Socrates, Artistotle, and Horace can all be attributed with various praises of the art of husbandry and of the shepherd and cultivator. From Virgil's writings about the peaceful life of the Arcadians, a primitive people of the Greek Peloponnesus, the name Arcadia came to signify an idealized pastoral society. The power of this symbol comes from the contrast of the simple, harmonious, rural life with the corrupt, discorded life of the city. It resurfaces throughout Western literature; Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dryden, Swift, Pope, Wordsworth are among the many artists who used the tillage of the garden as a theme. It is clearly and eloquently exhibited in Thomas Jefferson's Query XIX from Notes on the State of Virginia. He writes, "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue." Jefferson's words give structure to a notion which had gradually developed throughout the ages and which would influence American culture and politics even to the present day.

In his introduction to Agrarianism in American Literature, M. Thomas Inge defines "agrarianism" by the following basic tenets: