Thursday, March 28, 2013

More Founding Farmers

Thomas Jefferson was also fully aware of the revolutionary connotations of the ancient Roman concept of agrarianism, and embraced them.  He was an admirer of the French Revolution, and even tried to include in the Virginia Constitution a statement that every free person in the state was entitled to an equal share of 50 acres of land.  His reasoning was that "the small landholders are the most precious part of a state."

Conversely, Alexander Hamilton's desire to industrialize the United States eventually caused him to part ways with his fellow Federalist, James Madison, who was also a farmer.  Madison then joined ideological forces with Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson believed that merchants and manufacturing laborers were not as tied to their country as farmers, and was so shocked at the industrialization of the Northern states that, as early as 1816, he thought the South should secede.  He made sure that Washington, D.C. would be placed in the South in an attempt to keep it far from New York and the other industrialized, corrupt Northern cities.

As president, Jefferson proceeded with the Louisiana Purchase because it ensured that enough farming land would be available to keep America virtuous, and not become centered on manufacturing and industrialism.  Lewis and Clark's exploration of the new territory would also make them emissaries from Jefferson, as part of their mission was to encourage the Native American tribes to settle down and become farmers.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


Over the next 100 years the importance of productive, privately-held land ownership became a backbone of  the United States.  Nearly all of the founding fathers, those who had a hand in the Constitution and the federal government, were farmers who believed in the ethical value of using private land productively and were suspicious of the moral laxity of cities and the wastefulness of industry.  Classically educated, they drew their inspiration from ancient Greek and Roman traditions of the moral small farmer, as well as the Protestant work ethic, and the political ideas of John Locke.

Thomas Jefferson quoted Hesiod by saying in one of his letters that "cultivators of the earth are the most vigorous, and the most independent, the most virtuous [of men]."  Although we now view Jefferson as somewhat of a Renaissance Man, with interests across the board, he saw himself as a farmer.  In his own words, "I have made researches into nothing but what is connected to agriculture.  I am entirely a farmer, soul and body."  He believed that "agriculture is the surest road to affluence and best preservative of morals."  In fact, Jefferson's belief in the virtue of farming was so strong that he believed only farmers should be elected to Congress because they were "the true representatives of the great American interest."  Everything that was morally superior in the world, Jefferson believed, was derived from the productive use of private property.  John Locke's Two Treatises of Government was Jefferson's inspiration for the Declaration of Independence.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Yeoman Colonists

The English Separatists finally left Holland for North America, and their boat, The Mayflower, landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620.  Their governor, William Bradford, discusses in his diary, Of Plymouth Plantation, the living conditions in this early colony.  In fact, the colonists first attempted a communistic society, where all property was held in common.  However, this encouraged laziness among the colonists and, as a result, many pilgrims starved.  The plantation was then divided up into private property, with each colonist owning and working his own farm, which greatly increased their productivity.

Similarly, only 8 years later, another fleet of ships began to arrive in Massachusetts.  This was the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which had most of New England under their authority.  Over 20,000 settlers arrived, mostly Puritans, to found their "city on a hill" in the New World.  At least 60% of these settlers made their living directly from the land as farmers, husbandmen, herders, or hunters.  An extremely small percentage of these settlers were any type of nobility.

The overwhelming majority of the early American settlers were small landowners and farmers who had no ties to the noble class.  They were mostly Protestant, due to the influence of Wycliffe and Tyndale and their Bibles, and were known in their homeland by the English class of yeomen.  Such was the effect of the yeoman class emigrating to North America that the American Heritage Dictionary published in 1828 defines the word yeomanry as "the collective body of yeomen or freeholders.  Thus the common people in America are called the yeomanry."

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Pilgrims

In 1620 a group of English Separatists came to settle on the Eastern Coast of North America.  These families were those who were opposed to the current Church of England, not believing that the Protestant Reformation had gone far enough in the church.  They desired to separate from the state church, with its head being the king, to form other churches--an act which was illegal.  The persecution they suffered for their theology led them to look for another homeland, which was originally Holland.  The pilgrims settled there, but could not make themselves at home.  One of their governors, William Bradford, describes their troubles this way:

"For these reformers to be thus constrained to leave their native soil, their lands and livings, and all their friends, was a great sacrifice, and was wondered at by many.  But to go to a country unknown to them, where they must learn a new language, and get their livings they knew not how, seemed an almost desparate adventure, and a misery worse than death.  Further, they were unacquainted with trade, which was the chief industry of their adopted country, having been used only to a plain country life and the innocent pursuit of farming."

