Jefferson's commercial yeoman, via Appleby

Joyce Appleby "Commercial Farming and the 'Agrarian Myth' in the Early Republic" Journal of American History 68:4, March 1982
Joyce Appleby uses Early Republic agriculture as a jumping-off place for an argument about the Jeffersonian Republicans’ attitudes toward commerce and national growth. Richard Hofstadter’s 1955 book,
The Age of Reform, had found “the roots of the nostalgia that flowered with the Populists” in Jefferson’s feelings for the “noncommercial, nonpecuniary, self-sufficient aspects of American farm life.” Appleby says Hofstadter’s Jeffersonians “created an ‘agrarian myth’ and fashioned for the new nation a folk hero, the yeoman farmer” (833-4). Hofstadter misunderstood or misrepresented Jefferson's attitude toward commerce, she claims, based on two “very shaky” citations (834). Neither A.W. Griswold nor C.E. Eisinger were saying what Hofstadter thought they were, Appleby says. In fact, they were arguing not for a Jeffersonian preoccupation with noncommercial yeoman self-sufficiency, but for a freehold concept linked to rising population, increasing demand for food production, and foreign grain markets.

Although “yeoman has become a favorite designation” for early American farmers, and “a code word for a man of simple tastes, sturdy independence, and admirable disdain for all things newfangled,...Anyone searching for the word yeoman in the writings of the 1790s will be disappointed...The error in current scholarly usage, however, is not lexical, but conceptual” (835, 837). In reality, she says, after a post-war depression that ended in 1788, American farmers enjoyed a generation of rising wheat prices based on the growing inability of Europe to meet its own needs. Farmers “anticipated participation in an expanding international commerce in foodstuffs created the material base for a new social vision...the battle between Jeffersonians and Federalists appears not as a conflict between the patrons of agrarian self-sufficiency and the proponents of modern commerce, but rather as a struggle between two different elaborations of capitalistic development in America” (836). Appleby’s Jeffersonians, unaware of the impending technological revolution we see so clearly in hindsight, looked to the “long upward climb of prices...[of] crops that ordinary farmers could easily grow” as the basis of continued growth and stability in the new republic (839). The shift from tobacco to wheat farming in the mid-Atlantic “promoted in two decades the cities, towns, and hamlets that had eluded the Chesapeake region during the previous century of tobacco production” (839-40). “Philadelphia and New York, both drawing on a grain-raising hinterland, surpassed Boston in population, wealth, and shipping” (840).

This is an interesting approach to data that Allan Kulikoff uses quite differently. “In the single decade of the 1790s,” Appleby says, America’s 75 post offices increased to 903 while the mileage of post routes went from 1,875 to 20,817. The number of newspapers more than doubled; circulation itself increased threefold” (841). Things were going well for many American farmers and communities. And maybe this leads to the main point: after “1788 a new upward surge in grain and livestock prices ushered in a thirty-year period of prosperity” (840). Increased opportunity for American farmers, rather than a successful political settlement, insured the peace after 1787. Appleby stresses the idea that international demand for grain allowed farmers “to increase surpluses without giving up the basic structure of the family farm.” There was no wide, difficult transition from subsistence to commercial agriculture: farmers could remain diversified, meet their families' needs and still “could participate in the market with increasing profits without taking the risks associated with cash crops” (841). In a complete reversal of conventional wisdom, Appleby suggests “diversification, not specialization, held the key to raising crop yields and maintaining soil fertility...Economies of scale had no bearing” (842). To support this claim, she notes that “the wealth of the North surpassed that of the South for the first time in the period from 1774 to 1798,” before Northern industrialization.

Appleby goes on to make a case for the Jeffersonians’ belief in commercial agriculture, rather than some pristine pre-capitalist yeoman competency. A growth-oriented agricultural vision meshes better with Jefferson’s political program of western growth. She notes that “Hamilton’s response to the Louisiana Purchase” was that “the extension of America’s agricultural frontier...threatened to remove citizens from the coercive power of the state” (848). From this point (and in several later articles), the argument goes toward  interpretations of democratic versus federalist issues. The value of the argument, from my perspective, is that it suggests there was change in the way these Jeffersonian ideas have been understood. By the time the Populists called on Jefferson, America believed he had said something different. This may or may not be what Hofstadter says it was -- that will take more investigation. But long before the end of the nineteenth century, the myth was already in motion.

Not all farmers wanted the same things

Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State, 1877-1917
Elizabeth Sanders, 1999

Elizabeth Sanders argues that “agrarian movements constituted the most important political force driving the development of the American national state in the half century before World War I” (1). But she also says they didn't really get what they wanted.  This story has not been well told, she says, because of a “strong urban labor bias” among social historians, and because Marxist-derived social theory perceives the “industrial working class” as the only “significant constituency” opposing the state and its ruling “hegemonic capitalist class” (2). Sanders says “the dynamic stimulus for Populist and Progressive Era state expansion was the periphery agrarians’ drive to establish public control over a rampaging capitalism” (3-4). In 1910, “fewer than 9 percent of nonagricultural workers were members of trade unions,” so the agrarians were well-placed to drive their reform message into the mainstream (5). And they did just that, she says: “the Democratic Party of the post-1896 period was an overwhelmingly agrarian vehicle that carried the legacy of populism” (4). So why didn't farmers get what they had wanted?

