Saturday, October 27, 2012

Nature's nobleman

Andrew Jackson fought for the self-made farmer

The following post is part of a series on the self-made man in American history (and the last of this particular set in that series, focusing on the self-made man as farmer).

      The greatest champion of the self-made yeoman farmer in U.S. history was Andrew Jackson. Like Washington, Jackson was a soldier who became president, and liked to refer to himself as “a plain cultivator of the soil.” His supporters used names like “farmer soldier” and “the Farmer of Tennessee,” and future cabinet member John Eaton alluded to Cincinnatus in claiming that Jackson would have preferred “to remain upon his farm and at his plough” rather than run for president in 1824 (a race he lost). Upon his death in 1845 a eulogist summed up Jackson’s life by saying “he wielded the axe, guided the plough, and made, with his own hands, the most of his farming utensils—as nature made him a farmer and mechanic, besides making him a statesman and a soldier."
       Jackson resembles Jefferson, too. He also began his career as a lawyer, albeit of a far less polished sort. And like Jefferson he was in some respects an implausible representative of the yeoman. To paraphrase that eulogy, he was a soldier for sure; a statesman perhaps. But farmer or mechanic—about whom I’ll have more to say shortly— was a stretch. This was apparent to many people even in Jackson’s heyday. “One can sympathize with his opponents in their fury at the widespread image of Jackson as a farmer,” John William Ward wrote in his 1955 evergreen work of American Studies, Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age. “He was, as a modern student of Jackson has observed, what we should now call a member of the rentier class.” (It’s worth noting that the “modern student” Ward cites is Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., whose 1945 book The Age of Jackson did more than any other modern study to create the legend of Jackson as the paradigmatic self-made man.) 
       There’s little question that Jackson’s background was one of considerable adversity. Born on the frontier borderland of North and South Carolina in 1767, his father died while his mother was still pregnant. Jackson enlisted in the American Revolution when he was still a child, and had his face and hand slashed by a British officer who considered him impertinent, scarring him for life. His brother died during the war, as did his mother in tending to wounded soldiers. He emerged from such experiences with a toughness that was legendary, and in his ability to withstand a life of aches and pains—he once absorbed a bullet during a duel, refusing to collapse until he had shot his opponent dead—earned him the nickname “Old Hickory.” These were the raw materials his mythologists used to make him the avatar of the self-made man, and they were substantial. 
       But it’s not accurate to describe Jackson in log cabin terms. After his mother’s death he was raised by two uncles, who provided him with enough resources to present himself as a lawyer in the Tennessee territory. (The frontier set a low threshold for gentility, but it could not have been nonexistent.) Jackson’s formal education was spotty at best—he liked to joke he couldn’t respect a man who only knew one way to spell a word—but he had enough stature to get been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and then the U.S. Senate, by the time he was thirty. In 1804 he acquired the Hermitage, a plantation outside Nashville, and became a wealthy planter. The estate, focused on growing cotton—rapidly becoming the new staple crop of the South—was over 1000 acres and worked by approximately 150 slaves. 
       As with Washington, Jackson’s evident ambition and leadership skill extended to soldiering. He was appointed to the Tennessee militia in 1801 and elected major general the following year. He burst into national prominence during the war of 1812 for his exploits in the U.S. army leading a coalition of red, black and white soldiers at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, repelling a British invasion with minimal casualties. For the rest of his life, he would be referred as “General Jackson,” an honorific more substantial than mere election to the presidency.
       One could say that Jackson was the first celebrity in U.S. history. Like many celebrities, he attracted passionate support as well as distaste among elites who wondered whether he was worth all the attention, and worried about what it portended. Such were the views of old man Jefferson according to Congressman Daniel Webster, who visited him at Monticello around the time of the election of 1824. According to Webster, Jefferson expressed admiration for Jackson’s military accomplishments, but was alarmed by Jackson’s rise and considered him unfit for president. (This was something Jefferson did not live to see, as John Quincy Adams prevailed in that race and Jackson had been dead for two years by the time Jackson was actually elected for the first of two terms in 1828.)
