Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 119 / Number 1
Enclosing the Commons: Thomas Jefferson, Agrarian Independence, and
Early American Land Policy, 1774–1789
- By Mark Sturges, pp. 42 –74
This article explores the transnational factors that shaped Thomas Jefferson's land policy in the years before he entered the state department. The article describes Jefferson's interpretation of Locke, his response to the European enclosure movement, and his participation in a literary tradition of agrarian nostalgia. Envisioning democratic land ownership as the solution to social unrest, Jefferson presented his land policy as an alternative to the European feudal system, which by the eighteenth century had divested small farmers of their right to the commons and displaced thousands of inhabitants from their ancestral homes. Jefferson, however, also recognized that an unregulated commons would inevitably suffer from clear-cutting, over-grazing, and soil exhaustion. Because no legal tradition existed to manage the American commons, he favored privatization as the vehicle of conservation. According to Jefferson, if every man worked a farm of his own, then rural populations would come together democratically to regulate American land use and conserve the new nation’s supply of natural resources.