George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Richard Peters, 20 June 1793

From Richard Peters

Philada June 20. 1793

Dear Sir

I had prepared the enclosed a considerable Time ago but have waited for a Communication from a Person who does the most in the Grazing Line of any Person I have heard of. But he has not made the Communication from a silly Belief that it is not for a public Purpose but a private one that I wish to get the Acct from him[.] I therefore delay no longer to send you the best Answer to Mr Y.’s Query I can make.1 I am with the most sincere & respectful Esteem Your very obed. Servt

Richard Peters


1GW had asked Peters for the enclosed remarks on U.S. agriculture in a letter of 16 May 1793. Peters’s undated enclosure is titled “Observations on an Extract of a Letter dated 17. January 1793 from Arthur Young Esqr to The President” and reads:

“1. ‘Your Information has thrown me afloat on the high Seas. To analize your Husbandry has the Difficulty of a Problem. Is it possible that the Inhabitants of a great Continent &c. can carry on farming as a Bussiness & yet never calculate Profit by Centage in Capital &c.’

“I know not where to land Mr Y. from his Sea Voyage, unless Facts well known & felt here, serving as Pilots to guide him into a safe Harbour, will enable him to arrive on a Shore pleasant in its Prospects & abundant in its Resources. Not so much indebted to Art as to Nature for its Beauties & Conveniencies. Let him but realize his Proposals of coming among us (I presume as a Visitant) & judge for himself. He will not be embarrass’d with unavailing Conjectures or laborious Calculations. He will find that, added to our Situation as a new Country, where much Land is to be had for little Money, our political Arrangements contribute to our Happiness, & to our moderate, but competent Wealth. We have no Princes—to indulge the Grades more immediately beneath them in their Pleasures & their Passions, that they may themselves be supported, at the Expence of the Nation, in their Schemes of Ambition & Luxury—no overgrown Nobles to wanton on the hard Earnings of an oppressed Yeomanry. He will find a respectable Clergy chosen by their respective Congregations, & reputably supported by the voluntary Contributions of their Hearers. But these are not ecclesiastical Drones—Fruges consumere nati [born to consume the fruits of the earth]—They do themselves the Duties required of them. They act not in the Affairs of Heaven by Deputies, whose Poverty is truly apostolical; the penurious Stipends allowed them by their grasping Superiors, compelling them to be conversant only in the Fasts, while their Principals revel in the Feasts of the Church. In a Word, he will not see a sable Host of superfluous & pampered Priests (maintained by Numbers who do not hear or believe in their Doctrines) who fatten on the Property of the People: And, while they fetter & terrify Mens Consciences to mould them to their Purposes, eat out their Substance under the Sanction of Law. These Descriptions of Characters in other Countries create & encrease Taxes, while they render their Subordinates less able to pay them, by enormous Rents, made necessary by their Dissipation & Extravagance; & by their capricious Terms of leasing Lands, of which they are the principal Engrossers. England has perhaps less Reason to complain, on these Accounts, than some other European Countries. But, if we had no other Statements to rely on than those given by Mr Y. himself, we should know enough to be convinced, that, even there, some of these Causes produce Misfortunes in sufficient Plenty. Not having the least Inclination, if it were in my Power, to disturb the Systems of other Nations, & wishing the Happiness of Mankind in their own Way, I do not mention either our positive or negative Prosperity, with a View to draw odious or disagreeable Comparisons. The World will never agree about Forms of Government. Let those, who think well of Grades in Society, be happy in the Possession of such Arrangements. We consider it fortunate, & feel it beneficial, that we have them not.

Taxes, it is said by some, stimulate to Industry; & therefore the higher the Tax the greater the Exertion & the more Employment. But, if this were a more tenable Doctrine than it is, I see not that Man should labour not for himself—or for himself too hardly. Nor should he be compelled by artificial Necessity, like a Criminal immerged to the Chin in Water constantly flowing in upon him, incessantly to pump or perish. Taxes we have, but the greater Part are imperceptible & all of them light. The moderate Expences of our Government & the Mediocrity of our public Debt do not require heavy & ruinous Taxation. The Backs to bear it encrease faster than the Burthen, & we are too far removed from the Scenes of ruinous & unnecessary Wars to dread any sudden or fatal Encrease of it: Wars are generally produced by the Pride, Vanity, Interest or Ambition of hereditary Rulers. The great Body of an industrious People are inclined to Peace; & from these our Government will always take its Tone. As to our Wars with the Savages, they are, for the Time, embarrassing, locally distressing & generally expensive, but are not nationally formidable or dangerous. Disputes with them must gradually diminish &, at no distant Period, end. Tho’ the Reflexion be painful to Humanity, it is justified, in Point of Fact, by Experience, that the Nations in Contact with the Whites always have been & ever will be exterminated. The Approaches of our Settlements always banish the Indians.