       Such concerns notwithstanding, Jackson was widely viewed as Jefferson’s successor as leader of the plowman from the very start. Significantly, his victory at New Orleans was cast in precisely such terms. In a speech before Congress a mere twelve days after the battle, Georgia representative George Troup lauded Jackson and the spectacle of “the yeomanry of the country marching to the defence of the City of Orleans leaving their wives and children and firesides a moment’s warning.” (Echoes of the Minutemen here.) Troup hailed “the farmers of the country triumphantly victorious over the conquerors of the conquerors of Europe. I came, I saw, I conquered says the American Husbandman, fresh from his plough.” Julius Caesar, meet General Jackson. 
       For the next thirty years, Jackson would be at the center of American politics and culture. And for the next thirty years, he would be perceived as the chief spokesman of the yeoman farmer. Interestingly, even many of his opponents accepted this claim at face value, either mocking him for his crudity, or, when that failed, adopting a similar pose (as William Henry Harrison did in winning the presidency in his famous “log cabin and hard cider” campaign of 1840). So it was, for example, that Jackson cited “agriculture, the first and most important occupation of man” in his State of the Union address in 1831. 
       Such assertions didn’t necessarily come up all that often in Jackson speeches. But they didn’t have to: the policies he advocated were plain enough. Farmers were his core constituency in any number of political fights, whether in terms of lowering tariffs (which kept the prices of manufactured goods lower and made agricultural exports easier), opposing the Bank of the United States (a widely perceived source of agrarian financial oppression), and Indian removal (so there would be more land for settlers). 
       But Jacksonian politics could be complicated. Jackson would never have become one of the most powerful figures in American history without the support of yeoman farmers. But his political base never consisted solely of farmers. Indeed, he presided over the first stirrings of the economic transformation of American society. Industrial capitalism was a highly disruptive force, and it generated lots of opponents—not only yeomen and large planters, but also factory workers and small entrepreneurs threatened by mass production and financial consolidation. The “mechanic” referred to by the Jackson eulogist I cited earlier was rhetorically joined at the hip to the farmer in Jacksonian rhetoric. The two were repeatedly and explicitly linked, and such linkage was important in making him a truly national figure, particularly in places like New York City, where a nascent labor movement led by the Workingman’s Party pushed Jacksonian populism into new political territory. One might say that Democratic politics from the time of Jackson to that of (Franklin) Roosevelt involved a quest to fuse these two working-class sectors of the economy with shared goals and shared enemies. Sometimes, as in Jackson’s era, such fusion was possible. In others, like the Populist movement of the late nineteenth century, it proved elusive. 
       Insofar as the worldviews of the farmer and industrial worker could be fused, the binding element involved a shared belief in the power of the self-made man as a basis of personal and political legitimacy in American society. Jackson’s persona was crucial in this regard in ways that bridged (and in some cases obscured) any number of differences. In the emerging logic of the Jacksonian era, the self-made man could originate in multiple locales. But they all shared the same will to succeed, and a national environment where, whatever its climate, one could succeed. More than that: such success would be all the more gratifying because it could take root organically, without the artificial fertilizers of high birth or inside-dealing. Such reasoning was clear in another Jackson eulogy: 
        His origin was humble; and the poorest may learn from his career, that poverty is no insuperable bar to the soarings and triumphs of the free spirit. Nay! Let us rather say, as we remember how the soil of poverty has sent up its harvest of great men, our Franklin, our Adams, our [Patrick] Henry, and our Jackson; let us say, that as in the kingdom of geology the everlasting granite, the underlying basis of all other formulations is found in the deepest gulf, yet ever bursting upward from the abyss, towering aloft into the highest hills, and crowning the very pinnacles of the world; so in the kingdom of man.
