The Origins of Jeffersonian Political Economy
by John F. Devanny Jr.
(John F. Devanny Jr. is the editor of Arator and teaches history and literature at Saint Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville, South Carolina.)
On July 4, 1848 the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo was declared in effect by President James K. Polk, officially ending the Mexican-American War. Among other provisions, the Mexicans relinquished all claims to Texas, and ceded the territories of New Mexico and California to the United States. This vast acquisition of new territory for the United States was preceded by a downward adjustment in tariff levels in 1846 under the Walker Tariff, and the reestablishment of the independent treasury system. Gone were the national bank, the great systems of internal improvements and protectionism associated with the Whig Party and the ideas of Alexander Hamilton. Thomas Jefferson had died in 1826, but twenty-two years after his death he had vanquished his rivals. The foundations of the political economy he championed were in place: an expanding agrarian republic anchored to liberal trade policies and a system of public finance separated from any national bank. Indeed, the establishment of the Republican Party and the upheavals of a bloody Civil War were required to swing the pendulum back to toward the Whig-Hamiltonian vision. Nevertheless, by 1848 a Jeffersonian vision of political economy was in place whose origins ran deep into the soil and society of eighteenth century Virginia.
Political economy in Jefferson’s day had a broad definition. Even as the French physiocrats Jean-Baptiste-Say and Comte Antoine Claude Destutt de Tracy began the process of creating a distinct science of economics, most thinkers and statesmen of the time viewed political economy as the art of managing a state to both increase the wealth of its people and to maximize government revenues. Even Say and Tracy did not wholly depart from this. Most thinkers broadened Aristotle’s concept of economy as the management of a household to include the management of the state and the revenue and resources at its command.
Political economy, however, was not viewed as a set of dry and musty ledgers filled with statistical tables. Serious moral and ethical dimensions were inseparable from the science. Thus Bernard de Mandeville’s paean to vice, The Fable of the Bees, was quite singular for the time. In contrast, the man lauded as the apostle of capitalism, Adam Smith, insisted on the necessity of ethical behavior for markets to properly function.1 The Jeffersonian tradition in political economy relied less on Smith’s views about sympathy and sentiment; it was committed to the pursuit of virtue and happiness. Virtue and happiness, as understood by Jefferson and his associates, were rooted in independence and self-sufficiency, and the immunity these provided against moral corruption. The Jeffersonian notion of virtue bore close resemblance to the classical view of virtue as manliness and forthrightness. Jefferson and his followers attached great importance to the moral and ethical aspects of economics as formed by their history and experience.