Agrarianism posits that the practices associated with the agricultural life are particularly — and in some cases uniquely — well suited to yield important personal, social, and political goods. The precise character of these goods — and the respective roles of government, society, and individuals in procuring them — varies according to which school of agrarian thought one wishes to consider. The first school important to postwar conservatives is that promoted, in various degrees, by the “Old Whig,” Anti-Federalist American founders. The second strand of agrarianism with particular importance for conservatives is that found running through the work of various antimodern thinkers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

John Taylor of Caroline, Thomas Jefferson, and their fellow Old Whigs, such as Edmund Ruffin, self-consciously sought to retrieve the classical agrarian tradition represented by Hesiod, Cato the Elder, Varro, and Vergil, who like them were concerned about the relationship between politics and farming. These ancient thinkers celebrated the personal and civic virtues associated with farming — economic independence, willingness to engage in hard work, rural sturdiness, hatred of tyranny — that the old Whig founders saw themselves as protecting through the Revolution.

Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian observations are scattered throughout his letters and other documents. “Those who labour 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. . . .” he declaims in Query XIX of Notes on the State of Virginia (1781–82). “Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example.” Jefferson and the other Anti-Federalists believed that yeoman farming nurtured a spirit of self- reliance that made economic — and therefore genuine political — independence possible. In that fact lay farming’s principle value.

Jefferson was a reliable spokesman for republican agrarianism, but John Taylor of Caroline was its most dogged and insightful defender. His Arator, first published as a series of newspaper articles in 1803, consists of Taylor’s practical suggestions, based on his own analysis, observation, and experiments, for improving American agriculture, the condition of which he lamented. Taylor’s defense of republican agrarianism rests on much the same ground as Jefferson’s. Political independence, Taylor agrees with Jefferson, cannot be secured by “bankers and capitalists.” But not only does Taylor place more emphasis than does Jefferson on the role of agriculture as “the mother of wealth” as well as “the guardian of liberty,” he also goes further in articulating the personal benefits afforded by life on the land. Farming, he maintains, brings more pleasure than other modes of employment. It provides continual novelty and challenges to the mind. It meets the physical needs of the body. It promotes the virtue of liberality and rewards almost every other virtue. It is an aid in the quest for eternal life, for it feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, and gives drink to the thirsty. And because it is a vocation inevitably more concerned with practical affairs than abstract speculations, it is the “best architect of a complete man.” Virtually every claim for the farming life to be made by American agrarians in the following centuries is anticipated here.

Republican agrarianism permeated American politics and literature for many years — indeed, it continues to find resonance in recent works such as Victor Davis Hanson’s influential The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization (1995). But in the mid- to late 1800s defenses of agrarian ways became entangled with populist politics. During this period, agrarian arguments were less explicitly focused on the goods of the farming life per se than on the economic interests of farmers. However, with the closing of the frontier at the end of the nineteenth century, and with the concomitant slow but steady decline in the proportion of Americans living on farms, a new generation of self-consciously agrarian thinkers began to emerge. These included economist Ralph Borsodi, the Iowa priest and Catholic Rural Life activist Luigi Ligutti, and Harvard sociologist Carle Zimmerman, all of whom — along with several others — are profiled in Allan Carlson’s indispensable history, The New Agrarian Mind: The Movement toward Decentralist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (2000).

As Carlson shows, this group heralds the advent of a new and distinct type of agrarianism. Although its proponents’ political affiliations varied widely, they all shared a deep dissatisfaction with many aspects of modern economic, political, social, and religious structures. The urbanized, mass consumerism of industrial society had come into focus for them as a characteristic feature of modernity in a way that it could not have for the earlier republican agrarians. Some form of resistance to modernity, some alternative, was therefore needed. Several antimodern agrarians, among them John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, also developed an epistemological critique of Enlightenment scientific rationality, a critique that has been carried forward today by Wendell Berry. Much like Tate, Berry’s ethical critique of modern society rests, like his epistemological critique, on the argument that mass technological industrialism collaborates with science to enshrine a view of human beings and the natural world that treats objects and people as essentially interchangeable. Such arguments can be found throughout Berry’s corpus, but they are brought together most systematically in his Life Is a Miracle: An Essay against Superstition (2000).

