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The Myth Of The Happy Yeoman
Changing times have revolutionised rural life in America, but the legend built up in the old days remains a powerful force
April 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 3
Throughout the Nineteenth Century hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of farm-born youths sought their careers in the towns and cities. Particularly alter 1840, which marked the beginning of a long cycle of heavy country-to-city migration, farm children repudiated their parents’ way of life and took oil for the cities where, in agrarian theory if not in fact, they were sure to succumb to vice and poverty.
When a correspondent of the Prairie Farmer in 1849 made the mistake of praising the luxuries, the “polished society,” and the economic opportunities of the city, he was rebuked for overlooking the fact that city life “ crushes, enslaves , and ruins so many thousands of our young men who are insensibly made the victims of dissipation , of reckless speculation , and of ultimate crime .” Such warnings, of course, were futile. “Thousands of young men,” wrote the New York agriculturist Jesse Buel, “do annually forsake the plough, and the honest profession of their fathers, if not to win the fair, at least form an opinion, too often confirmed by mistaken parents, that agriculture is not the road to wealth, to honor, nor to happiness. And such will continue to be the case, until our agriculturists become qualified to assume that rank in society to which the importance of their calling, and their numbers, entitle them, and which intelligence and self-respect can alone give them.”
Rank in society! That was close to the heart of the matter, for the farmer was beginning to realize acutely not merely that the best of the world’s goods were to be had in the cities and that the urban middle and upper classes had much more of them than he did but also that he was losing in status and respect as compared with them. He became aware that the official respect paid to the farmer masked a certain disdain felt by many city people. “There has … a certain class of individuals grown up in our land,” complained a farm writer in 1835, “who treat the cultivators of the soil as an inferior caste … whose utmost abilities are confined to the merit of being able to discuss a boiled potato and a rasher of bacon.” The city was symbolized as the home of loan sharks, dandies, lops, and aristocrats with European ideas who despised farmers as hayseeds.
The growth of the urban market intensified this antagonism. In areas like colonial New England, where an intimate connection had existed between the small town and the adjacent countryside, where a community of interests and even of occupations cut across the town line, the rural-urban hostility had not developed so sharply as in the newer areas where the township plan was never instituted and where isolated farmsteads were more common. As settlement moved west, as urban markets grew, as self-sufficient farmers became rarer, as farmers pushed into commercial production for the cities they feared and distrusted, they quite correctly thought of themselves as a vocational and economic group rather than as members of a neighborhood. In the Populist era the city was totally alien territory to many farmers, and the primacy of agriculture as a source of wealth was reasserted with much bitterness. “The great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies,” declared Bryan in his “Cross of Gold” speech. “Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms, and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.” Out of the beliefs nourished by the agrarian myth there had arisen the notion that the city was a parasitical growth on the country. Bryan spoke for a people raised for generations on the idea that the farmer was a very special creature, blessed by God, and that in a country consisting largely of farmers the voice of the farmer was the voice of democracy and of virtue itself.
The agrarian myth encouraged farmers to believe that they were not themselves an organic part of the whole order of business enterprise and speculation that flourished in the city, partaking of its character and sharing in its risks, but rather the innocent pastoral victims of a conspiracy hatched in the distance. The notion of an innocent and victimized populace colors the whole history of agrarian controversy.
For the farmer it was bewildering, and irritating too, to think of the great contrast between the verbal deference paid him by almost everyone and the real economic position in which he l’on ml himself. Improving his economic position was always possible, though this was often clone too little and too late; but it was not within anyone’s power to stem the decline in the rural values and pieties, the gradual rejection of the moral commitments that had been expressed in the early exaltations of agrarianism.
It was the late of the farmer himself to contribute to this decline. Like almost all good Americans he had innocently sought progress from the very beginning, and thus hastened the decline of many of his own values. Elsewhere the rural classes had usually looked to the past, had been bearers of tradition and upholders of stability. The American farmer looked to the future alone, and the story of the American land became a study in futures.