        Whatever reservations we may have about a rich slaveholder who dispossessed Indians and gave little indication he was actually familiar with the life of the people who so enthusiastically supported him, there can be little doubt that Jackson’s credentials as an self-made man were considered authentic by a majority of yeomen farmers, and he continues to be discussed in such terms to this day. 
       And yet both Jackson and those supporters seemed to have a perpetually embattled air, as if their legitimacy was constantly in question. Such truculence has long been noted as central to Jackson’s political profile, typically expressed in terms of his opponents arrogating undue power to themselves. “It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes,” he said in his famous 1832 speech vetoing the renewal for the charter of the Bank of the United States. “Many of our rich men have not been content with equal protection and equal benefits, but have besought us to make them richer by act of Congress.” The notion that things like banks, roads, and railroad companies were anything but a corrupt scheme was hard Jackson and his most enthusiastic partisans to credit. 
       In an important sense, however, Jacksonians, especially those in the generation that followed his departure from the White House in 1837, had reason to be aggrieved. A rising tide of industrialism was challenging the farm economy for cultural and political, no less than economic, supremacy. In the years to come, new models of the self-made man would make those of Washington and Jackson no less honorable, but increasingly obsolete. 
       That’s because an alternative model for the nation’s yeomen was beginning to emerge, one which rejected a core tenet of the self-made ideology that had patched the divide between the yeoman and the planter since the time of Bacon’s Rebellion: chattel slavery. Although only about a quarter of Southern households actually owned slaves in the decades before the Civil War (and most of those only had a handful), even small farmers saw the mere possibility of owning slaves as a basis for hope of upward mobility. But the free soil ideology that emerged in the second third of the nineteenth century increasingly asserted that slavery was actually the problem, not the solution, for farmers who could never achieve independence as long as big planters could effectively outcompete with them in the marketplace on the basis of unfree labor. This argument never gained total acceptance in the South, but was significant enough to furnish an important coalition in the emergence of the Free Soil party in the 1840s and the birth of the Republican Party in the 1850s. 
       We rightly think of Republicans as the party of Big Business, which they indeed have been for 150 years. But in its early years the party made a special effort to cultivate yeoman farmers, notably in its advocacy of a Homestead bill long blocked by proslavery advocates in Congress until it was finally signed into law early in Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. The Homestead Act was specially crafted with the self-made yeoman in mind. Under its provisions, any farmer who claimed 160 acres from the public domain, paid a small registration fee, and settled on it for five years would own it outright. 
       The Homestead Act never really lived up to the fondest hopes of its boosters. The law did create hundreds of thousands of new farms, mostly in the upper Midwest, but was sapped by a series of problems, ranging from land speculators who gamed the program to a lack of truly arable land (the law was amended to allow up to 320 acres 1890). In any case, the Republicans had other fish to fry in terms of banks, railroads, factories, and other manifestations of what was truly a new world order.   
       Farmers, of course, hardly disappeared. Their problems would be central to American politics for decades to come—it would not be until the 1920 census showed there were more people living in towns and cities than on farms. And they would continue to be honored in American politics, society and art, as indeed they are to this day. But the yeoman farmer, increasingly a source of nostalgia along with a careful dissection of his melancholy lot in the work of writers like Hamlin Garland and Willa Cather, lost his hold as the primary manifestation of the self-made man after the presidency of Andrew Jackson. 
       Interestingly, that title passed to the man he defeated twice, and who would ultimately lose four different presidential elections. It was he who finally introduced the actual phrase “self made man” into national political discourse. He had the evocative name of Henry Clay and it was Clay, far more than Jefferson or Jackson, whose career looked forward rather than back. 

