Query XIX

What kind of economic activity does Jefferson think the United States should participate in? Why? How would this kind of economy create good citizens?
Compare and contrast Jefferson’s economic plan to Alexander Hamilton’s (Document 14).

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This is an excerpt from Thomas Jefferson’s only published book. It was written after the Declaration of Independence in 1781 but was not published until 1785. Jefferson wrote the book in response to questions posed to him in 1780 by Francois Barbé-Marbois about Virginia. Barbé-Marbois was the Secretary of the French delegation in Philadelphia, which was the temporary capital of the United States at that time. The book covers a wide range of topics from botany, economics, and art, to questions about slavery and race. Jefferson presents his thoughts about Virginia as a lens through which to understand the rest of the United States. This perspective can be seen in this selection where Jefferson considers the economic system of the United States. Jefferson later shifts his views from the value of husbandry to the value of trade and manufacturing after the War of 1812.

Source: Thomas Jefferson, “Query XIX: The Present State of Manufactures, Commerce, Interior and Exterior Trade?”, Notes on the State of Virginia in The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Federal Edition (New York and London, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, [1785] 1904-5). Vol. 4. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/jefferson-the-works-vol-4-notes-on-virginia-ii-correspondence-1782-1786 Accessed: January 30, 2020

We never had an interior trade of any importance. Our exterior commerce has suffered very much from the beginning of the present contest.[1] During this time we have manufactured within our families the most necessary articles of clothing. Those of cotton will bear some comparison with the same kinds of manufacture in Europe; but those of wool, flax and hemp are very coarse, unsightly, and unpleasant: and such is our attachment to agriculture, and such our preference for foreign manufactures, that it be wise or unwise, our people will certainly return as soon as they can, to the raising raw materials, and exchanging them for finer manufactures than they are able to execute themselves.

The political economists of Europe have established it as a principle, that every State should endeavor to manufacture for itself; and this principle, like many others, we transfer to America, without calculating the difference of circumstance which should often produce a difference of result. In Europe the lands are either cultivated, or locked up against the cultivator. Manufacture must therefore be resorted to, of necessity, not of choice, to support the surplus of their people. But we have an immensity of land courting the industry of the husbandman. Is it best then that all our citizens should be employed in its improvement, or that one half should be called off from that to exercise manufactures and handicraft arts for the other? 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. It 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 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. While we have land to labor then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a work-bench, or twirling a distaff. Carpenters, masons, smiths, are wanting in husbandry: but, for the general operations of manufacture, let our work-shops remain in Europe. It is better to carry provisions and materials to workmen there, than bring them to the provisions and materials, and with them their manners and principles. The loss by the transportation of commodities across the Atlantic will be made up in happiness and permanence of government. The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body. It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution.

  1. 1. Jefferson wrote Notes on the State of Virginia in 1781 and published it in 1785. Here he is referring to the American Revolutionary War.
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