Friday, October 5, 2012

Cultivating upward mobility

Once upon a time, the self-made man was first and foremost a farmer

The following post is part of a series on the history of the self-made man in American history.

Though not material things, dreams are mortal ones. It is individuals who imagine alternative realities, but their scenarios are shaped by collective circumstances in a society at large. Changed conditions can alter, even destroy, dreams, either because the goal is no longer attainable as a goal (no one today can hope to become the first person to walk on the moon, or premier of the Soviet Union), or because competing dreams seem more alluring. History in this sense is a story about the way possibilities change.
            There was a time—centuries long—when the most common incarnation of the self-made man in America was that of the independent yeoman farmer. Neither the dream nor the reality of the autonomous stakeholder was invented in the English North America. But by the time it entered the European colonial sweepstakes, England had gone farther than most nations in giving such people a real stake in its political system, even if the compass of such enfranchisement was from our point of view appallingly narrow (limited to propertied men).  It was in those colonies where the dream of the yeoman became a tantalizingly realistic one on these shores for a growing number of immigrants who came in search of it. The dream was neither especially tantalizing nor realistic for the indigenous people who were already here (insofar as Native men of the Atlantic seaboard could be self-made, it was not through farming, which was widely regarded as women’s work). Nor were male-headed family farms the norm: most colonial workers were indentured servants, slaves, tenants, or sharecroppers who tilled somebody else’s soil. But the appeal of owning a farm was so powerful that even those facing significant structural barriers still sought to acquire one, a few actually managing to do so. By the mid-nineteenth century, the yeoman farmer had become the most commonly articulated and realized form of the self-made man, one its supporters championed as uniquely valid and worthy of political protection.
One reason such protection was considered necessary, though, is because there were widespread fears—largely justified, as it turned out—that the yeoman farmer was becoming an endangered species. At the time of the first U.S. census in 1790, roughly 90% of the U.S. population was engaged in family farming. Today, it’s roughly 2%. There are still over two million family farms in the nation, many of which operate in the shadow of huge agribusinesses. If you try hard enough, and are willing to squint your way through a few qualifications of one kind or another, it’s possible to find a self-made farmer. But even he (or she) is likely to wonder how much longer you’ll be able to.

Next: The Hunger Games, 1607