Coming soon: a series of posts about the self-made man and the transition from mercantile to industrial capitalism.


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The professor as plowman

Thomas Jefferson wasn't a self-made farmer. But he played the role -- supportively

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

       For all his accolades, George Washington never became the patron saint of the self-made farmer. Thomas Jefferson did. This is somewhat curious, given that Washington was a more attentive and successful husbandman than Jefferson ever was. But here as in so many other ways, Jefferson managed to embody contradictions. 
       Like Washington, Jefferson was born into second-tier gentry. His father, also like Washington’s, was a tobacco planter. Unlike Washington, however, Jefferson received a first-rate education that included multiple languages the study of the classics at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. By trade, Jefferson was not a farmer; he was a lawyer. (Of course to put it this way is a bit misleading: Jefferson was a gentleman. Eighteenth century politics was predicated on leisure, as was science, two of his most notable passions.) Nor was Jefferson ever a soldier. He served as governor of Virginia during the American Revolution, and was forced to flee Williamsburg in 1781 during a British raid (a fact for which he was unfairly maligned by his political enemies for decades afterward). But this experience is one more illustration of the way in which he represented a different model of Founding Father, one who relied more on the pen than the sword or the plow. 
       In the late 1760s, Jefferson began work on the house he dubbed Monticello, a project that would occupy him for the rest of his life. The grand residence sat on a large estate, which, combined with other holdings, made him the owner of over ten thousand acres and as such one of the largest landholders in Virginia. But while Jefferson engaged in farming and showed at least as much interest in the latest agricultural techniques as Washington, he was never as successful in implementing them. According to one biographer, this was partly a matter of bad luck. But here as in so many other ways, one surmises that at the end of the day Jefferson was more of a dabbler than a farmer. Mount Vernon was a working enterprise; Monticello was a hobby. 
       And yet no man in American history championed farmers more than Jefferson did  -- and, more specifically, championed the independent yeoman he considered the foundation for the nation’s success and future. The most famous expression of this idea can be found in his 1785 book Notes on the State of Virginia, in which he exults that “those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.” It’s worth going a bit further into this quotation to probe the source of Jefferson’s confidence: “It is the focus in which he keeps alive the sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. It is the mark set on those, who not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry as does the husbandman, for their subsistance, depend for it on the casualties and caprice of customers. Dependance begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.” For Jefferson, the independent farmer is the quintessential expression of the self-made man, who is virtuous precisely because he free of the snares of commerce, which tangle men in webs of compromise. 
       There are, of course, all kinds of holes one could poke into Jefferson’s logic here. Even in this short chapter we’ve seen cases of cultivators whose greed has provoked or aggravated social conflict. Moreover, farmers—particularly Virginia farmers, among the most likely to participate in international commodities markets—were hardly insulated from the vagaries of global capitalism. Indeed, Jefferson himself was hopelessly enmeshed in those markets himself, and deeply in debt at the time of his death (unlike Washington, Jefferson had no option to free his slaves, which had to be sold to pay off those debts). Such facts can at least partially explain his passion as a form of longing to escape his own dilemmas. 
       What matters here, however, is not so much the accuracy of Jefferson’s assertions than the ardor with which he expressed them, and how, in turn, substantial numbers of his fellow Americans accepted his sincerity and pledged their allegiance to him. Beginning with his election to the presidency in 1800, Jefferson became the standard-bearer for the small farmer, and remained an iconographic figure in this regard for well over a century. One reason this is important, though, is because Jefferson and supporters were increasingly aware that they faced challenges in their affirmation of the yeoman from political opponents who saw the future of the country elsewhere. Jefferson needed to assert the primacy of the self-made farmer because even as the yeoman was in political ascendance there were intimations of his mortality. 
       One intriguing hint of this comes from a 1785 letter Jefferson wrote to John Jay, who collaborated with Jefferson’s close friend James Madison in writing The Federalist Papers in support of the U.S. Constitution, but who would later drift into an opposing faction headed by Madison’s other writing partner, Alexander Hamilton.  “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens,” Jefferson told Jay. “They are the most vigorous, the most independant, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to it’s liberty and interests by the most lasting bands. As long therefore as they can find emploiment in this line, I would not convert them into mariners, artisans, or anything else.” Jefferson conceded that Americans would nevertheless find jobs in such trades, and that the day might come when they would outnumber farmers. However, “this is not the case yet, and will probably not be for a considerable time.” Jefferson made clear that in the case of such an eventuality, he would much prefer Americans became fishermen rather than engage in manufacturing. But, he noted, “we are not free to decide this question on principles of theory only.” 
