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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
In the very hours of its birth as a nation Crèveceur had congratulated America for having, in effect, no feudal past and no industrial present, for having no royal, aristocratic, ecclesiastical, or monarchial power, and no manufacturing class, and had rapturously concluded: “We are the most perfect society now existing in the world.” Here was the irony from which the farmer suffered above all others: the United States was the only country in the world that began with perfection and aspired to progress.
To what extent was the agrarian myth actually false? During the colonial period, and even well down into the Nineteenth Century, there were in fact large numbers of farmers who were very much like the yeomen idealized in the myth. They were independent and sellsufficient, and they bequeathed to their children a strong love of craltsmanlike improvisation and a firm tradition of household industry. These yeomen were all too often yeomen by force of circumstance. They could not become commercial farmers because they were too far from the rivers or the towns, because the roads were too poor for bulky traffic, because the domestic market for agricultural produce was too small and the overseas markets were out of reach. At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, when the American population was still living largely in the forests and most of it was east of the Appalachians, the yeoman farmer did exist in large numbers, living much as the theorists of the agrarian myth portrayed him.
But when the yeoman practiced the self-sufficient economy that was expected of him, he usually did so not because he wanted to stay out of the market but because he wanted to get into it. “My farm,” said a farmer of Jefferson’s time, “gave me and my family a good living on the produce of it; and left me, one year with another, one hundred and fifty dollars, for I have never spent more than ten dollars a year, which was for salt, nails, and the like. Nothing to wear, eat, or drink was purchased, as my farm provided all. With this saving, J put money to interest, bought cattle, fatted and sold them, and made great profit.” Great profit! Here was the significance of sell-sufficiency for the characteristic family farmer. Commercialism had already begun to enter the American Arcadia.
For, whatever the spokesman of the agrarian myth might have told him, the farmer almost anywhere in early America knew that all around him there were examples of commercial success in agriculture—the tobacco, rice, and indigo, and later the cotton planters of the South, the grain, meat, and cattle exporters of the middle states.
The farmer knew that without cash he could never rise above the hardships and squalor of pioneering and log-cabin life. So the savings from his selfsulficiency went into improvements—into the purchase of more land, of herds and flocks, of better tools; they went into the building of barns and silos and better dwellings. Self-sufficiency, in short, was adopted for a time in order that it would eventually be unnecessary.
Between 1815 and 1860 the character of American agriculture was transformed. The rise of native industry created a home market for agriculture, while demands arose abroad for American cotton and foodstuffs, and a great network of turnpikes, canals, and railroads helped link the planter and the advancing western farmer to the new markets. As the farmer moved out of the forests onto the flat, rich prairies, he found possibilities for machinery that did not exist in the forest. Before long he was cultivating the prairies with horse- drawn mechanical reapers, steel plows, wheat and corn drills, and threshers.
The farmer was still a hardworking man, and he still owned his own land in the old tradition. But no longer did he grow or manufacture almost everything he needed. He concentrated on the cash crop, bought more and more of his supplies from the country store. To take full advantage of the possibilities of mechanization, he engrossed as much land as he could and borrowed money for his land and machinery. The shift from self-sufficient to commercial farming varied in time throughout the West and cannot be dated with precision, but it was complete in Ohio by about 1830 and twenty years later in Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan. All through the great Northwest, farmers whose lathers might have lived in isolation and sell-sufficiency were surrounded by jobbers, banks, stores, middlemen, horses, and machinery.
This transformation affected not only what the farmer did but how he felt. The ideals of the agrarian myth were competing in his breast, and gradually losing ground, to another, even stronger ideal, the notion of opportunity, of career, of the self-made man. Agrarian sentiment sanctified labor in the soil and the simple life; but the prevailing Calvinist atmosphere of rural life implied that virtue was rewarded with success and material goods. Even farm boys were taught to strive for achievement in one form or another, and when this did not take them away from the farms altogether, it impelled them to follow farming not as a way of life but as a carrer —that is, as a way of achieving substantial success.