About the project

Welcome to the website of Enlightenment Agrarian Republics : From Vaud, to Poland, and America, a scientific project of the Swiss National Science Foundation (FNS) number: 100011_172846.

This project in intellectual history focuses on the political and economic ideas that were formed around and within three existing agrarian republics during the Enlightenment: Vaud, Poland, and America. From the mid 1750s onward, an increasing number of observers predicted that European societies were headed for revolution. The standard causes that were cited were the spiralling public debts, the continuous increase in taxes imposed on the rural population, the depopulation of the countryside, and a luxury-driven urbanisation and subsequent pauperisation of those failing to find employment in urban manufacturing.

Berne, J.J. Biedermann, 1796, Gugelmann Collection at Swiss National Library

At the heart of this trend, it was frequently argued, was the imbalance between agriculture and industry, which explains the fascination many Enlightenment thinkers expressed for the model of an agrarian republic. While the classical model of an agrarian republic seemed immune to the corrosive features of modern politics and thus offered hope for a more socially stable and peaceful Europe, it too had its drawbacks, the most notorious of which being that it relied on institutionalised slavery which made it not only inherently unjust, but also resistant to economic reforms.

L’Interieur d’un chalet dans le Simmenthal, Zehender, Karl Ludwig, 1803, Gugelmann Collection at Swiss National Library

The current project aims to study this eighteenth-century debate about agrarian republics by looking at how three real existing agrarian republics themselves thought about their place within the modern world and, especially, the prospect of reform. For this, it will focus on a set of questions that were central to the reform discourse in all three of these agrarian republics. First, how did slavery, or the state of subjection, affect economic performance, and how did it square with the republican ideal of equality? Second, how could parts of the rural population be integrated into the developing industrial sector without causing the stagnation of agricultural productivity? Also, what institutional adjustments were thought necessary in order to limit the social effects of urban pauperisation? Third, what political framework was best suited to keeping an economically efficient agrarian republic from transforming into a full-blown capitalist society? By studying how reform thinkers working within an agrarian republican context addressed these questions, and how they shared their reform experience through a network of intellectual and personal ties, a new assessment of the position of agrarian republics in Enlightenment reform discourse will emerge.


“Agriculture seems to possess an incontestible right to the title of parent and nurse of all the other professions. Observe a country where agriculture flourishes, and you will behold arts and sciences flourish in equal perfection! But where devastation lays waste the soil, or slothful neglect induces men to leave the earth uncultivated, a general stagnation in maritime, as well as commercial affairs, immediately succeeds.”

-Socrates, in Xenophon, Economics. Cited in Hans Caspar Hirzel, The Rural Socrates (1779 [1761]).