        Jefferson was not implacably opposed to the manufacturing economy promoted by Hamilton (though he was implacably opposed to the brand of finance capitalism Hamilton also promoted). Ever the technologist, he imagined nascent industries emerging down on the farm, integrated—on a secondary basis—into the operations of agricultural enterprise as part of a broader yeoman self-sufficiency that was central to his vision of the country. That vision got him into trouble when he imagined that the embargo he imposed on French and British goods during the Napoleonic military upheavals of his second term would actually prove salutary to the American economy (it almost wrecked that of New England). It nevertheless remained his most fond hope for the country to the end of his life. “We are infinitely better off without treaties of commerce with any nation,” he told James Madison in 1815, an assertion which the facts would appear to have contradicted, as he sometimes conceded. 
       Indeed, even during his presidency, Jefferson was adjusting his hopes in the face of evolving realities. In an 1804 letter to French economist Jean-Baptiste Say, Jefferson recognized that for a European population that appeared to be growing faster than its food supply, the imperatives of industrial production were pressing. In a United States whose extent had just doubled as a result of the Louisiana Purchase, however, “the immense extent of uncultivated and fertile lands enables every one who will labor, to marry young, and raise a family of any size.” Jefferson acknowledged cutting-edge thinking in political economy suggested that “the best distribution of labor is supposed to be that which places the manufacturing hands alongside the agricultural; so that the one part shall feed both and the other part furnish both with clothes and other comforts.” A mixed economy was best. 
       “Would that be best here?” Jefferson asked. “Egotism and first appearances say yes.” On further examination, however, he claimed the answer was no. If Americans stuck to farming, then “a double or treble portion of fertile lands would be brought into culture; a double or treble creation of food would be produced, and its surplus go to nourish the now perishing births of Europe, who in return would manufacture and send us our clothes and other comforts.” If he had his druthers, Jefferson would rather have outsourced the industrial revolution. Ever the diplomat, he floated such notions in the spirit of an untested hypothesis. But in weighing the question, “we should allow its just weight to the moral and physical preference of the agricultural, over the manufacturing, man.”
       By the end of his life, Jefferson realized his vision of a nation populated by yeoman farmers was receding. “You tell me I am quoted by those who wish to continue our dependence on England for manufactures,” he wrote a New England supporter in 1816. “There was a time when I might have been so quoted with more candor, but within the thirty years which have elapsed, how are circumstances have changed!” Jefferson explained his shifting perspective less in terms of his own thinking than what he regarded as the irresponsible behavior of the British government, whose high-handed behavior on the high seas had provoked the recently concluded War of 1812. “Experience has taught me that manufactures are now as necessary to our independence as to our comfort."
       For Jefferson, however, the lessons of experience could be bitter. His last years alternated between expressions of soaring hope (“the general spread of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth—that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs”) and more dour forebodings. Much of his angst focused on the burgeoning sectional crisis surrounding the admission of Missouri to the Union, and at the heart of that crisis was the question of whether to allow the expansion of slavery (Missouri would enter the Union as a slave state.) In this final phase of his public life, a Jefferson who had always been deeply conflicted about slavery, and who had made some half-hearted attempts to end, it now swung decisively to the side of the pro-slavery advocates to the point of secession. One suspects his passion on the question was less directly racial, per se, than a feeling that slavery was an indispensable pillar to the maintenance of the national agricultural equilibrium. Jefferson believed that elite planters like himself were less of a threat to the yeoman than the factory owner who longed to wrap his tentacles around the farmer. In the decades to come, even some small farmers would come to the conclusion that he was wrong on this count, and form part of the political coalition that would lead to the founding of the Republican Party a generation later. 
       History textbooks typically present Jefferson as an eighteenth century man of the future: the revolutionary who boldly declared a nation into existence, and a democratically-minded president who overthrew a would-be Federalist aristocracy headed by Alexander Hamilton and Jefferson’s erstwhile friend John Adams (with whom he would later reconcile). There are good reasons to see Jefferson this way. But viewed through the lens of the self-made man, he represented not the start of something, but rather the beginning of the end of something. Farmers certainly weren’t going anywhere. And the self-made farmer would not only remain cherished icon in American politics, but feature prominently in a series of political movements for the rest of the nineteenth century. But the very centrality of the yeoman farmer in the nation’s lexicon and iconography belied the fact that he was facing increasingly assertive challenges in the form of dramatic social and economic changes, as well as a new version of the self-made man who drew his vitality and legitimacy from city and factory instead of the farm.
      Next: Andrew Jackson as self-made plowman