Sanders argument is based on a very specific definition of agrarianism, that I think holds a lot of explanatory power. “The term ‘agrarian,’” she says, “is used here to reference those agricultural regions...that were devoted to one or two cash crops produced for national and international (as opposed to local) markets” (28). Sanders distinguishes these “peripheral” agrarians from the more prosperous, diversified farmers of perishable and “truck” products for local markets. It's interesting that the diversified farms, the ones that basically disappeared, are considered in this context as the strong, central farms, and the monoculturists we normally think of as the source of Populist criticism of railroads and flour monopolists was the shaky, "peripheral" group. Maybe they
did get what they wanted, at least in terms of moving to the center of the debate.

The more diversified “hinterland” farmers were dependent on their local urban markets, and their political behavior reflected this identification. In contrast, “periphery agrarians were more bound to the fate of a single crop (whose price was set in a world market), more distant from crop marketing, storage, and distribution centers; more likely to be dependent on a single rail line and monopolistic or oligopolistic purchasers,” in short, the powerless producers of undifferentiated staples we normally think of, when we read accounts of the farm movement.

For me, the really interesting element of the story might be this wedge Sanders opens between these different types of farmers, as well as between different types of cities. Centers that served rich agricultural areas (Minneapolis, Spokane, even Chicago) displayed different political patterns than eastern cities whose economies relied less on agriculture.  “Because of these differences in city functions, the urban-rural distinction
per se has limited explanatory power in American politics” (16). And farmers operating in the corn belt, responsible for “the greatest concentration of corn and meat production in the world,” clearly lived different lives and as a result had different political motivations from the diversified farmers. (17)  The fact that the South, “by virtue of its size and the intensity of its grievances...almost inevitably led the periphery voting bloc in Congress,” may be a clue to a relatively unexplored division between farmers (27). Rather than thinking of rural people as sharing a common agenda, maybe we should be looking for the differences of opinion and political priorities that caused some of their major organizations to adopt an apolitical stance.

Sanders suggests that political constituencies might be grouped like economic “trading areas,” citing Bensel’s
Sectionalism and American Political Development, and his use of Rand McNally trade area maps.  This seems like it might be a promising way to look at some of the issues I’m finding in my research, which covers a group of farmers and rural businessmen who seem to be left out of the traditional story of agrarian radicalism. She concludes that agrarian-labor coalitions failed because they were “rent by class, ethnic, and regional political economy differences that diminished their capacity for economic and political mobilization and--particularly in the case of southern racial segregation--their moral authority” (412). But most interesting, Sanders suggests that although the periphery agrarians naturally advocated national government action to right the wrongs of the production/distribution/finance system, they did not support the Progressive-style discretionary bureaucracy they ultimately got. They believed “Policy-making should not be the province of ‘experts’ socially and geographically far removed” from their constituents; it should be “local, decentralized, ad-hoc” (388-9). So the question (and the story waiting to be told) is, wanting what they wanted, how is it they got what they got?

The Founders' Temporary Republic

The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America
Drew R. McCoy, 1980

The basic premise of
The Elusive Republic is that the Jeffersonian Republicans, especially James Madison but even including Benjamin Franklin, thought they could use the frontier to substitute development across space for development over time.  In this way, America could be kept in a sort-of artificial infancy, forestalling the what these men, all familiar with classical antiquity, universally believed was the inevitable declension of republics into decadence. Their objective, says Drew McCoy, was to keep America in an intermediate state which they hoped would allow for commercialization without the corruption of public morals and dependence on imported luxuries they believed marked the beginning of the end for a republic. McCoy says the republicans were obsessed with personal virtue because they believed only a “Spartan” citizenry could maintain a republic. The irony, understood by only a few, was that in its attempt to keep people virtuous, Sparta had eliminated the freedoms and individual rights the republicans sought to protect.

McCoy begins with the very important observation that “Contemporary Americans all too often presume an unjustified familiarity with their Revolutionary forebears. It is easy to assume that our basic concerns were theirs, and especially that our understanding of the Revolution and its legacy accurately reflects the meaning and significance they attached to it...few acknowledge how frightening and even distasteful twentieth-century America might appear to the members of a Revolutionary generation” (5). This misunderstanding is due, he says, not only to the unimaginable changes that separate them and us, but also to the fact that they were knowingly engaged in an anachronistic, “poignant struggle to adapt the traditional, classical republican impulse to modern commercial society” (9). Since “The Revolutionaries lived during an age when a consideration of the normative dimension of economic life” was still expected, McCoy sets out to describe their attempt to “establish...a republican system of political economy in America” (7).
“American republicanism.” McCoy says, “must be understood as an ideology in transition” (10). It might also be described, to extend his train of thought, as a system idealists like Jefferson tried to apply to a reality they didn’t (and didn’t want to?) completely understand. Or, if one were cynical, it might be described as a political discourse, presented to a European audience (via Francois Marbois) wondering how America was going to arrange its affairs. Consider this famous description of yeoman virtue by plantation owner and noted deist, Thomas Jefferson:

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. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phaenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. It is the mark set on those, who not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry, as does the husbandman, for their subsistence, depend for it on the casualties and caprice of customers. Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition...generally speaking, the proportion which the aggregate of the other classes of citizens bears in any state to that of its husbandmen, is the proportion of its unsound to its healthy parts, and is a good-enough barometer to measure its degree of corruption. (Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia)

This is supposed to be the core statement of the Jeffersonian agrarian myth. But why should the breasts of farmers be the only possible “deposit for substantial and genuine virtue”? Is it only because Jefferson says so? Is that why he needs to resort to “God”? And “Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators...” He’s conveniently forgetting not only that he and his fellow Virginian cultivators own slaves, but that they own slaves specifically because they were not living in virtuous subsistence, but producing a staple crop for foreign commercial markets! And if his virtuous cultivators are actually the slaves, then there goes his whole republican formula.

“Dependence begets subservience,” is only a short step from some type of Rousseauvian belief that any social interaction is a “fall” from a pure state of nature. It’s not a state of nature Jefferson or any of his readers has ever seen. But back to McCoy. Republicans like Jefferson and George Mason, he says “never doubted that the natural sequence of social development would culminate inevitably in the form of society he feared” (16). It was the classical paradigm of declension, the fall, the feet-of-clay story. It's interesting, as McCoy notes, how these people are able to mix these ancient paradigms with “enlightenment” ideas from Hume and Adam Smith, in ways that seem unreasonable to us now. But I'm still not convinced these were actually beliefs these folks honestly held, rather than rhetorical devices they used.

McCoy spends some time defending Adam Smith, in an argument that seems to fit well with Joyce Appleby’s contributions to the “capitalist transition” debate. He says Smith both “emphatically approved of an advanced division of labor as the basis of continuing economic growth and social progress, [and] was also concerned with its concomitant tendency to relegate the laboring classes to a brutish existence that crippled their minds and bodies” (37). Smith is the smartest guy in McCoy's story, offering nuanced, qualified observations, such as his statement that under mercantilism, “the private interest of a part, and of a subordinate part of society” was taken to be “the general interest of the whole” (quoting
Wealth of Nations, 43). Other insights are provided by Franklin: “Manufactures are founded in is the multitude of poor without land in a country, and who must work for others at low wages or starve, that enables undertakers to carry on a manufacture” (quoting “The Interest of Great Britain Considered,” 51), and John Adams: “the balance of power in a society [parallels] the balance of property in land [so society must] make the acquisition of land easy to every member of society [or] make a division of land into small quantities, so that the multitude may be possessed of landed estates” (68).

McCoy suggests there was some “uneasy suspicion (and sometimes recognition) among the Revolutionaries that even predominantly agricultural America was already a relatively advanced commercial society” (70). They made practical distinctions, however, between “wealth that accrued through the perseverance of habitual industry” and the “sudden fortunes acquired through the manipulation and chicanery of speculators and stockjobbers” (85). This seems to go to the heart of the republican objection to Hamilton. After all, as Thomas Paine said, “Our plan is commerce, and that, well attended to, will secure us the peace and friendship of all Europe” (quoting
Common Sense, 89). But did anybody really think you could build a nation on commerce and not create fortunes?

The cause of America’s problems, in McCoy’s story, was the new nation’s inability to sell its agricultural surpluses freely in Europe and the West Indies. In this sense, Britain nearly defeated the new American republic by causing a political crisis that split the founding generation into republican and federalist partisans. Jefferson and Madison’s idea of “developing across space rather than through time” depended on both the availability of a frontier and the “ability of new settlers to get their surpluses to market” (121-2). The Embargo and attempts to eliminate foreign luxuries and focus on domestic manufacture of “necessaries” raise interesting questions about the role of government in economic development. McCoy reminds the reader that even Hamilton insisted “the development of advanced manufactures in America would require extensive government encouragement” (quoting the “Report on Manufactures,” 159). He concludes that the republicans’ revolution, the “escape from time,” had always been understood by Madison as temporary (259). At some point, the frontier would close. By his 1815 annual message, Madison had begun explicitly supporting “manufacturing establishments...of the more complicated kind” (245). Was this Madison’s  acknowledgement of the basic mismatch between classical republicanism and nineteenth century America? Was it a political victory for the capitalists and their cronies in professional government? Maybe the defining moment, in political changes like the demise of agrarian republicanism and its reappearance as an American myth, is not when the other guys finally win out, but when its proponents give it up.