Thomas Jefferson's Liberal Anticapitalism


Claudio J. Katz is Professor of Political Science, Loyola University Chicago, 6525 North Sheridan Road, Chicago, IL 60626-5385 (


This article reassesses Thomas Jefferson's political economy in light of debates about the influence of liberal and republican ideas on his thought. I argue that Jefferson embraced liberal premises, but used them to reach anticapitalist conclusions. He opposed neither commerce nor the prosperity it promised; he opposed working for a wage, and he did so on liberal grounds. The first section of this article shows that John Locke's theory of property turns on the justification of capitalist labor relations. The second section establishes, first, that Locke's argument played a decisive role in the development of Jefferson's own and, second, that Jefferson redefined its terms to fashion a forceful critique of wage labor. An examination of Jefferson's writings elucidates a neglected variant of the liberal tradition, prevalent in the United States until the Populist agitation. Its core is the stigma attached to working for hire as a diminished form of liberty, tantamount to wage slavery.