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...


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