Saturday, October 20, 2012

From sword to ploughshare

George Washington, self-made farmer

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

        Perhaps no figure illustrates the intersection between farming, soldiering, the American Revolution, and the self-made man than George Washington. We tend to think of Washington as a general and a statesman, but he considered his role of farmer as central to his identity. (Land speculation was also part of the mix.)  “I had rather be farmer than emperor of the world,” he is reputed to have said in response to newspaper criticism of his policies as President. It’s tempting to view such remarks as the typical fodder of politicians trying to pose as ordinary people, particularly given Washington’s well-known concern for his reputation. But his oft-invoked reluctance to leave, and desire to return, to Mount Vernon estate appears to have been genuine. 
       Washington, born in 1732, was the son of a tobacco farmer. His great-grandfather, John Washington, emigrated to Virginia in the 1650s, and participated in the Bacon’s Rebellion, earning a rebuke from Governor Berkeley for his role in an Indian massacre. By the time of Washington’s birth the family was second-tier gentry, a status made more precarious by his father’s death when he was a child. Besides his mother, the pivotal figure in the boy’s life was his brother Lawrence. In 1752 he inherited the farm Lawrence had dubbed Mount Vernon.
        Washington was an ambitious man, and his ambitions ran in many directions. He aspired to be a regular officer in the British army, but his application was rejected. As a teenager, he found work as a surveyor, work that propelled him to an association with Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie, the de facto executive of Virginia (post-Berkeley, most Virginia governors were absentee rulers based in London). Dinwiddie delegated Washington with the task of delivering a message demanding French troops leave western territory, a mission that triggered the global conflict known as the Seven Years War in England and the French and Indian War in America. Washington served in that conflict, acquitting himself well in the debacle known as (General) Braddock’s Expedition and gaining experience that would prove invaluable later in life. In this sense, one could say he was a self-made soldier, particularly since he was derived the sense of legitimacy he craved as a bona fide regular British officer. (Colonial perceptions that the British regarded Americans as second-class citizens was an important factor in the coming of the Revolution.) 
       But for much of his career, Washington staked his identity not as a solider, but rather as a farmer, something that became a workable proposition after his favorable marriage to the widow Martha Custis. In the last two hundred years, many American politicians, from Thomas Jefferson to Jimmy Carter, have laid claim to that mantle of farmer. But Washington was the real thing, a planter who took a hands-on approach to running his estate and making it a genuinely productive enterprise. Unlike some plantation owners who relied solely on their overseers and considered their slaves an economic abstraction, Washington knew his personally and issued specific instructions to them as part of a larger process of active management that involved personal inspection of his fields. Washington was also well informed about the latest scientific techniques for improving crop yields, and implemented them attentively. “Every improvement in husbandry should be gratefully received and peculiarly fostered in this Country, not only as promoting the interests and lessening the labour of the farmer, but as advancing our respectability in a national point of view,” Washington wrote in a letter of 1788, during his Mount Vernon interregnum between the Revolution and the presidency. “For in the present State of America, our welfare and prosperity depend upon the cultivation of our lands and turning the produce of them to the best advantage.” 
         Moreover, Washington’s awareness of the economic and political implications of agriculture was apparent long before the Revolution. At a time when Virginia planters like Thomas Jefferson were deeply in debt to British bankers—a significant source of their animus against London and all it represented—Washington systematically extricated himself from this snare. A key strategy in this quest involved curing himself of the widespread planter addiction to tobacco, relying instead on grains that would make Mount Vernon more economically self-sufficient. 
       Washington grappled less effectively—but meaningfully and with partial success—regarding the racial implications of his estate. The prosperity of Mount Vernon depended upon the hundreds of slaves who lived and worked at Mount Vernon, a fact that made him uncomfortable for most of his life. During the Revolution he wrote his cousin Lund Washington, who ran the plantation in his absence, asking if it would be possible to make Mount Vernon work as a non-slave plantation, something he hoped to accomplish by selling off his slaves, but only under his existing policy of not doing so without their consent, something they almost never gave. His cousin said no. Washington explored a series of schemes, personal and public, for emancipating slaves during his presidency. Though he remained silent on the subject as a political matter, his will freed his slaves upon his wife’s death, making specific provisions to override the grasping claims of his in-laws. (Martha Washington freed them a year later.) Aware of the limits and contradictions of the self-made man, Washington pressed them to the limits of his morality and that of the society in which he lived. 
       Despite these contradictions, Washington held fast to his identity as a farmer, one fused with that of  his more famous one of soldier, something that was possible because such a fusion was so widespread in American society. Indeed, Washington’s attachment to the iconography of the famer-soldier was strong enough to lead him into one of the few personal controversies of his career, his decision to accept the presidency of the newly formed Society of the Cincinnati, a Continental Army veteran’s benevolent organization, in 1783. The organization was named after Lucius Quinctus Cincinnatus, the legendary Roman republican of the fifth century BC who left his farm to serve as Consul with dictatorial powers in wartime, and who upon victory relinquished power to return to his farm. (The most dramatic gesture of Washington’s career involved his surrender of his sword to Congress in 1784, a gesture of deference of military power to civilian rule that prompted an astonished George III to say, “if he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”) In addition to ongoing suspicion of military organizations of any kind, the Society of the Cincinnati engendered opposition in a policy that membership could only be passed on to oldest sons. Such policies were widely considered anathema in a new nation that had recently overthrown an established aristocracy and which already had a deep investment in the self-made man as the basis of its society. The controversy eventually died down—as with so many other aspects of the self-made man, blood proved thicker than symbolism—and Washington held fast to his membership in the organization to his death. In the generation that followed, Americans proceeded to discard age-old policies of primogeniture, and systematically reduced voting qualifications, greatly widening the scope of what was rapidly expanding democratic republic.

