Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Creation of Agricultural Science

Along with the Homestead Acts, the Morrill Act of 1862 also created a lasting impact on U.S. agrarianism.  Most of the farmland opened up to the homesteaders would be worthless to these unemployed city dwellers, who had not been raised around farming.  Consequently, the Morrill Act was proposed as a method to educate these aspiring agrarians.  The act gave a portion of public land in each state for the creation of a state college which would house a school of agriculture to educate the newly-formed ranks of independent farmers.  These are the modern land-grant universities, who continue to hold their position of federally-backed agricultural programs tightly.

Over the past 150 years these land-grant universities have transformed the age-old idea of farming as "husbandry" into one of "agricultural science."  The topic of "animal husbandry" has become "animal science."  "Soil husbandry" has become "soil science."  Husbandry had always been understood as the caretaking of a particular piece of property or livestock, a relationship between a man and his land and animals.  Historically it also connoted the importance of conserving farmland for future generations, so you could hand your farm down to children and grandchildren.  However, the universities took a more Darwinian outlook that tried to separate man from his environment.  The agricultural schools became, knowingly or not, a way to put farmers out of business.  It is in the nature of most academics to push their most promising students into a university, a government bureau, or agri-business, not to become independent landowners.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Homestead Acts

The tension between who had the more virtuous lifestyle, Northern or Southern States, continued right up to the brink of the Civil War.  Most Southerners compared the lot of the Northern industrial workers to their own slaves.  In true Jeffersonian tradition, they insisted that the abolitionists were no better than slaves in their bondage to a paycheck and an employer.  Their arguments seemed justified when in 1857 the economy collapsed and unemployment in the factory cities ran high.  While campaigning for the Presidency, Abraham Lincoln described his vision of a system whereby unemployed factory workers could gain their own land and become self-employed, yeomen farmers--an idea that grew into the Homestead Acts of the 1860s.  The Republican Party platform in the election of 1860 endorsed the homestead measures, which were personally written by the newspaperman Horace Greeley, and Lincoln became his poster child for the Republican cause.  He was referred to as the "child of labor" who proved that "honest industry and toil" were rewarded in the northern economy.  The Republicans together agreed that the best opportunity for the poor was to get them out of the cities and into the farmland. 

Unfortunately, the self-sufficient dream of many homesteaders disappeared.  Very few of the poor from the cities could take advantage of the Homestead Acts--most of those involved in the Western expansion were wealthy, entrepreneurial farmers who wanted more land.  They received the land for free, built it up, and re-sold the land for a huge profit.  Also, because of the rise of industrial agriculture, production was rising as well.  This increased the costs of farming, which effectively shut out a profitable business to those unemployed city workers trying to convert to the farming lifestyle.  Those who did receive land had to rely on banks for credit in outfitting their farms, and the ensuing debts drove many out of business within a generation.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Middle Class, Farming, and the Republican Party

Besides the formation of the USDA in 1862, other federal laws were enacted in the 19th century to preserve the agrarian way of life.  Horace Greeley, the famous newspaper editor and Presidential candidate, once stated that a country without agriculture "can rarely boast a substantial intelligent and virtuous yeomanry...It may have wealthy Capitalists and Merchants, but never a numerous Middle Class."  Greeley was one of the founders of the Republican Party, which was formed to preserve agrarianism in the Northern states.  However, the Republicans did not believe, like Jefferson, that industry was antithetical to the virtuous farming life, but argued that moral development would follow material development.

The Republican Party was formed from a group of former Democrats and Whigs who were united under the Free Soil Party.  The Free Soil Party existed to promote the idea of free labor in the North (as opposed to slavery in the South).  The Free Soilers promoted the rapid expansion of Western territories in order to provide more land for free farmers.  They believed these farmers would provide a protection against the expansion of slavery by creating a "middle class," which was a new term at the time.  U.S. Representative Thaddeus Stevens stated while addressing Congress, "The middling classes who own the soil, and work it with their own hands are the main support of every free government."  Charles Francis Adams, a congressman and the grandson of John Adams, stated "the middling class...equally far removed from the temptations of great wealth and of extreme destitution, provided the surest defense of democratic principles."

