The Jeffersonian Agrarian Ideal and the Family-Based Republic

In an effort to be an informed citizen of the polis, I've been reading Michigan: A History of the Great Lakes State by Bruce Rubenstein and Lawrence Ziewacz. This is our fourth year living in Michigan and I decided that it's time to concede its (Michigan's) existence and try to like living here.

The view outside our house this morning. It's Pretty, But It's April.

The view outside our house this morning. It's Pretty, But It's April.

For me, learning to like Michigan means getting to know the state's history and its current issues. That it is an election year helps; I don't like going to the polls to vote on local and state issues without knowing something.

In the wake of having also read Rod Dreher's Crunchy Cons, one paragraph in Michigan struck me in particular:

Growth of cities [due to manufacturing, including the automobile industry] caused new societal problems as well. Decreasing agricultural prices coupled with a declining rural population meant that the Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer being the cornerstone of the Republic was rapidly becoming a fading memory. (pg. 210)

Why the yeoman farmer as the cornerstone of the American experiment? Why not manufacturers? Why not workers?

My husband suggested that the farmer is rooted to the land and their local communities in a way city dwellers are not; therefore they vote differently. I will go one step further and say that the stability of traditional agrarian life lends itself to a strong, intact family culture, one that was lost in the American Industrial Revolution.

Michigan brings up the fact that the invention of the automobile lead to a weakening of family ties as young adults left home instead of settling in their own communities. Manufacturing cities became populated by people who left home. For a job, yes; to support themselves and others, yes. But as a collective, they were in many ways transients and therefore together formed a transient culture separate from extended family. To extend the "rootedness" analogy, these people were transplants, set down in the murky and overcrowded soil that was the poor living conditions of burgeoning cities.

This kind of city life stood not only opposed to agrarian life but traditional city neighborhoods, where families settle down within blocks of each other and where people get to know their neighbors because they walk, work, and shop locally. Traditional neighborhoods are like Cheers, where everyone knows your name. The primary difference between the traditional city neighborhood and the rise of manufacturing towns was the strength of its extended family ties.

The weakening of extended family ties leads to a decline in family culture, and as family is the most fundamental and important societal structure, this decline leads to the decline of the Republic. This is the argument social conservatives have been making for years, and there's a lot of truth in it. Family reminds us that we have a responsibility to others. Family leads to solidarity with others in a community as well. The more individualistic we become, the less we feel responsible for others' well-being. Does this affect public policy? Bet your life it does.