Small Land Holders Are
the Most Precious Part of a State

Thomas Jefferson

[From a letter to James Madison dated 28 October, 1785]

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 policy.

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 they rise.

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.