“Our Laws are generally liberal in their Policy. We have no narrow Arrangements which, under false Notions of national Convenience or shadowy & miscalculated political Restrictions, palsy Agriculture & Commerce, by preventing those who possess the Products of the Country, from disposing of what their Labour has created, when, where & how they please. Free from such Restraints, & from the Pressure of heavy Rents, Church Dues and Taxes, our Farmers are the Proprietors of the Soil they cultivate. They gather the Honey—shear the Fleece—& guide the Plough for themselves alone. It is not the ‘sic Vos non Vobis’ [thus we labor, but not for ourselves] of Europe—They encrease the Value of their Capital while they labour for their Sustenance. They do not indeed recieve an annual Interest or Revenue on their Capital—but they pay none. Yet by their Exertions for their own Support & Accomodation & the growing Population & Improvement of the Country, to which everyone, Stranger as well as Native, contributes, more than an European per Centage is added to their Principal. In so much that Farms will encrease in very many Parts of the Country, ten fold in their Value, in less than 20 Years. Immence Tracts of New Lands have been recently sold, by the State of Pensilvania, at less than an English Shilling per Acre. Great & extensive Bodies of these Lands can be now procured, at second hand, at less than half Mr Y.’s Calculation for Mountain Lands. I know valuable Tracts, of great Extent, within a few Days Ride of Philadelphia, which may be had at from 3 to 9 Shillings Sterling per Acre. These are not ‘mountain Lands’, tho’, like all the Face of our Country, they are cut in some Places by Ridges. They are for the most Part level, & so luxuriant in Pasturage that, meagre our Winters, Cattle now pass that Season, in prime Order, without Cover or artificial Forage. They command both the New York & Philadelphia Marketts; & are situated in a safe Country which will e’er long, be as great for Grazing as any in America. Other States have similar Advantages. Mr Y.’s Farm, or even his 60. a[cre]s & the Sheep he summer’d on it, will buy him a little Territory, & his Capital, in 10 Years, will be encreased 500 per Cent—This is not a bad per Centage, nor is it a visionary Calculation. I wish not to throw out fallacious Temptations, but to relate Facts, merely to shew why our Farmers need not make nice Calculations about per centage. They have now, & always have had, a sure Resource for the Wear of their Sea-board Farms & the Growth of their Families. Children in Europe are often a Burthen & Expence. The Wealth of a great Part of the American Farmers grows with the Additions to their Families. The Children assist in the Labour of the old Farm, or in the Establishment of the new one. This supercedes the Necessity of calculating on hired Laborers, the Work being chiefly done within themselves. They are paid by the encreased Value of the common Stock. Our Laws, contrary to the feodal Injustice of Europe, encourage & direct Equality of Distribution, among the Children of intestate Decedents; so that many Parents purposely omit making Wills, contented with the Distribution made by the Law. And tho’ every Man has the Right, at his Pleasure, to dispose of his Estate, by Will or Deed, yet the Habits of thinking, on such Occasions, take their Bias from the Spirit of our Laws. Many, who have large Families, & want Room, or are tired of their old Farms, think it better to sell & remove to Places where Nature is in her Prime; leaving to their Successors the Toil, Calculation & Expence of renovating Lands exhausted by bad Tillage—The worn Farms always find Purchasers; & the Price paid for them buys a sufficient Quantity of new Land, beside leaving a Surplus in Cash for Improvement. One Day this must have an End—but that Day is far distant. When it arrives the Proprietors of old Lands will adopt better Systems of Agriculture, which are now fast advancing. These will add to the Products of their Lands & procure them more Wealth, but possibly not more Happiness, in our more antient Settlements. Our old Lands are capable of Renovation, ha⟨vin⟩g a good Staple, as has been proved in numberless Instances.

“I condemn not Calculation which is prudent & proper in every Business—‘Ego sum Pietor’—I am sometimes siezed with the Faculty of calculating—But not always successful in the practical Proof of it. I need not however be discouraged. For I often read, with Pleasure, Mr Y.’s Writings. I admire his Genius & respect even his Enthusiasm; in which he often strikes out fine Thoughts. But I venerate his Candor, while he frequently acknowledges, that Success does not always crown his own Calculations, or invariably durable Conviction, his Opinions. We have here innumerable Instances of Farmers who get forward, without ever spending a Thought on per Centage, or other nice Calculation. And, however ‘problematical’ this may seem—it is an Observation as old as the first Appearance of the redoubtable H⟨u⟩dibras, that ‘No Argument like Matter of Fact is.’

