The American colonies were originally established under a monarchial ideology in which “integrated politics, economics, society, and religion into an organic whole ruled by a single sovereign under God’s natural law.”4 By the time of the Revolution, however, power in Britain had largely shifted from the Crown to Parliament, which was predominantly influenced by the mercantilist policies of the merchant class. The colonies became de facto a resource for commercial exploitation, while still governed under the pretense of a then-defunct royal ideology. “This infusion of essentially commercial conduct in the robes of traditional ideology certainly contributed to the colonists’ confusion and resentment, and fueled their desire for independence.”5 Undoubtedly this also fueled Jefferson’s opposition to what he viewed as the locus of commercial corruption, the city.
Furthermore, after the Revolution, the commercial advantages that were expected to accompany American independence failed to materialize. Britain pursued policies that effectively circumvented any commercial power that America might try to levy. The productive output of Canada was increased; direct access to the West Indies was prevented; access to British ports was restricted while British merchants maintained advantages in American ports; and direct trade between the two countries was conducted under terms disproportionately favoring British. Spain was openly hostile due to its rival interests in the Americas, and even the supposedly allied French forestalled direct trade.6
To extricate America from a continuing and dangerous debt and dependence on Britain, Jefferson reasoned that a self-sufficient agricultural economy was the best way for the new nation. This in turn required both large amounts of land and open markets for surplus. “Free trade and territorial expansion were the means by which the United States might escape the curse of modernity itself…and in the process creating a civilization immune to the corruptions of Europe.”7 Thus Jefferson’s antiurban views, while certainly fed by his attachment to classical philosophies, also derived from a concrete analysis of his country’s economic situation at the time. “Jefferson’s hostility to cities is well known, and frequently misunderstood. His main concern was not to forestall commercial development but rather to preempt the unnatural concentrations of population, wealth, and power that would recapitulate the structural inequalities and inefficiencies of the monarchial empire.”8 Whether this “unnatural concentration” was located in England or in Washington was irrelevant: it was only through both agriculture and expansion that any kind of centralized abuse of power – be it monarchial, mercantile, or Federalist – could be diluted. “It was precisely because Jefferson was a localist, so prosperously and self-confidently situated on the imperial periphery, that he could envision a republican alternative: an empire without a dominant metropolitan center that would expand across the continent, securing the rights of its member states and spreading its benefits equally.”9
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