhibit specimens of London only; our country is a different nation." --Thomas Jefferson to Andre de Daschkoff, 1809. ME 12:304

35.6 The Spirit of Commerce and Manufacturing

"I consider the class of artificers [i.e., manufacturers] as the panders of vice and the instruments by which the liberties of a country are generally overturned." --Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1785. ME 5:94, Papers 8:426

"I hope we shall... crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country." --Thomas Jefferson to George Logan, 1816. FE 10:69

"The selfish spirit of commerce... knows no country, and feels no passion or principle but that of gain." --Thomas Jefferson to Larkin Smith, 1809. ME 12:272

"Merchants have no country. The mere spot they stand on does not constitute so strong an attachment as that from which they draw their gains." --Thomas Jefferson to Horatio G. Spafford, 1814. ME 14:119

"Corruption of morals... is the mark set on those who, not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry, as does the husbandman, for their subsistence, depend for it on the casualties and caprice of customers. Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition. This, the natural progress and consequence of the arts, has sometimes, perhaps, been retarded by accidental circumstances; but generally speaking, 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." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIX, 1782. ME 2:229

"Money and not morality is the principle of commerce and commercial nations... Justice, honor, faith, must yield to the necessity of keeping themselves in place. The question whether a measure is moral is never asked, but whether it will nourish the avarice of their merchants, or the piratical spirit of their navy, or produce any other effect which may strengthen them in their places... This is the true character of [such governments] in practice, however different [their] theory; and it presents the singular phenomenon of a nation, the individuals of which are as faithful to their private engagements and duties, as honorable, as worthy, as those of any nation on earth, and whose government is yet the most unprincipled [ever] known." --Thomas Jefferson to John Langdon, 1810. (*) ME 12:376

"While we have land to labor, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a workbench or twirling a distaff. Carpenters, masons, smiths, are wanting in husbandry; but for the general operations of manufacture, let our workshops remain in Europe. It is better to carry provisions and materials to workmen there than bring them to the provision and materials and with them their manners and principles." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIX, 1782. ME 2:230

35.7 But Changed Circumstances Create a Different View

"How far it may lessen our happiness to be rendered merely agricultural, how far that state is more friendly to principles of virtue and liberty, are questions yet to be solved." --Thomas Jefferson to Horatio Gates, 1798. ME 9:443

"I have not formerly been an advocate for great manufactories. I doubted whether our labor employed in agriculture and aided by the spontaneous energies of the earth would not procure us more than we could make ourselves of other necessaries. But other considerations entering into the question have settled my doubts." --Thomas Jefferson to John Melish, 1813. ME 13:207

"I am quoted by those who wish to continue our dependence on England for manufactures. There was a time when I might have been so quoted with more candor, but within the thirty years which have since elapsed, how are circumstances changed!" --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Austin, 1816. ME 14:389

"I was once a doubter whether the labor of the cultivator aided by the creative powers of the earth itself would not produce more value than that of the manufacturer alone and unassisted by the dead subject on which he acted. In other words, whether the more we could bring into action of the energies of our boundless territory in addition to the labor of our citizens, the more would be our gain? But the inventions of later times, by labor-saving machines do as much now for the manufacturer as the earth for the cultivator. Experience, too, has proved that mine was but half the question. The other half is whether dollars and cents are to be weighed in the scale against real independence? The whole question then is solved, at least as far as respects our wants." --Thomas Jefferson to William Sampson, 1817. FE 10:73

"I had [once] persuaded myself that a nation distant as we are from the contentions of Europe, avoiding all offences to other powers and not over-hasty in resenting offence from them, doing justice to all, faithfully fulfilling the duties of neutrality, performing all offices of amity and administering to their interests by the benefits of our commerce--that such a nation, I say, might expect to live in peace and consider itself merely as a member of the great family of mankind; that in such case it might devote itself to whatever it could best produce, secure of a peaceable exchange of surplus for what could be more advantageously furnished by others, as takes place between one country and another of France. But experience has shown that continued peace depends not merely on our own justice and prudence but on that of others also; that when forced into war, the interception of exchanges which must be made across a wide ocean becomes a powerful weapon in the hands of an enemy domineering over that element, and to the distresses of war adds the want of all those necessaries for which we have permitted ourselves to be dependent on others, even arms and clothing. This fact, therefore, solves the question by reducing it to its ultimate form, whether profit or preservation is the first interest of a State? We are consequently become manufacturers to a degree incredible to those who do not see it and who only consider the short period of time during which we [had] been driven to them by the suicidal policy of England." --Thomas Jefferson to Jean Baptiste Say, 1815. ME 14:258

