Book Three


Chapter 11


The Garden of the World and American Agrarianism

The westward march of the pioneer army and the fantastic adventures of the dime novel heroes were of only indirect influence on American social and economic development. Of most effect on the attitudes toward the West was the activity of communities busy transforming the interior recesses of the continent into the Garden of the World: plowing the virgin land, putting in crops, and growing an agricultural society centered around the yeoman frontier farmer and his sacred tool, the plow. The myth of the Garden--with its nostalgia for an earlier, simpler existence--long gave powerful social and political creedence to the idea that the real America was an agrarian paradise.

The long period in which the West was overwhelmingly devoted to agriculture allowed for the emergence of an agrarian social theory that had been implicit in the writings of Ben Franklin, St. John de Crevecoeur, and Thomas Jefferson: agriculture is the only source of real wealth; every man has a natural right to own land; and constant labor in the soil yields independence and virtue. The imaginative focus of each of these doctrines was the idealized figure of the "yeoman farmer." In the 1780s Franklin felt that American society's westward expansion was inexorable; Crevecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer argued that the collection of comfortable farms which lay between the outermost edge of the frontier and the crowded cities of the east provided the optimum conditions for human happiness. He celebrated the lack of social stratification in this region and prophecied that this collection of Americans would spread simplicity, virtue, and contentment in its westward movement across the continent.

Jefferson's agrarian doctrines developed out of the European pastoral tradition's conglomeration of attitudes toward farming. He saw the farmer as the rock upon which the republic must stand, the actual American manifestation of what had only been a utopian European dream. As President, Jefferson framed the Northwest Ordinance and concluded the Louisiana Purchase, measures which provided for the eventual admission of new western states and increased the amount of land available for settlement, respectively. Gilbert Imlay's Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America and the letters of an anonymous "European Traveler" in the magazine American Museum both viewed the west through a misty veil of emotion, ascribing freedom, justice, and paradisaical plenty to the land and residents of Kentucky. Such views exemplified mid-century American agrarianism.

Chapter 12