For conservatives, the Southern Agrarians have been the most influential of the antimodern agrarians. Their manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand, was published in 1930 and is usually regarded as a classic of conservative cultural criticism. An oft-overlooked sequel, Who Owns America? appeared six years later. The leaders of the Southern Agrarians — Ransom, Tate, Donald Davidson, and Andrew Nelson Lytle — would continue to develop agrarian themes and arguments for some years, although Ransom bowed out of the struggle earlier than the others. While they shared the republican concerns of their southern forebears Jefferson and Taylor, they also charged modern industrialism with promoting irreligion, extinguishing great art and high culture, degrading the quality of human relations, and, not least, destroying the older rural, aristocratic culture — all of which were to become central concerns for later traditionalist conservatives.

The Southern Agrarians failed to spark the agrarian renaissance for which they had hoped, even in the South, but they did leave behind some intellectual successors, most notably Richard Weaver, M. E. Bradford, and the self-proclaimed “Northern Agrarian” Russell Kirk. Still, except for its occasional championing by writers like these, agrarianism has persisted at the margins of mainstream postwar conservative thought. Many conservatives have regarded agrarianism as romantic, reactionary, illiberal, impractical, and insufficiently appreciative of the manifold material and physical blessings that are the fruit of modern industrial society. Thus, agrarianism is a wedge that highlights the deep philosophical differences concerning the social, political, and cultural conditions that promote human flourishing which run like a fault line through the conservative movement.

By far the most influential agrarian today is Berry, a novelist, essayist, poet, and critic who lives and farms in Kentucky. Although Berry does not call himself a conservative, his stories and essays are profoundly subversive of liberal modernity and share many affinities with traditionalist or agrarian conservatism. His essays are characterized by humility toward nature and the cosmos, unwavering skepticism toward modern notions of progress, and a practical and epistemological critique of technology. Berry’s agrarian economics attempts to call attention to the ways in which the contemporary global economy undermines traditional cultures and stable communities, divorces economics from ethics, supports and is supported by big, distant, bureaucratic government (and is thus antidemocratic), and threatens ecological health. In his fiction Berry attempts to evoke the traditional agrarian world of mid-century Kentucky, with all its vices and virtues, in an attempt to preserve in a modern audience some memory of the good that existed in such a world, a type of good that he fears has now been, or is being, lost. Berry has found a sizable audience among traditionalists and social conservatives.

In the 1990s, magazines like the Anabaptist Plain and the Catholic Caelum et Terra (1991–96) emerged as loci of a new grassroots agrarian movement, attracting readers from across the political spectrum, though virtually all could in some sense be called culturally conservative. And in the last decade, Hanson, until recently professor of classics at Fresno State University, and Carlson, president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society, have also emerged as leading scholars and conservative defenders of the agrarian vision. Their different approaches reflect the bifurcation of the conservative agrarian tradition: Hanson the republican agrarian focuses on the role the farming life has played in inculcating the rougher democratic and masculine virtues, while Carlson the anti-modern agrarian emphasizes the family friendly, traditional culture that agrarianism tends to nurture.

Further Reading


Editor’s note:
Originally published in First Principles, a web journal of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, this article was reprinted with permission.

Jeremy Beer
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Jeremy Beer

Jeremy Beer is a founding partner at American Philanthropic, founding editor of Front Porch Republic, and president of the American Ideas Institute. He has published more than forty essays and articles on philanthropy, culture, and politics in various academic and popular journals, including Perspectives on Political Science, First Things, Touchstone, the American Conservative, Front Porch Republic, and the Utne Reader.
Jeremy Beer
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