"We have experienced what we did not [before] believe: that there exists both profligacy and power enough to exclude us from the field of interchange with other nations; that to be independent for the comforts of life we must fabricate them ourselves. We must now place the manufacturer by the side of the agriculturist... Shall we make our own comforts or go without them at the will of a foreign nation? He, therefore, who is now against domestic manufacture must be for reducing us either to dependence on that foreign nation or to be clothed in skins and to live like wild beasts in dens and caverns. I am not one of these." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Austin, 1816. ME 14:391

"The bringing of our countrymen to a sound comparative estimate of the vast value of internal commerce, and the disproportionate importance of what is foreign, is the most salutary effort which can be made for the prosperity of these States." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, 1814. ME 14:60

"The British War [of 1812] has left us in debt; but that is a cheap price for the good it has done us. The establishment of the necessary manufactures among ourselves, the proof that our government is solid, can stand the shock of war, and is superior even to civil schism, are precious facts for us." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1817. (*) ME 15:115

35.8 The Growing Importance of Manufacturing

"All the world is becoming commercial. [Were] it practicable to keep our new empire separated from them, we might indulge ourselves in speculating whether commerce contributes to the happiness of mankind. But we cannot separate ourselves from them. Our citizens have had too full a taste of the comforts furnished by the arts and manufactures to be debarred the use of them. We must, then, in our defense endeavor to share as large a portion as we can of this modern source of wealth and power." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1784. Papers 7:26

"The spirit of manufacture has taken deep root among us, and its foundations are laid in too great expense to be abandoned." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1809. ME 12:294

"Too little reliance is to be had on a steady and certain course of commerce with the countries of Europe to permit us to depend more on that than we cannot avoid. Our best interest would be to employ our principal labor in agriculture, because to the profits of labor, which is dear, this adds the profits of our lands, which are cheap. But the risk of hanging our prosperity on the fluctuating counsels and caprices of others renders it wise in us to turn seriously to manufactures, and if Europe will not let us carry our provisions to their manufactures, we must endeavor to bring their manufactures to our provision." --Thomas Jefferson to David Humphreys, 1791. FE 5:344

"An equilibrium of agriculture, manufactures and commerce is certainly become essential to our independence. Manufactures sufficient for our own consumption of what we raise the raw materials (and no more). Commerce sufficient to carry the surplus produce of agriculture beyond our own consumption to a market for exchanging it for articles we cannot raise (and no more). These are the true limits of manufactures and commerce. To go beyond them is to increase our dependence on foreign nations and our liability to war. These three important branches of human industry will then grow together and be really handmaids to each other." --Thomas Jefferson to James Jay, 1809. ME 12:271

"As yet our manufacturers are as much at their ease, as independent and moral as our agricultural inhabitants, and they will continue so as long as there are vacant lands for them to resort to; because whenever it shall be attempted by the other classes to reduce them to the minimum of subsistence, they will quit their trades and go to laboring the earth." --Thomas Jefferson to Mr. J. Lithgow, 1805. ME 11:55

35.9 Regulation of Commerce

"The commerce of the States cannot be regulated to the best advantage but by a single body, and no body so proper as Congress." --Thomas Jefferson: Answers to de Meusnier Questions, 1786. ME 17:115

"The power given to Congress by the Constitution does not extend to the internal regulation of the commerce of a State (that is to say, of the commerce between citizen and citizen) which remain exclusively with its own legislature, but to its external commerce only; that is to say, its commerce with another State, or with foreign nations, or with the Indian tribes." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on Bank, 1791. ME 3:147

"Whether the great interests of agriculture, manufactures, commerce, or navigation, can, within the pale of [Congress'] constitutional powers, be aided in any of their relations... in fine, whether anything can be done to advance the general good, are questions within the limits of [Congress'] functions which will necessarily occupy [their] attention. In these and other matters which [they] in [their] wisdom may propose for the good of our country, [they] may count with assurance on my hearty co-operation and faithful execution." --Thomas Jefferson: 4th Annual Message, 1804. ME 3:374