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

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Fried by Bacon

Self-made men in colonial America were more often self-remade men

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

The easier, if relatively rare, form of upward mobility in colonial Virginia was not so much self-making as self-remaking, in which an individual with cash resources could invest them in ways that resulted in material gains. The archetype of this model was William Berkeley (pronounced “Barklee”), who dominated the Virginia politics for 35 years following his arrival in 1642. Berkeley came from a rich and powerful family with strong ties to the ruling Stuart dynasty and received an excellent Oxford education. The principal obstacle he faced in making his mark on the world was one of birth order: he was the fourth of five sons in a family of seven children. Because the English followed the ancient practice of primogeniture, in which a family fortune was sustained over generations by concentrating and passing it where possible through eldest sons, younger siblings were forced to rely on alternative means such as the military, the clergy, or a favorable marriage to maintain elite status. The route the ambitious William Berkeley took was that of a courtier, winning a post in the Privy Chamber of King Charles II. He attracted some attention to himself by as a playwright; his well-received play, The Lost Lady (ca. 1637) was performed at court. Berkeley used his position to cadge some financial perquisites, among them royal monopoly on the snow and ice trade. He also served as an officer in the royal army as England headed into Civil War in the 1640s.
Yet such experiences proved disillusioning in their fragility (he lost the ice concession) as well as in the unimpressive view it gave him of a politically inept King destined for the gallows. Approaching his mid-thirties with his professional prospects narrowing, Berkeley angled for, and got, a diplomatic post in Turkey. But at the last minute abandoned it when he learned of, and gained, appointment as the royal governor of Virginia. His future and that of the colony were about to change substantially.
            The collective portrait of Berkeley is not an especially attractive one: even his admirers portray him as a vain elitist who did not suffer fools gladly. But for most of two terms of governor that extended for all but eight of the 35 years he lived there, his political skills were considerable. Though Virginia was founded before New England, it remained on shaky footing until about 1650, after which it stabilized en route to becoming the largest of all the American colonies. Berkeley’s formula involved encouraging second-tier aristocrats to emigrate there, where they would enjoy substantial autonomy and control over local affairs and form the core of what became the legendary First Families of Virginia (FFVs). But he also managed power struggles within the oligarchic governor’s council with calibrated appeals to the elected House of Burgesses, in which smaller landholders were allowed to vote.
Over time, Berkeley’s Virginia became increasingly stratified by class no less than race. But for most his tenure this was not an unmanageable problem. “He claimed kinship with them in one important respect,” Berkeley’s sole modern biographer noted of his relationship with the yeomanry. “For him, as for them, Virginia promised something better than he had left behind in England.” [1138/p57] So it was that Berkeley laid down an important social template that would govern American politics for centuries, in which yeoman and planter were part of a seamless spectrum rather than inhabiting different—and opposing—sides of a class divide.
            In the 1670s, however, this straddle became increasingly difficult, even impossible, to manage. As poorer land-hungry settlers pushed beyond the rich soil of the Virginia tidewater toward the less fertile and accessible piedmont on the northern and western periphery of the colony, they increasingly bumped up against the Indian frontier, aggravating diplomatic relations. Berkeley has sometimes been portrayed as relatively enlightened (or, at any rate, shrewd) in trying to maintain a friendly perimeter with tribes such as the Pamunkey and Susquehannocks, but he was increasingly perceived as indifferent, even hostile, toward taking the necessary measures to protect his own subjects.
This created an opening. It was exploited by Nathaniel Bacon, a rich rogue who arrived in Virginia in 1674, when he was in his late twenties. Bacon had already left behind a trail of personal dissipation and financial chicanery when his father staked him a fresh start in Jamestown (young Bacon also had family connections to Berkeley’s wife). Though Berkeley looked upon him with favor and gave him a seat on the governor’s council, it didn’t take long before Bacon proceeded to exploit frontier tensions by allying himself with hard-liners. When Berkeley rebuked him for meddling in colonial affairs outside his authority, Bacon doubled down in his claims to represent the aggrieved yeomen, precipitating the broad-based conflict that turned into a civil war.
The 1676 upheaval known as Bacon’s Rebellion was a topsy-turvy struggle marked by sudden reversals and widespread destruction before Bacon suddenly died at its height. But the eruption alarmed and annoyed the English government, which mobilized an (unnecessary) armada to put it down. As a result, Berkeley was recalled to London, soon after which he too died. In its aftermath, the rulers of Virginia—as well as those of Maryland, Carolina, and the later colony of Georgis—gradually implemented a racist legal structure in which the expulsion of Indians and the creation of an increasingly black slave class reduced frictions among whites, who were to enjoy a rough sense of social (if not economic or political) equality. This story, of race and class tensions contained by a ruling elite that set them in hydraulic opposition to each other, was first crystallized by Edmund Morgan in his 1975 book American Slavery, American Freedom, and has remained the master narrative ever since.

Next: A self-made colonial immigrant farmer's dream (and nightmare)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Hunger Games (1607)

