America’s Agrarian Society and the System of Non-Cash Exchange


By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

Thomas Jefferson inherited an agrarian society from the colonial administrators he hated, and what had once been a series of degraded and exploited agricultural colonies now turned into a perfectly formed agrarian republic. Explore the journey to know how Jefferson’s ideology helped even the small farmers become landowners and the ways they fulfilled their everyday needs without depending on paper money.

Image of an American field full of crops.
While the agriculturists in the United States had a passion for self-dependence, they also adapted a particular social attitude. (Image: MaxyM/Shutterstock)

Dominant Agrarian Culture of America

With Thomas Jefferson’s vision taking shape, America remained an agrarian republic in more ways than just in economics. The American Republic was not only dominated by an agrarian economy but an agrarian culture as well, because the cultivators developed a peculiar social attitude along with their wheat, rye, and barley.

Characteristics of America’s Agrarian Society

The agrarian culture was characterized by a passion for independence. Britain’s North American colonies were not settled by aristocrats, and this fact had immense implications for the development of an agrarian society in America. Unlike Europe, the absence of an aristocracy ensured that the American farmer had the opportunity to own land in his own name, instead of renting or leasing it from some nobleman.

There was enough cheap land available in America for farmers to expand their holdings to whatever their powers of cultivation were, resulting in nearly every farmer having more or less the same size landholdings. Most heads of farming households owned anywhere from 50 to 200 acres. In rural Hampshire County in western Massachusetts, 65 percent of the taxpayers owned land, and 92 percent of all the houses were owned, not rented or leased, by the people living in them. Even the richest 10 percent of the county’s farmers held only between 27 and 35 percent of the county’s wealth.

Learn more about Thomas Jefferson’s incapability of creating alternatives to Hamilton’s hard-headed fiscal policies.

Making of an Agrarian Society

The agrarian society created a culture of independent landowners, where property and power were diffused along with recognizable equality. The commitment of an agrarian culture was toward non-market agriculture since land titles were not jeopardized by excessive taxes, fees, dues, or medieval obligations to great landlords. The American farmers’ chief incentive for producing things was for household or local use.

Reasons for Surplus Economy

Image of farmers in cotton fields.
Farmers produced crops for self-consumption and the rest would be exchanged for goods they needed from other farmers, thus refraining from the cash exchange of goods. (Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The American agricultural economy was primarily a subsistence surplus economy, in which farm households grew or produced as much as 75 percent of what they required, and purchased the remaining 25 percent with a surplus of their own agricultural production.

Farmers in Hampshire County, sealed off from Boston by land distance, and from New Haven by falls and rapids on the Connecticut River, produced crops for home consumption and used the surplus to barter for goods, liquor, tea, and dry goods, from a local shopkeeper or another farmer. Only 20 percent of the produce of the farm was sold in Hampshire County in 1820, and during 1870, not more than 40 percent of all American agricultural production was sold to outside markets.

Learn more about the rebuilding of the American economy after 15 years of Jeffersonianism.

Barter System of Agrarian Society

The more remote a farming district was, the less likely it relied on a single staple or cash crop, in which farmers grew a single big money, big price staple crop exclusively, selling that for cash, and buying everything they needed. Cash was almost nonexistent in many places in the early Republic, and economic exchange in rural areas largely took the form of non-cash swapping of goods or produce, or of exchange of work—a day helping with the barn raising in exchange for a day of helping with harvest. Where there was some cash, it was lent around along networks dictated by kinship and by neighbors. The way in which the exchange was done, or cash lent, was always in terms of personal considerations and face-to-face arrangements. Another aspect of the agrarian culture was its passion for community.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Personal Consideration in Non-Cash Exchange

The absence of cash exchange in rural districts not only created alternative forms of exchange, but it also demanded a particular model of community. Without cash, economic exchange had to be personal—in the spirit of give and take, rather than buying and selling. It also required restraint, caution, and consideration of the other’s ability to pay before repayment was demanded. In the agrarian culture, debt was frequent and was local, unsystematic, small, and often without any interest charged. Many farmers kept no account books at all; the ones that survived had three-fifths of all agricultural indebtedness never repaid, and the remaining two-fifths repaid at times that varied from four months to thirteen and a half years. The idea of actually taking someone to court to collect such debts was looked upon as a violation of the spirit of neighborliness.

System of Interdependence

The dominance of household production, local trade, and the absence of a cash economy forced the inhabitants of a region into an integrated system of interdependence based on personal contact, rather than the abstract numerical use of cash. There was, however, one fatal flaw lurking in this idyllic agrarian scenario, and that was the problem caused by the rural farmers’ production of children. On average, the rural American family expected the birth of eight to 10 children and would see eight or maybe six of them survive to become valuable parts of the household economy.

Learn more about the immigrants who flowed through America’s seaports from Europe in 1820.

Outcome of Farmers’ Westward Migration

Image showing a settlement of buildings.
Westward migration of farmers had its implications, and there were frequent clashes with the inhabitants of those territories. (Image: Currier & Ives (publisher), James Merritt Ives & Fanny Palmer (artists)/Public domain)

Once the farmers’ children reached adulthood, they were unable to perpetuate the pattern of rural subsistence and supply, unless land was as easily available for them as it was for their fathers. That generated the great push westward, filling up the old Northwest Territory and bringing Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio into the Union, justifying Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Territory.

The farmers penetrated into those territories, having frequent clashes with a race of people who already inhabited those territories, who were not at all eager to surrender. They were the North American Indians of the woodlands, testimony to the racial vision of Western Europeans in the modern age that the original inhabitants of the North American continent were scarcely perceived as human beings. Thomas Jefferson mourned, “we have suffered so many of the Indian tribes already to extinguish”, but he lamented that only on the grounds that robbed him of specimens for his anthropological research on the origin of the human race. By his calculation, there were no more than about 30,000 Indians in North America.

Common Questions about America’s Agrarian Society

Q: What was Thomas Jefferson’s contribution to agriculture?

Thomas Jefferson impacted agriculture in more than one way where even the smallest farmer owned the land without renting it. The farmer then cultivated the land for personal use and exchanged the surplus for products they needed. He created a culture of independent landowners, with recognizable equality.

Q: What are the characteristics of an agrarian society?

The characteristics of an agrarian society are that it included independent landowners with a commitment to non-market agriculture, where land titles were not jeopardized by excessive taxes, fees, dues, or medieval obligations to a great landlord.

Q: What is non monetary exchange?

Non-monetary exchange is the swapping of goods or produce, or the exchange of work, such as a day helping with the barn raising in exchange for a day of helping with harvest without using the paper money.

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