These English pilgrims were mostly yeomen, who became part of the Protestant Reformation through the Wycliffe and Tyndale Bible translations.  Since they could not make a home in Holland, they began to look elsewhere, and much further abroad.  Since they were farmers, they were not used to a merchant-driven, city culture.  Even more worrying to them was the state of their young people.  Again Bradford states:

"But still more lamentable, and of all sorrows most heavy to be bourne, was that many of the children, influenced by these conditions, and the great licentiousness of the young people in the country, and the many temptations of the city, were led by evil example into dangerous courses, getting the reigns off their necks and leaving their parents."

These farmers' children were being led astray in the big city, so their parents decided to look to settle elsewhere, even turning to the wilderness of North America. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Thomas Paine and Agrarian Justice

One hundred years after John Locke died, his views on private property came under fire from Thomas Paine.  Paine had been born in England, but emigrated to America in 1774 in order to leave his wife.  His well-known tract, Common Sense, aided fuel to the American War for Independence; but his later interest in the French Revolution led to his writing the pamphlet Agrarian Justice

The French Revolutionaries desired to take the revolutionary notions of the ancient Roman agrarianism and apply them to their new society.  The months of the year were re-named using agrarian terms and saint's days were turned into agrarian holidays, like "Harvest."  Paine wrote Agrarian Justice in 1795, in the aftermath of the revolution in 1789, and his article was read widely by the French.  He titled his work "agrarian justice" instead of "agrarian law," which would be the forced, equal redistribution of property, as in the ancient Roman Lex Sempronia Agraria.  After the fall of Robespierre, the French National Convention had approved the death penalty for anyone proposing "agrarian law," so Paine needed a more fitting title.

Paine begins by arguing that there are two kinds of property: natural and artificial.  Natural is the right to land, air, and water; which he insists every human being is born into.  He says that artificial property is that which is bought and acquired by man.  He states, similarly to Locke, that the earth is the natural, common property of all mankind and that the cultivation of agriculture is what marks property as being owned by a particular individual.  However, contrary to Locke, he does not believe that this is inherited by the right of a king, since we are descendants of Adam.  Instead Paine argues for economics: that the wealthy who can cultivate more, own more.  Therefore, Paine proposes that those who are rich in property should pay an income tax to the poor.  This is what he calls agrarian justice, but is extremely similar to the ancient Roman agrarianism.

Friday, March 15, 2013

John Locke and Private Property

The fallout from Tyndale's Bible translation led to possibly the first time in history when commoners took center stage.  Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, John Milton, and John Bunyan were all inheritors of this educated middle class of yeomen farmers, which was something in which Puritan theology reveled.  One of the main points of the Reformation included the concept of vocation, which honored the calling of every man to his labor, not just those who served in the church.

Another Puritan writer of the 17th century was the young John Locke.  Educated at Oxford as well, Locke didn't enjoy much of his studies there, especially his education in the classics of Greece and Rome.  Locke found the new philosophers, such as Rene Descartes, far more interesting.  He also enjoyed politics and wrote a treatise against absolute monarchy, forming the idea that government must be by the consent of the governed.  In his Two Treatises of Government he argued that everyone had the right to defend his "life, liberty, health, and possession," which is likely the source for Thomas Jefferson's line in the Declaration of Independence to state the human rights as "life, liberty, and happiness."  In fact, Jefferson says in his letters that "Bacon, Locke, and Newton...I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception."

Locke has also been credited with forming the first argument for private property.  Once again in his Two Treatises he reasons that only a king can possess land.  Therefore, since God created the earth and gave it to the king of the human race, Adam, the land is given to all his descendants by right.  In one way, this is merely applying the Puritan doctrine of vocation to the owning of property.  This property, Locke states, was given to man by God for him to enjoy.  Man does not have the right to spoil or destroy property that was given to him for enjoyment.

What, then, makes man entitled to a specific piece of property, as opposed to land held in the "common state of nature?"  Locke argues that labor is what makes private property.  If a man picks acorns off a tree in the forest, by what right does he eat them?  What makes them his acorns?  Locke states that his labor for the acorns constitutes ownership.  In the same way, Locke also insists that the Native Americans had private property.  When a man went hunting, what made the deer his own property to dispense with as he pleased?  Again, Locke answers, his labor.  Therefore, what nature has in common (land), can be owned by a particular individual through labor.  This argument was still used up through the U.S. Homestead Act, and even our current eminent domain laws in determining the ownership of property.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Tyndale and British Lit

The yeoman class continued to grow in wealth and landholdings up through the 17th century.  At this point many yeoman farmers had their own servants and enough landholdings to lease to gentleman and others of the noble class.  However, the cost to purchase patronage was so expensive that most yeoman farmers remained commoners, which lead to a sizeable middle class.  These were the first land-owning small farmers who could support themselves but were not part of the nobility.  Soon the work of John Wycliffe would be picked up again, which further educated these middle class farmers.