"It will rest... with the wisdom of the Legislature to decide whether prohibition should not be opposed to prohibition, and high duty to high duty, on the fish of other nations; whether any, and which, of the naval and other duties may be remitted, or an equivalent given to the fisherman in the form of a drawback, or bounty; and whether the loss of markets abroad may not, in some degree, be compensated, by creating markets at home; to which might contribute the constituting fish a part of the military ration, in stations not too distant from navigation, a part of the necessary sea stores of vessels, and the encouraging of private individuals to let the fishermen share with the cultivator in furnishing the supplies of the table. A habit introduced from motives of patriotism would soon be followed from motives of taste; and who will undertake to fix the limits to this demand, if it can be once excited, with a nation which doubles, and will continue to double, at very short periods?" --Thomas Jefferson: Report on Fisheries, 1791. ME 3:128

"The greatest evils of populous society have ever appeared to me to spring from the vicious distribution of its members among the occupations called for. I have no doubt that those nations are essentially right which leave this to individual choice as a better guide to an advantageous distribution than any other which could be devised. But when, by a blind concourse, particular occupations are ruinously overcharged and others left in want of hands, the national authorities can do much towards restoring the equilibrium." --Thomas Jefferson to David Williams, 1803. ME 10:428

"While the extension of the public commerce among the Indian tribes may deprive of that source of profit such of our citizens as are engaged in it, it might be worthy the attention of Congress, in their care of individual as well as of the general interest, to point in another direction the enterprise of these citizens as profitably for themselves, and more usefully for the public." --Thomas Jefferson: Confidential Message on Western Exploration, 1803. ME 3:492

35.10 Patents, Monopolies & Inventions

"The saying there shall be no monopolies lessens the incitements to ingenuity, which is spurred on by the hope of a monopoly for a limited time, as of fourteen years; but the benefit of even limited monopolies is too doubtful to be opposed to that of their general suppression." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1788. ME 7:98

"Inventions... cannot, in nature, be a subject of property. Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from anybody... The exclusive right to invention [is] given not of natural right, but for the benefit of society." --Thomas Jefferson to Isaac McPherson, 1813. ME 13:334

"The following [addition to the Bill of Rights] would have pleased me:... Monopolies may be allowed to persons for their own productions in literature and their own inventions in the arts for a term not exceeding __ years, but for no longer term and for no other purpose." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789. ME 7:451

"In the arts, and especially in the mechanical arts, many ingenious improvements are made in consequence of the patent-right giving exclusive use of them for fourteen years." --Thomas Jefferson to M. Pictet, 1803. ME 10:356

"Certainly an inventor ought to be allowed a right to the benefit of his invention for some certain time. It is equally certain it ought not to be perpetual; for to embarrass society with monopolies for every utensil existing, and in all the details of life, would be more injurious to them than had the supposed inventors never existed; because the natural understanding of its members would have suggested the same things or others as good. How long the term should be is the difficult question. Our legislators have copied the English estimate of the term, perhaps without sufficiently considering how much longer, in a country so much more sparsely settled, it takes for an invention to become known and used to an extent profitable to the inventor. Nobody wishes more than I do that ingenuity should receive a liberal encouragement." --Thomas Jefferson to Oliver Evans, 1807. ME 11:201

"No sentiment is more acknowledged in the family of Agriculturists than that the few who can afford it should incur the risk and expense of all new improvements, and give the benefit freely to the many of more restricted circumstances." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1810. ME 12:389

35.11 Lotteries and Games of Chance

"If we consider games of chance immoral, then every pursuit of human industry is immoral; for there is not a single one that is not subject to chance, not one wherein you do not risk a loss for the chance of some gain... In all these pursuits, you take some one thing against another which you hope to win... These, then, are games of chance. Yet so far from being immoral, they are indispensable to the existence of man, and every one has a natural right to choose for his pursuit such one of them as he thinks most likely to furnish him subsistence." --Thomas Jefferson: Thoughts on Lotteries, 1826. ME 17:448

"Almost all these pursuits of chance [i.e., of human industry] produce something useful to society. But there are some which produce nothing, and endanger the well-being of the individuals engaged in them or of others depending on them. Such are games with cards, dice, billiards, etc. And although the pursuit of them is a matter of natural right, yet society, perceiving the irresistible bent of some of its members to pursue them, and the ruin produced by them to the families depending on these individuals, consider it as a case of insanity, quoad hoc, step in to protect the family and the party himself, as in other cases of insanity, infancy, imbecility, etc., and suppress the pursuit altogether, and the natural right of following it. There are some other games of chance, useful on certain occasions, and injurious only when carried beyond their useful bounds. Such are insurances, lotteries, raffles, etc. These they do not suppress, but take their regulation under their own discretion." --Thomas Jefferson: Thoughts on Lotteries, 1826. ME 17:449

ME, FE = Memorial Edition, Ford Edition.   See Sources.

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