“I ask your Forgiveness for the multifarious & perhaps tiresome Scope I have taken. The easy Situation of an industrious, full handed American Farmer is the pleasing Result of a Combination, produced by all the Causes I have mentioned. Instead of calculating, he labours & enjoys. And tho’ I do not profess to have a good Opinion of the Stile of American Husbandry, yet even this shews the happy Situation, in other Respects, of our Country. With such farming, in Europe, the Farmers would starve & leave their Children common Labourers or Beggars. And yet here they live well & leave their Descendants the Means of obtaining the Comforts & Conveniencies of Life. This is the Problem I have endeavoured to solve. And I could not, but by this circuitous Route, arrive at the Answer to Mr Y.’s Question, ‘Is it possible that the Inhabitants of a great Continent, not new Settlers, who of Course live to hunt, to eat & to drink, can carry on farming, as a Business & yet never calculate the Profit they make by per Centage on their Capital?’ The Phraseology—‘who of Course live to hunt, to eat & to drink,[’] I do not perfectly comprehend—Our Hunters are only a few Borderers & not to be counted upon as Farmers—nor are our Farmers, tho’ they have not the best Systems, idle—I therefore think that (without meaning a Critique) ‘who eat & drink to live’ would have been a more just Arrangement of Language.

“2. ‘The Demand for Cattle & Sheep Products—Hides—Tallow—Barelling Beef—Sheep—Wool—Wolves—Dogs—& Law respecting their killing of Sheep.’

“The Demand for Cattle Products is as great as we can supply; & the Cattle Business may be carried on to any Extent. This will be a growing & extensive Business, & can be pushed as far & to as great Advantage as in any other Country. We have People acquainted with the victualling Branch in all its Details; & as this is a Country which invites those who ‘are weary & heavy laden,’ not ‘to give them Rest’ but profitable Employment, we have some from Cork [Ireland], & can have more from thence & any other Part of the World. Our exported Beef is in good Credit, particularly that from Boston. I have ate Mess Beef, put up in Philadelphia, after having been on East India Voyage, in excellent Condition. With this Beef a Sample of Philadelphia brewed Porter was produced. This had been the same Voyage, was perfectly good & not inferior to English Porter. Our Merchants prefer our own, tho’ they can purchase Irish Beef. The Tallow will always sell to Profit & is chiefly consumed here—The Hides do not supply our Home Demand & therefore Importations of Spanish & other Hides are frequent. A great Proportion of our Beef & all our Mutton are consumed at Home; as our People will live well & eat more Meat than any equal Number in the World. If the Sheep Business was carried on to much Extent, there would be a Necessity for Exportation. The Establishment of considerable Manufactures; which is more practicable & beneficial in this Country than many People (particularly those of Europe) suppose, will take off a Part of the Mutton of our Flocks. There is little or no Export of Wool to foreign Parts; tho’ it is brought Coast Ways, as it happens to be more abundant in one State, than in another. There is no Prohibition against the Exportation of this or any other Product. But it is consumed at Home where excellent coarse Cloths are made in which a great Proportion of our Farmers are clad. A Variety of other woolen Fabrics are also made.

“I have no Copy of what I mentioned respecting Sheep destroying Pasture. I know they do not eat so much in Proportion as the other Beasts & their Dung is remarkably fertilizing. But they bite close & the Droughts & Heats of Summer, which are here long & periodical, burn up the Roots. It is a generally recieved Opinion here that they destroy Pastures, & I am warranted by my own Experience to give in to it, with some Qualifications. We do not find that ‘the more Sheep we keep the more we may.’ I believe, in the State of our Agriculture, the Converse is the most true. In Countries where it is an Object & where there are better Systems of farming, with dripping Seasons, it may be otherwise. I once thought, in some Degree, as Mr Y. does; but find that English Ideas will not in this, & many other agricultural Cases, apply here. In the present State of Things, I adhere to my former Opinion—that distributing Sheep, in small Numbers, to every Farmer, will do better than any other Plan. I know that more, instead of less, Care can be taken of them in this Way; for the Farmer can & does attend to them without interfering too much with his other Affairs. Invariably, the Sheep of one of our small Flocks look the best & have the most Wool. With 20 Sheep to each Farm capable of supporting them, we might have a prodigious Number. If a Mr Y. were here & in the Prime of Life, & would practise his Systems so as to improve the whole Mass of Agriculture, much might be done. Our Difficulty is to carry large Flocks thro’ our long Winters. As Things are, I have a better Opinion of the Cattle Business than that of Sheep; & I think the former would succeed better than the latter, with all the Management that could be bestowed on it. No one knows, however, what might be done, if the whole Capital, & Attention of industrious intelligent & experienced Men were drawn to this Point. Our snowy Winters would embarrass if not ruin the Turnep Plan, & the Droughts of Summer thin large Flocks. If Chiccory be a serious Auxiliary, it is well. It grows as a Weed in many Parts of this Country.