Colonial Virginia was a site of brutal promise

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

The dream of the self-made farmer may once have been the dominant model in American history. But it began as a consolation prize. When the first permanent English settlement in North America was founded at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 (a previous attempt two decades earlier had failed), the goal was not farming. Nor, notwithstanding some boilerplate rhetoric about the papal Whore of Babylon and his imperial Spanish minions, was God. Jamestown was a commercial enterprise of the royally chartered Virginia Company, and its reason for existence was to make money any way it could. The fondest hope of its investors was they would find (or take) gold, just as the Spaniards had in Mexico and Peru. 
It didn’t take long to figure out that wasn’t going to happen. It took longer to figure out how wealth could be produced in Virginia, largely because that was going to take a lot of work. This was something those first arrivals were not particularly inclined to do without the prodding of the unpleasant but undeniably efficient John Smith, whom they had planned to execute for insubordination while sailing to Virginia (it would be neither the first nor last time that Smith, a soldier who escaped enslavement by the Ottoman Turks, would cheat death). When sealed orders were opened revealing that Smith was in fact to lead the colony, the disorganized settlers reluctantly accepted his direction, under which fortifications were strengthened, crops planted, wells dug and products such as pitch, tar and soap ash produced for shipment back to England. Smith also learned the local Algonquin dialect, and conducted sometimes tense negotiations with the region’s prevailing chieftain, Powhatan. (As we all know, he also and struck up a friendship with Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, who would eventually marry settler John Rolfe and move to London, where she created a sensation).  
Following Smith’s departure from Jamestown in 1609 to be treated for injuries sustained in an accidental gunpowder explosion, the colony nearly vanished amid the notorious “starving time.”  After foundering for years in the face of Indian attacks and wobbly finances, the Virginia Company went bankrupt in 1624. It then became a royal colony (in contrast to other charter colonies like Massachusetts, or proprietary ones like Pennsylvania). Disease and death sapped its population, which probably would have disappeared without a steady stream of immigrants, which largely consisted savagely competitive young men willing to take their chances in a lottery of life and death.
             In the face of these odds, Virginia survived. The reason it did so was the cash crop that would become the pillar Virginia’s economy, and that of the South generally for the next two centuries: tobacco. This agricultural commodity, introduced to the English by local Indians, may well have been a “vile weed,” in the words of King James I. But it was undeniably, addictive, and thus undeniably profitable, especially to a chronically cash-starved monarchy that taxed tobacco as part of a larger strategy to maintain its own precarious solvency.
For the first quarter-century of its existence, Virginia was like an American version of the Hunger Games, a free-for-all in which desperation and ambition collided in a furious quest for fortune (or survival).  In one mythic version of its story, a young Englishman would become an indentured servant by borrowing the cost of his transportation, food and lodging in exchange for seven years worth of labor, part of a headright system in which an investor received fifty acres of land for every immigrant whose passage he paid. Upon discharging this obligation, the servant would receive his “freedom dues,” which would allow him to buy land—and, perhaps even more important, labor. This would take the form of other indentured servants, and, if he generated enough assets, slaves. Though the first Africans were imported to Virginia in 1619, it would be many decades before they became the major source of labor. For most of the seventeenth century, English settlers relied on Indian peoples selling each other into slavery as part of their own response to changing political and economic conditions. If our hypothetical young man managed to survive his own exploitation, the caprices of disease, and the violence of a racially charged frontier, he might become a successful planter able to attract a wife who would bear him heirs. (If the wife survived him, she could parley his estate into another marriage, particularly since women were also relatively scarce commodities in these years.) All told, this didn’t happen all that often. But it happened often enough for people with few other prospects to take their chances on a notably brutal system of self-making whose essence was controlling the exertions of others.

Next: the rise and fall of a self-made plantation baron

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

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Brief case

Paul Boyer's American History: A Very Short Introduction and the case for dispensing with traditional textbooks.

The following review will be posted on the Books page of the History News Network.   

As anyone who teaches a survey knows, textbooks are big, beautiful, and expensive. And, for the most part, boring. Despite the impressive talents that go into them from editorial to design elements, they always seem, well, flat. Part of the reason is that they're relentless in purveying conventional wisdom. This is not merely a matter of pandering to state governments or appealing to the lowest common denominator of readers, but something intrinsic to the genre.

In recent years, I've found myself growing increasingly restless with textbooks. A meaningful engagement with U.S. history is more likely to come from primary sources and/or a piece of scholarship that bores vertically into a topic rather than stretches horizontally. At the same time, that plunge is not going to make sense unless students have at least some coordinates in which to situate it. For the last couple years I've been using Robert Remini's A Short History of the United States: From the Arrival of Native American Tribes to the Obama Presidency, which at $16 for about 300 pages of narrative runs about a third of the length, and a fifth of the price, of a typical two-volume paperback. There's nothing especially lovable about Remini's book beyond that; it's a dry sprint. But it packs the essential information into thirty-page chapters that serve as a night's homework. Such context can form the backdrop context of a case-study approach to surveying U.S. history that looks in detail at specific moments.

Viewed on these terms, Paul S. Boyer's American History: A Very Short Introduction is even more attractive: 140 pages for $12. The Oxford University Press VSI series has now surpassed 300 volumes, making it to non-fiction what Penguin Books have always been for literature. Attractively packaged and written by leading authorities, VSIs are entertaining in inverse proportion to how well you know a subject. Ignorance becomes bliss when you know you're in good hands.

The late Paul Boyer of the University of Wisconsin, who passed away earlier this year, dispatches with U.S. history in brisk, no-nonsense fashion. Boyer's own scholarship stretched from the Salem Witch trials to the Cold War, and he sustains an even, well-proportioned pace (something that's more possible here than, say, a VSI book on the Roman empire). Perhaps the most interesting interpretive aspect of the book is the dark mood that shadows the final chapters, only partially hedged by Boyer's assertions about U.S. resilience.

Boyer's volume is also useful as a pocket reference. Need a one paragraph reminder about the Stamp Act or the Populist Party? You'll find them here, easily tracked down with a good index. Given their attractive packaging, you may want to collect a few VSI books just to have 'em on your desk.

Again: anyone who's taught the survey will learn virtually nothing here. But anyone looking for a way into the subject will find a lifeline. Given the escalating cost of textbooks and student resistance to buying them, a volume like this may yet become a common as well as valuable tool.