Most histories of the American family farm focus on the nineenth and early twentieth centuries and the great westward expansion of settlers into the newly opened frontier. Those decades were certainly the heady time of American agrarianism. The Homestead Act of 1862 offered the middle and lower classes the chance of becoming independent small landowners. The Grange movement of the 1870s organized farmers to agitate for equitable treatment from railroads, grain elevators, and brokers, and also promoted cooperatives and scientific farming. And the 1902 federal Reclamation Act funded irrigation projects in some twenty western states. What was good for farming, then, was good for nineteenth-century America.
Yet except for a final chapter on the 1860s, Richard Bushman, a Columbia professor emeritus of history, mostly focuses on a much earlier and less well-known period—the eighteenth-century agrarian world of American colonists and the role of farmers during and right after the American Revolution. At the outset, he confesses that neither he nor his immediate ancestors have had any firsthand experience with farming, but that he nevertheless has been fascinated with the role of agriculture in promoting a moral economy that privileged a way of life over material gain. Bushman’s sincerity and idealism, along with his lack of any firsthand knowledge of farming, reflect both the strengths and weaknesses of his narrative.
Bushman grasps the central paradox of the American agrarian experience. Family farming promoted and enhanced values of constitutional government such as autonomy, individualism, localism, family solidarity, patience, traditionalism, and reverence for custom and history. Yet homestead agriculture did not, in itself, lead to the wealth, sophistication, diversity, and cosmopolitanism of coastal city life, much less the scientific, technological, and managerial revolutions that later produced such astounding wealth and leisure in the West in general and in America in particular. Americans soon admired in theory what they sought not to do in practice.
Family farming promoted and enhanced values of constitutional government such as autonomy, individualism, localism, family solidarity, patience, traditionalism, and reverence for custom and history.
Readers should note Bushman’s often-academic account is not necessarily easy to read. A fourth of this university press book comprises endnotes and an index (but strangely no bibliography, or formal introduction and conclusion). But Bushman is a fine scholar whose two decades of research have brought to light scores of unfamiliar or little-known primary sources. He mines eighteenth-century wills, deeds, sales, and loans to reconstruct the lives of a few iconic rural American families and particular locales from around 1600 to the beginning of the nineteenth century. Much of the book is family storytelling, but even the dry domestic account books can be fascinating in and of themselves.
Another general theme is that eighteenth-century agriculture, while often subsistence in nature, was still far more sophisticated than we might expect. Its jack-of-all-trades practitioners were at once keen businesspeople, versatile and flexible craftsmen, and communitarians who saw the stability of their localities as inseparable from their own farming fates. They certainly were not indentured servants, European peasants, or sharecroppers bound to the local feudal manor.
Two overriding impulses guided early American agrarian households: the desire for more land for numerous offspring and the constant effort to keep children on the farm, given that city-life was usually far easier, often more remunerative, and certainly more exciting. One of Bushman’s rural newspapermen characterized the city siren song as a narcotic of “some more easy sedentary occupation with the fallacious idea of appearing genteel in the eyes of the world.”
Those eternal allurements, along with mechanization and the technological revolution, explain why only 1 to 2 percent of America’s 330 million citizens are today farmers.
Those eternal allurements, along with mechanization and the technological revolution, explain why only 1 to 2 percent of America’s 330 million citizens are today farmers. And most, as Bushman notes, are by needs agribusiness people who farm with a different mindset than the agrarians of the past: “Only a small percentage of Americans till the earth, and those who do think differently from their forebears. They are businesspeople who calculate profit and run their fields like factories. They are scientific and rational. Self-provisioning means nothing to them.” Still, Bushman’s book never quite decides whether America remains a moral nation because of our long history of agrarianism or whether it is rich, powerful, and technologically omnipotent (and also troubled and confused) because it entirely transcended farming and today is largely an urban and suburban nation.
Bushman emphasizes that there was never a monolithic model of the American farmer, although since the ascendance of the polis Greeks and the Italian yeomen there has been certainly an ideal of a universal Western agrarian working his own small plot, with the aid of his family, in efforts to ensure his political and economic independence. From Hesiod and Virgil to Wendell Berry, that iconic portrait continues to remind even city dwellers of a romantic and supposedly morally superior alternative to the congestion and crassness of urban life.