Instead of a moral agrarianism, the preservation of the middle class became the foundation for morality and democracy.  Many from the Whig Party and the Democrat Party were divided on issues such as economics and abolitionism, but this position united those them, and eventually formed the basis of the Republican Party platform.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Industrial Revolution

The United States was, then, founded as an "agrarian republic" at the end of the 18th century.  Although many did not realize it at the time, this was the twilight of agrarianism as a way of life for the western world.  George Washington so believed in the goodness of agrarianism that he proposed an office for an agricultural advisor to the President in an address to Congress in 1796.  This suggestion would not be realized until Millard Fillmore proposed the formation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1851 in a speech to Congress.  The USDA would still not come into existence until Fillmore's bill arrived on Abraham Lincoln's desk in 1862.  This establishment of agriculture in the federal government was likely a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, which had begun to change the entire make-up of society.  Thomas Jefferson noted this, as he saw the rise of industrialism in the northern colonies, which was why he desired to place the new capitol of the United States in the agrarian, Southern states.

However, even Jefferson did not foresee the dramatic changes that took place in society during the 19th century.  Ernest Nathan Manning, the agrarian author, states in his thesis on the sources of ancient Greek and Hebrew agrarianism, "It seems that because all civilized societies were agricultural until the Industrial Revolution, that figures of all stripes--academic, literary, and otherwise--often took it for granted."  There were some ways in which industry aided agrarianism, the yields that a tractor could give over a horse-drawn plow could make even a small farmer productive and wealthy.  As well, a steam engine could open up markets to those who lived far from the farm.  However, the fundamental change the revolution was bringing frightened many people.  It was their reactionary moves against industry that eventually had the opposite effect, and drove the 19th century out of farms and into the cities.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

And Lastly, John Adams

John Adams was a much smaller-scale farmer than his contemporaries Washington and Jefferson.  His modest 500-acre farm was tiny compared to their large plantations.  However, he enjoyed the farming life every bit as much, and saw the value in working his own land over arguing politics in Philadelphia.  Abigail Adams said that he would not have been able to handle his political life if it were not for the distraction of farm work.  Adams wrote in a letter to Jefferson in the summer of 1796, "I have spent my summer so deliciously in farming that I return to the old story of politicks with great reluctance."  His farm was a retreat from the Constitutional Convention.  When frustrated with hours of political debate his stated, "My time might have been improved to some purpose in moving grass, raking hay, or hoeing corn, weeding carrots, picking or shelling peas."  Even after Adams was elected president he stated, "I should prefer the delights of a garden to the Dominion of a World."

Throughout his political life Adams used the skills he had learned on the farm to inform his public decisions.  In his book A Defence of the Constitution of the Government of the United States of America, he discusses how the insights he had gained as a farmer influenced his political theory.  For example, when driving a wagon down a steep hill he would put one team of oxen in front and another in back to counterbalance the load.  This division of powers inspired his thinking on the separation of powers in the branches of the U.S. government.  Also, in his home state of Massachusetts Adams tried to include rewards for agriculture in the state constitution.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Washington the Farmer

George Washington was also a firm believer in the virtuousness of farming.  He maintained, with Jefferson, that American agriculture was the key to avoiding the decadence and moral corruption of Europe.  The man who had been compared to the Roman Cincinnatus, in his peaceful abdication of power and return to his farm, hoped that the U.S. would become an agrarian republic and "a storehouse and granary for the world." 

Washington loved his own farm and created many innovations to further keep the U.S. from becoming dependent on other countries.  For example, he planted his home, Mt. Vernon, in all native species, which was highly unusual at that time among the colonists.  He had also noticed that colonial soil was losing its fertillity because the fields lacked manure.  American farmers let their livestock wander in the forests instead of on fallow fields.  Washington invented a manure container to store and rotate manure for spreading on the fields in the spring.

Even when president, Washington would state: "I can truly say I had rather be at Mt. Vernon than to be attended at the seat of government by the officers of state and representatives of every power in Europe."  After his retirement from the presidency, Washington separated his farm into large plots and leased each plot out in order to reduce the number of slaves on his plantation, and he grouped his slaves together with their families so nobody was split up.  He was also the only founding father who freed all his slaves upon his death.  Washington saw the future of the United States in free, landowning farmers.  As Andrea Wulf states in her book Founding Gardeners:

"The Commander-in-Chief [Washington] saw the future of America as a country peopled not by soldiers but by farmers--an agrarian society that could be industrious and happy, where 'our swords and spears have given place to the plough share and the pruning hook.'  The general who had defeated the British army idealized not the military tactician or the political revolutionary, but the farmer. 'The life of a husbandman above all others is the most delectable.'"