William Tyndale was born in Wales in the 1490s and attended Oxford while still a teenager.  While attending the university Tyndale became familiar with the arguments of both Martin Luther and Erasmus, and could argue their cases from Scripture.  Tyndale would argue tenants of the Reformation before the local priests, who were ashamed by this young man's knowledge and study.  Their resentment led to plot against him with a charge of heresy, so Tyndale fled the country, heading to London, then Germany (where he met Luther), and finally to The Netherlands.  Tyndale saw that many problems in the church were tied to the fact that the common people couldn't read God's Word for themselves.  As both a Greek and Hebrew scholar, Tyndale set to work on translating the Bible from the original languages, unlike Wycliffe's reliance upon the Latin Vulgate for translation.  Foxe says that Tyndale knew, "if the Scripture were turned into the vulgar speech, that the poor people might read and see the simple plain Word of God."  Since Tyndale was working after the invention of the printing press, his work was readily available to the common man.

After his martyrdom in 1536, Tyndale's Bible translation did arguably more to educate the yeoman class than anything else in British history.  The common people were equipped, literally and theologically, to be not only a part of the coming religious reformation, but of the entire literary work of 17th century England, from the King James Bible to Shakespeare, which was largely done by the common people.  Within only a couple of generations Tyndale's vision for the British people would be realized when he stated, "If God spares my life, ere many years I would cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of Scripture than I do."

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Reformational Farmers

At this point another, parallel movement, became essential in the development of the yeomanry as an influential class in England.  John Wycliffe was born in 1324 and was sent to school at Queen's College, Oxford, to prepare to be a cleric.  At this point the local classes of mendicant friars had become a nuisance at the university because of their laziness.  Occasionally fights would break out between the clerics and the scholars, with the clerics appealing to papal authority, and the scholars appealing to the local civil authority.  Wycliffe used his position at Oxford to write against the friars, and was so successful that he was promoted to a master of Baliol College.  Later Wycliffe was elected to the chair of divinity at Oxford, and continued to use his position to preach against the errors of the Roman Catholic church, especially the moral laxity of the priests and superstitutions of the church.  Because of his teaching the Archbishop of Canterbury deposed him of his office.

However, Wycliffe had friends in high places and the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt, restored him to his position, where he continued his preaching.  He also began translating the Bible into English.  Those who read his works and followed his teachings were called the Lollards, which was originally used as a derogatory term.  The word lollard possibly comes from a Middle Dutch word meaning "mutterer."  They were mostly uneducated men, peasants and farmers, who distributed Wycliffe's  English Bible among the commoners.  The popularity of this translation became so widespread that the ecclesiastical government of England offered a death sentence for anyone possessing it.  Wycliffe was going to be tried for heresy, so he escaped to the country to hide.  His writings had become so popular at this point that "it was said if you met two persons upon the road, you might be sure that one was a Lollard" (John Foxe's Book of Martyrs).  The more active the bishops were in suppressing the Wycliffe Bible, the more intent commoners were on obtaining it.  When the Lollards were martyred many were burned with the scraps of Sciprture around their neck that were found on their person when arrested.

Wycliffe's translation of the Bible into the vernacular caused the most common people in England to become familiar with the words of Scripture, and by and large these were yeoman farmers.  In many cases these free landholders knew their Bibles better than the clerics who were in their charge, which led to the situation that the Puritan historian John Foxe proudly noted: "Great Britain has the honor of taking the lead, the first maintaining that freedom in religious controversy which astonished Europe, and demonstrated that political and religious liberty are equally the growth of that favored island."

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Yeomanry

The history of the word "yeoman" is mysterious, but possibly comes from the Middle English or Germanic word for "young man."  The word originated in the 14th century, tied to the rise of the small, free-tenant farmers of the manor.  The Puritan historian Joseph Gardner Bartlett states that the term yeoman came to mean, "a man who farmed for his own benefit, by his own labor and that of hired laborers, lands which he held by copyhold leases of manorial lords."  These "copyhold leases" were basically rental agreements with the lord, designating the duties of the yeoman, as well as who would inherit his lease after he died.

Since yeomen weren't required to serve in the lord's army, their families did not have any coats-of-arms.  The yeoman class grew into a sizeable portion of the British peasantry, and by the end of the 14th century the Canon's Yeoman's Tale is included in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

The yeomanry continues to grow during the late middle ages as the free, land-owning commoner goes through the Protestant Reformation, and will become instrumental in the foundation of the United States.  Webster's 1828 American Heritage Dictionary defines "yeomanry" as "the collective body of yeomen or freeholders.  The common people in America are called the yeomanry."

