Wednesday, October 17, 2012

(Up and) Down on the farm

A love letter to the self-made man ends in distress

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

Virginia may have been the place where the dream of the self-made farmer (elastically defined) first took root. But it was hardly limited to the tobacco-growing regions of the Chesapeake Bay. From the Massachusetts frontier of Maine to the red clay foothills of Georgia, the dream of the yeoman drove settlers. That’s not terribly surprising; unless you were a fisherman near the sea, a trapper in the wilderness, or a skilled worker in a city or bustling village—all options for a decidedly small minority of people—farming was pretty much the only game in town. And if you were going to farm, doing it for yourself  was widely perceived as more attractive than doing it for someone else, notwithstanding the aggravations of weather, credit, fluctuating prices, and all the other uncertainties that have always loomed large over the lives of even the most successful tillers.
            There were regional variations on this impulse, however. New Englanders tended to cluster in villages (though there were always settlements on the periphery). The soil and climate there were conducive to small-scale farming for personal consumption; commercial wool, diary, and truck farming of various kinds were also pursued. In the South, the pattern of dispersal was much broader and directed toward the production of commodities. Tobacco remained king; cotton wouldn’t take off until the nineteenth century, when the combination of Yankee Eli Whitney’s new engine, or gin, to remove seeds combined with the British textile business to quicken the industrial revolution. But rice and indigo were staple crops on the South Carolina and Georgia coasts. Whatever the variations, small yeomen, large planters and real estate speculators (sometimes the same people) pushed west along a broad front of settlement toward the Appalachian mountains.
            Because farmers typically have more pressing needs than recording their thoughts for posterity, it’s not easy to understand exactly how these people felt about farming life (and one would have to expect a great deal of variation between and even within individuals). But the appeal yeomanry received its most rhapsodic expression in the prose of a French immigrant, J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur (1735-1813). A cartographer who fought for France during the French and Indian War, Crevecoeur sold his commission as an officer in 1759 and used the proceeds to buy a farm in upstate New York. He was hardly a representative farmer in any sense, not least because he spent much of his subsequent life as a diplomat. But in his 1782 book Letters from an American Farmer, in which he invented a fictional alter-ego named James from Pennsylvania, Crevecoeur encapsulated the saga of the self-made immigrant farmer as it was likely to lodge in a farmer’s heart, if not his mind:


He looks around and sees many a prosperous person who but a few years before was as poor as himself. This encourages him much; he begins to form some little scheme, the first, alas, he ever formed in his life. If he is wise, he thus spends two or three years, in which time he acquires knowledge, the use of tools, the modes of working the lands, felling trees, etc. This prepares the foundation of a good name, the most useful acquisition he can make. He is encouraged; he has gained friends; he is advised and directed; he feels bold, he purchases some land; he gives all the money he has brought over, as well as what he has earned, and trusts to the God of harvests for the discharge of the rest. His good name procures him credit. He is now possessed of the deed, conveying to him and his posterity the fee simple and absolute property of two hundred acres of land, situated on such a river. What an epocha in this man’s life! He is become a freeholder, from perhaps a German boor. He is now an American, a Pennsylvanian, an English subject  . . . from a servant to the rank of a master; from being the slave of some despotic prince, to become a free man, invested with lands to which every municipal blessing is annexed! What a change indeed! [82-3]

 There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about this tale, some of which are supplied by Crevecoeur himself. But many aspects of this story—the importance of role models; the necessity for a good personal reputation; the sense of self-worth that come from acquiring a stake, literal and figurative, in the country—resound through the centuries. Over a hundred years later, a far more dollar-and-cents account of a Swedish immigrant farmer concludes, “Here any man of good character can have a vote after he has been a short time in the country [one of the “muncipal blessings” to which Crevecoeur alludes], and people can elect him to any office.  There are no aristocrats to push him down, and say that he is not worthy because his father was poor.” 
       The weirdly disorienting thing about Letters from an American Farmer is its sudden change in tone in the last chapter, when the fictive James gets caught in the whirlwind of the American Revolution. Now the Indians, who he earlier described as disinclined to violence, threaten him with raids, and he finds it impossible to maintain a safe equilibrium between rebels and Tories. (Crevecoeur himself was pro-British during the Revolution.) “The hour is come at last that I must fly from my house and abandon my farm!” he laments at the start of his final letter, entitled “Distresses of a Frontier Man.” “Oh virtue!” he says later. “Is this all the reward thou hast to confer on thy votaries?"
         Among other reasons, Crevecouer's lament is important because it reminds contemporary Americans not only that  the farming frontier was also a military frontier, but also that one of the essential ingredients in actually surviving as a self-made farmer was the necessity on occasion to become a self-made soldier. For most of their history, Americans have been suspicious of standing armies. They have preferred when possible to rely on local militias, most of whose membership was comprised of farmers. The best-known example of the breed were the so-called Minutemen of Massachusetts, memorialized in Concord by the famous statue of the farmer, gun in hand, leaving his coat on his plow, an allusion to the famer-soldiers of the Roman republic. 
     It’s a romantic notion, and an incomplete one. One of the more interesting aspects of Concord on the eve of the American Revolution is the degree to which even this prosperous farming community was beset by a crisis of opportunity for its young men. Robert Gross notes in his classic 1976 study The Minutemen and Their World that land scarcity had already set in by the 1720s, with aspiring yeomen unable to afford farms locally unless they inherited them, and uncertain whether ones they might acquire by moving west could be secure from French and/or Indian encroachment. Under such circumstances, they were forced to remain with their families well into their thirties, creating family pressures and engendering social restlessness. [78-9] For such men, the American Revolution was a quest to start over in a world that was already old.

Next: George Washington, self-made farmer