“In the Observations on Sheep you were pleased to desire of me, on a former Occasion, I exhausted my small Stock of Knowledge on that Subject. If any thing in those Observations is applicable now, I beg to refer you to them.

Wolves are a serious Enemy to the Sheep Plan in Places where there are the largest Ranges. Time may perhaps subdue them. But we have paid, for 40 or 50 Years past, out of our County Rates, 20/ for a Wolf’s Head; & tho’ they are chiefly banished from our Plains & older Settlements, yet on our Mountains they are plenty. Where a large Ridge runs thro’ a Country, in other Parts ever so well peopled, they find Retreats & breed prodigiously. Unless we can have the Pyrennean Millenium, in which Wolves & Sheep it seems, live together, in worshipful Society, I know not a speedy Remedy—I lay, not long ago, at the Foot of the South Mountain, in York County in this State, in a Country very thickly settled, at the House of a Justice of Peace—Thro’ the Night I was kept awake by what I concieved to be a Jubilee of Dogs assembled to bay the Moon. But I was told in the Morning that what disturbed me, was only the common Howling of Wolves which Nobody there regarded. When I entered the Hall of Justice, I found the Squire giving Judgment for the Reward on two Wolf Whelps, a Country man had taken from the Bitch—The Judgment Seat was shaken with the Intelligence, that the She-Wolf was coming—not to give Bail—but to devote herself or rescue her Offspring. The Animal was punished, for this daring Contempt, committed in the Face of the Court, & was shot within an hundred Yards of the Tribunal—The Storgè [instinctive affection] had prompted her to go a little too far.

Dogs are also formidable—too many being uselessly kept by the wealthy & not a few by Poor People who do not feed them. The Law is exactly the same as in England. But it is difficult to prove that the Owner had the required scienter [knowledge] of his Dog being accustomed to kill Sheep. It is also difficult to discover the Destroyer. He often reigns like an Achilles, but not so open in his Feats of Destruction. We suffer therefore the Devastations committed by this nocturnal Marauder, & see our slaughtered Sheep—

‘Whose Limbs unburied on the naked Shore Devouring Dogs & hungry Vultures tore.’ [Homer, Iliad]

“As to the Law—our Farmers, are not fond of it on such Occasions. They think the first Loss sufficient: And rather submit to the Ravages of the ‘devouring Dogs’ than risque their Purses being ‘torn’ by those they dread as much as if they were ‘hungry Vultures.’ In short they prefer losing the Value of their Sheep to being fleeced, as they suppose; in a Prosecution for Damages. If they discover the guilty Dog they proceed in a summary Way—They shoot him—or otherwise put an End to his Career. To multiply their Chances of punishing the Culprit, they often bring to the Lanterne or Guillotin a Number of Victims, as is sometimes done on more important Occasions. A Practice however not very justifiable—even in the Case of Dogs. It is doing Justice as quickly, if not so reputably, as was done in England by their old Court of Trail-baton; which, as my Lord Coke says, was as rapid in its Movements ‘as one might draw or traile a Staffe or Stycke.’

“We must establish such a Court here if the Business of Sheep feeding is largely extended; & perhaps send for some Pyrennean Wolves to train our Mountaineers to a little more Civility. If this fails, we must turn our Dogs upon them &, as artful Politicians treat their fellow-Bipeds, keep ourselves safe by stimulating one Enemy to root out another, & so ruin both in the Contest—Seriously—if we had the Means of keeping large Flocks, so as to employ Shepherds, we might manage both Wolves & Dogs—But at present it is not an attainable Object” (DLC:GW).

GW sent these observations with his letter to Young of 1 September. For previous comments on U.S. agriculture that Peters had prepared for Young at GW’s request, see Peters to GW, 20 June 1792.

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