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Feudal England

Any discussion of the importance of the ancient world and its connection to modern European and American cultures has to include Alfred the Great.  He was crowned King of Wessex, England, in 871 AD and became famous for his defeats of the Danish Viking invaders.

Alfred was also famous for re-writing Anglo-Saxon law.  At this point, most of the law in Wessex was a jumble of different rules laid down by various kings and chieftains.  Since most noblemen and judges were illiterate, this code of laws was basically useless, and ended up favoring the powerful and influential.  Alfred set about making his own law book, which was largely based on quotations of Old Testament law.

Alfred's government saw the rise of Medieval feudal society in England.  Since his rule united a great majority of the British isles into what we now understand to be called, "English," his law also became the standard for the majority of those people.  Following the Norman conquest of 1066, the manors of England had three main classes of caretakers for about 250 years.  The first were a small percentage of free tenants.  These were mostly of Norman descent and paid rent to their lords.  They had to serve in the lord's army, but didn't have to work the lord's land.  They had their own rights and weren't bound to a particular manor.

The largest percentage of English medieval freeman were villeins, who were mostly of Anglo-Saxon or Danish descent.  The term "villein" comes from the Old French word vilein, meaning serf.  Villeins were born into their class and lived in cottages on the lord's land.  They could not leave the lord's manor without permission and had to work his land two-thirds of the days of the year.  They were subject to taxation and had to render services to the lord of the manor.  Their small congregations of dwellings became "villages."

The last, and smallest, class of medieval manor-dwellers were the bondsmen.  These were basically indentured servants who had to work for the lord without pay in exchange for room and board.  This was slavery, but for a definite period of time, usually to pay off debts.

However, the Black Death arrived in the 14th century, which changed the make-up of feudalism dramatically.  The plague killed half the population of England alone, which le to a massive labor shortage.  The land still needed to be farmed to feed the survivors, so after 1350, most of the medieval villeins became full tenants of the lord's property and paid him rent.  The villeins were freed up of their obligations to the lord himself, and opened the process for their children to become free tenants as well.  This quickly-growing class became the Yeomen.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The First Agrarians

Cincinnatus' fears of the plebs and their laws eventually came to fruition about 300 years after his death.  The plebian Caius Tiberius Gracchus was elected tribune in 133 BC.  Plutarch says that Caius was at first bad-tempered and lazy, but he trained himself to be an eloquent speaker and was elected as treasurer in Sardinia, which was where he learned to work hard and apply himself.  He later returned to Rome and was elected tribune.

Because of ongoing civil war in Rome, many men had been absent from their farms for years.  Small farms were going bankrupt and being bought up by the wealthy, which became conglomerated into huge, private estates.  Plutarch says that when Tiberius was traveling in the outlying districts he "found the country almost depopulated and its husbandmen and shepherds imported barbarian slaves."  It was after seeing this that he "first conceived the policy which was to be the source of countless ills to himself and to his brother."

In at attempt to help the poor he proposed a new policy, including a law known as Lex Sempronia Agraria.  In dealing with public land, which was land that had been conquered in war, the current law stated that no individual could own more than 500 jugera (about 125 hectares), but that law had been ignored for generations.  Tiberius' law stated that landowners could keep 250 jugera above the legal limit and that the state would buy back any land they had to forfeit.  However, much of the land in question was held by landowners who owned far larger portions than that.  In addition, much of that land had been leased, rented, or re-sold in portions, sometimes for generations of families.  The Lex stated that all the surplus land had to be re-distributed, at 30 jugeras per household, for each of the poor and homeless families in Rome.  This amount of land would also be just enough to make those poor eligible for taxation by the Roman government.  Tiberius then bypassed the Roman Senate and brought his law to the Popular Assembly for approval.  Soon after when the King of Pergamum died and left his entire country to the state of Rome, he moved in to use this land to fund his law.  The Senate accused Tiberius of aspiring to become king himself and brought him to trial.  The trial quickly got out of hand and Tiberius was beaten to death along with several of his followers.  Their bodies were thrown into the Tiber River.

It was the Lex Sempronia Agraria that gave us our modern term "agrarian," and the resulting political fallout also lent to the term its revolutionary connotations.  The idea of using farmland as a social leveling tool by the government persisted up through the French Revolution of 1789.  Those revolutionary agrarians insisted on re-instituting the agrarian law to re-distribute farmland among the poor in the cities.  Thomas Jefferson admired this tactic and both he and James Madison believed that the moral superiority of farming was essential to sustaining American democracy.