James Madison: We Can Scarcely Be Warranted in Supposing…

"Address to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle, Virginia" (1818).

"One of the landmarks of American nature writing, delivered not long after he retired to "Montpelier," his Orange
county estate, James Madison’s "Address to the Agricultural Society of
Albemarle" is an early argument for an "ecological" method of
agriculture in Virginia. In his address, Madison diagnoses seven
"errors in our husbandry" deserving of correction, including the
cultivation of originally poor or recently impoverished land, bad
ploughing techniques, the destruction of woodlands, the neglect of
proper manure, the lack of irrigation, the overuse of horses, and the
keeping of too many cattle."

Hat trip to Verlyn Klinkenborg, for bringing up as philosophic a defense of the planet and its health as I have ever read.

For me this speech brings to mind the famous code of Aldo Leopold: "To keep every cog and wheel, is the first principle of intelligent tinkering."

But the more I think about it, the deeper–less human-centered–Madison’s argument becomes.

Perhaps I should read it again.

Here’s the crux of the matter, as near as I can tell:

Agriculture, once effectually commenced, may proceed of itself, under impulses of its own creation. The mouths fed by it increasing, and the supplies of nature decreasing, necessity becomes a spur to industry; which finds another spur in the advantages incident to the acquisition of property, in the civilized state. And thus a progressive agriculture, and a progressive population ensue.

But although no determinate limit presents itself. to the increase of food, and to a population commensurate with it, other than the limited productiveness of the earth itself, we can scarcely be warranted in supposing that all the productive powers of its surface can be made subservient to the use of man, in exclusion of all the plants and animals not entering into his stock of subsistence; that all the elements and combinations of elements in the earth, the atmosphere, and the water, which now support such various and such numerous descriptions of created beings, animate and inanimate, could be withdrawn from that general destination, and appropriated to the exclusive support and increase of the human part of the creation; so that the whole habitable earth should be as full of people as the spots most crowded now are or might be made, and as destitute as those spots of the plants and animals not used by man.

The supposition cannot well be reconciled with that symmetry in the face of nature, which derives new beauty from every insight that can be gained into it. It is forbidden also by the principles and laws which operate in various departments of her economy, falling within the scope of common observation, as well as within that of philosophic researches.

The earth contains not less than thirty or forty thousand kinds of plants; not less than six or seven hundred of birds; nor less than three or four hundred of quadrupeds; to say nothing of the thousand species of fishes. Of reptiles and insects, there are more than can be numbered. To all these must be added, the swarms and varieties of animalcules and minute vegetables not visible to the natural eye, but whose existence is probably connected with that of visible animals and plants.

On comparing this vast profusion and multiplicity of beings with the few grains and grasses, the few herbs and roots, and the few fowls and quadrupeds, which make up the short list adapted to the wants of man, it is difficult to believe that it lies with him so to remodel the work of nature as it would be remodelled, by a destruction not only of individuals, but of entire species; and not only of a few species, but of every species, with the very few exceptions which he might spare for his own accommodation.

Such a multiplication of the human race, at the expense of the rest of the organized creation, implies that the food of all plants is composed of elements equally and indiscriminately nourishing all, and which, consequently, may be wholly appropriated to the one or few plants best fitted for human use.

Whether the food or constituent matter of vegetables be furnished from the earth, the air, or water; and whether directly, or by either, through the medium of the others, no sufficient ground appears for the inference that the food for all is the same.

Different plants require different soils; some flourishing in sandy, some in clayey, some in moist, some in. dry soils; some in warm, some in cold situations. Many grow only in water, and a few subsist in the atmosphere. The forms, the textures, and the qualities of plants, are still more diversified. That things so various and dissimilar in their organization, their constitutions, and their characters, should be wholly nourished by, and consist of precisely the same elements, requires more proof than has yet been offered.

[Ed.  note — is it just me, or for a President, does Madison not look cool?


Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

3 thoughts on “James Madison: We Can Scarcely Be Warranted in Supposing…

  1. Madison’s thoughts really transcends time and it cannot be denied how his insights turned out as founded base of today’s efforts to save the mother earth.


  2. Well put! [Ed. note: Though I don’t think I headlined this post particularly well, lots and lots of people somehow find it — another tribute to Madison’s eloquence.]


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