Small Land Holders Are
the Most Precious Part of a State
[From a letter to James Madison dated 28 October,
Thomas Jefferson was an enlightened Virginia
slave owner who was one of the earliest and most articulate
spokesmen for distributing land widely to small holders.
Unfortunately, the auctioning off of public lands to speculators
rather than settlers quickly became a favorite method of raising
government revenue, and the Jeffersonian vision of freeholder
democracy was honored more in public rhetoric than in public
Jefferson makes the case for distributing land to those who
wish to till it.
Legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property,
only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the
natural affections of the human mind. The descent of property of every
kind therefore to all the children, or to all the brothers and
sisters, or other relations in equal degree, is a politic measure, and
a practicable one. Another means of silently lessening the inequality
of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and
to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as
Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed
poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended
as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a commonstock for
man to labour and live on. If for the encouragement of industry we
allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment
be provided to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not the
fundamental right to labour the earth returns to the unemployed.
It is too soon yet in our country to say that every man who cannot
find employment but who can find uncultivated land shall be at liberty
to cultivate it, paying a moderate rent. But it is not too soon to
provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be
without a little portion of land. The small land holders are the most
precious part of a state.