Thomas Jefferson’s Approach to Self Sufficient Living

This is the Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's self sufficient plantation. 
Source: Tony Fischer Photography on Flickr

America’s Loss of Economic Independence 


Self sufficiency is a lifestyle that’s become increasingly foreign as America advanced from it’s early Agrarian society, progressing through the Industrial Revolution and into the current Information Age.

There’s a number of things that contributed to the loss of economic individualism; factory work took away the multifaceted, broad range of responsibilities and interests from the individual, and replaced them with assembly line specialization for instance. The Great Depression and other recessions/depressions resulted in an increased expectation for the White house to bail people and businesses out before they went under, and this reliance on the government resulted in another blow to economic independence.

Data form the Federal Reserve shows that only 11.4% of Americans were self employed. Here’s an excerpt from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (, that shows how large corporations replaced most small businesses:

More and larger bureaucratic organizations, some with many
layers of managers, as well as the development of more so-
phisticated management techniques, spurred growth. The
proportional drop between 1950 and 1970 is due to a sharp
decline in the number of self-employed managers, as small
owner-operated establishments were replaced by larger cor-
porate-owned ones operated by salaried managers. Employ-
ment of self-employed managers, officials, and proprietors,
n.e.c, declined 22 percent between 1950 and 1960, from
2,528,000 to 1,968,000, and employment of self-employed
managers and administrators, n.e.c., declined 49 percent
between 1960 and 1970, from 1,764,000 to 902,000.47.

Though the economic and social advancement of the nation as a whole has been extremely beneficial, we’ve lost much of the independence that once served as the backbone of America.

Variety of lifestyle and interests has been replaced by specialization; assembly lines, cubicles, and a subsequent spike in demand for psychological treatment, therapy, and over the counter medication.

As mass marketing and the corporate push for consumerism increased, the household debt increased. Because of a lack of independence, we often find ourselves working ungodly hours of overtime to ward off bankruptcy.

I’ve observe individuals in “third-world” nations, and wondered at the difference in our lifestyles.

What I Learned From a Shepherd in Jordon

In Jordon I watched a young shepherd as he led his goats through the hills, singing a happy tune as he jumped from rock to rock. The restful joy in his eyes didn’t seem to match his surroundings, at least not for a “civilized” individual such as myself. But there he was, free as could be, wandering through the green hills and valleys with his goats – and then it hit me.

He was free. He didn’t have much, and I think that was a substantial source of his happiness: He didn’t have a mortgaged house to worry about losing if he didn’t meet the payments. He didn’t have a massive college loan to pay off. He didn’t have a collection of cars, gadgets, tools; things to maintain and worry about.

He had his goats and his staff – not a hoard of clutter.

I’m not saying I’d be happier with his life. I’ve been spoiled by technology, and I like it. But there’s a couple things I’ve learned from him; two aspects of his life that I want to implement in mine:

  1. His simple and minimalistic lifestyle: He wasn’t bogged down and brainwashed by the consumerist society we’re raised in, and didn’t feel the compelling need to have a nice house, nice cars, nice tools, and other things. He didn’t feel guilty for not working 60 hours a week to support a suburbs family lifestyle that everyone expects you to attain.
  2. His independence: I can’t personally vouch for the shepherd’s independence because I didn’t talk to him, but pastoral and agrarian cultures typically own their own source of food and income. That means they have many freedoms that we don’t. They don’t ask for time off when they want to explore a new area, and they often become nomadic to find the best areas to live in, usually on a seasonal basis. Because they own their own source of food and income, they answer to themselves, and rarely find themselves “enslaved” by people/businesses/governments/corporations that they have to rely upon.

I don’t want to be a shepherd, and I don’t want to live in a mud hut. But I’m realizing that it’s very possible to live a self-sufficient, minimalist lifestyle that combines the benefits of both cultures.

Self Sufficient Living: The Thomas Jefferson Way

This is the Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's self sufficient plantation.  Source: Tony Fischer Photography on Flickr

This is the Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s self sufficient plantation.
Source: Tony Fischer Photography on Flickr

Many early Americans believed that self sufficient farmers and business owners were the best citizens a nation could have.

Thomas Jefferson pursued the self sufficient lifestyle with conviction. This is an excerpt from his Notes on the State of Virginia

Dependance begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition. This, the natural progress and consequence of the arts, has sometimes perhaps been retarded by accidental circumstances: but, generally speaking, the proportion which the aggregate of the other classes of citizens bears in any state to that of its husbandmen, is the proportion of its unsound to its healthy parts, and is a good-enough barometer whereby to measure its degree of corruption. While we have land to labour then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a work-bench, or twirling a distaff. Carpenters, masons, smiths, are wanting in husbandry: but, for the general operations of manufacture, let our work-shops remain in Europe. It is better to carry provisions and materials to workmen there, than bring them to the provisions and materials, and with them their manners and principles. (Source: Learn NC)

“The independence of a small, self-sufficient farmer was a way of thinking about the ideal citizen. Someone who owned his own land, worked for himself, and owed nothing to anyone could therefore be trusted with the public good. He wouldn’t need favors from other people, and so he wouldn’t get caught up in political schemes.” (Source: Learn NC)

Thomas Jefferson’s dream was to raise a nation of self sufficient land owners, himself being one of them. keeps detailed records of Jefferson’s self sufficient plantation, the 5,000 acre Monticello: 

Thomas Jefferson prided himself on keeping his plantations at Monticello and Poplar Forest as self-sufficient as possible. He remarked early in 1813 that “I have been 50 years the owner of plantations, and never yet bought pork.” However, in the immediate aftermath of his return to Monticello after retiring from the presidency, Jefferson found himself in need of a variety of root crops for winter use. In the document printed below, he listed what he initially thought was required and then recorded his subsequent discovery that he had badly underestimated his usage. Jefferson ordered these provisions from Mary Walker Lewis (1742-1824), who occasionally supplied him with seeds, plants, vegetables, meat, and eggs. A nearby landowner, Lewis was nicknamed “Captain Molly” for her strict demeanor but also celebrated for her charity and wit. (Source:

The quote “I have been 50 years the owner of plantations, and never yet bought pork” reveals the most important benefits of self sufficient living:

  1. Economic self reliance.
  2. Fulfillment through owning productive land.
  3. Security of owning your own source of food, shelter, and income.

Not everyone inherits a 5,000 acre plantation to begin their quest toward self sufficiency, but the good news is you don’t need to. There’s many different ways to attain self sufficiency, and I’ve described 7 strategies in “7 Self Sufficiency Strategies” for further info on the subject of self sufficiency.