Bushman divides his book up into sections to account for the vast diversity of early American farming, whether the huge plantations of the antebellum South or the small, rugged farms in New England or the middling agriculturalists of the mid-Atlantic states such as Pennsylvania. Climate, weather, and terrain initially governed which crops were grown where, and, by extension, the labor and capital requirements of each farming model. Because the United States would come to cover such a vast expanse, and encompass such a diverse climate and geography, it was natural that farming would likewise become diffused. With such radical regionalism, so too would arise sometimes incompatible rural cultures. Agriculture, then, was a catalyst for both the American Revolution and the Civil War.
By the late eighteenth century these farming divides were already apparent. The growing market in Europe for both tobacco and cotton, and the reliance on imported African servile labor, created a quite small but opulent plantation class in the near-tropical South. In this fragmentation of American farming, Bushman notes both the commonalities and vast disconnects. He laments that all land was expropriated from Native Americans, usually through the use of force or sheer demographic heft, often from people, especially in New England, who tragically believed that they could accommodate themselves to the new foreign agrarianism: “Farmers were, on the one hand, the embodiment of the American dream; on the other, they enacted the American nightmare—the decimation of one people by another.”
The rise of slavery in the southern and border states led to greater disequilibria, largely through the disappearance of a vibrant southern middle class, once the few rich planters consolidated land, expanded slave labor, and targeted their crops for lucrative export across the Atlantic. The wealthiest land owners in America were also the fewest, the most vulnerable to overseas markets, and the most disliked, given their reliance on slaves. Bushman notes these ironies to dispel any notion that his sometimes romantic encomium to farming is incomplete, or that it fails to record both the losers and winners of the American frenzy to turn frontier into farms and sometimes farms into hugely profitable and exploitative plantations.
By the time of the American Revolution, the national contradictions that arose from the plantation model were already anticipated to become eventually irreconcilable. Crop specialization, land consolidation, and slave labor created a leisured, affluent, and highly educated class of aristocrats in rural Virginia, which produced the most impressive of the Founding Fathers such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Yet their plantation lifestyles juxtaposed their enlightenment views of freedom with the concrete realities of chattel slavery. The leisure necessary for Virginia aristocrats to master the classics and the manners of European gentry often came at the expense of servile drudgery.
In contrast, the stuff of the American Revolution was found in the farmers of the middle colonies and New England, who were long inured to local government, working their own lands with mostly their own muscular labor, and with confidence in their own economic sustainability. For them it was easy to disassociate themselves from a distant constitutional English monarchy and to embrace an indigenous republic in which they lived what they professed. “Although the conceptual leap from monarchy to a republic was huge,” Bushman notes, “little farm communities had lived democracy too long to be anxious about taking the fateful step.”
A universal theme of all the primary documents that Bushman references is uncertainty, given the frequency of unpredictable weather, volatile commodity prices, shortages of labor, war, pestilence, and natural disasters such as drought, fires, floods, and hurricanes. There was little margin for error when mistakes often meant destruction and death. In the pre-scientific age, farmers had to be empirical, and they established farming norms by careful trial and error and constant communications with one another, without abstract and scientific knowledge about the nature of genetics, fertilization, or pesticides.
Such dependence on the tried and true certainly has always explained the conservative agrarian mind, especially its fierce territoriality, suspicion, and independence—all values associated with the birth of the country and founding principles such as the Bill of Rights and checks and balances on the respective branches of government, as well as natural distrust of hereditary monarchy and a permanent inherited aristocracy. In some sense, one can detect in Bushman’s family vignettes that the divides between the “clingers” and the coastal elite are ancient.
What Bushman relates from the eighteenth century seems not all that unfamiliar to me, born as I was on a family farm in rural California in 1953. As the fifth generation to live in the same farmhouse, I associate the century-old sepia photographs on the staircase walls with my own sixty-year remembrances of the family’s tragic farm accidents, lost crops, premature deaths, bankruptcies, natural disasters, madness, and depression—juxtaposed with what I learned from the stories of my grandfather (who was born in my bedroom in 1890 and died in the same place in 1976) of the first three generations who suffered through typhus, malaria, polio, the railroad (the Mussel Slough shootout took place about ten miles away), gun fighting over water rights, bank panics, and recessions.
I suppose farmers then and now want to believe that what destroyed them also ennobled them, and that their now-vanished agrarianism built the very country that replaced it.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 2, on page 70
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