The Yeoman and the Fee-Simple Empire
The rapid settlement of the trans-Allegheny region during the thirty years following the Revolution revealed a crucial ambiguity in the conception of agriculture held by Jefferson and Crevecoeur. Although both these men were slaveowners, they both accepted the ideal of a society composed predominantly of freemen tilling their own acres. But the expansion of the plantation system into the Deep South during the first quarter of the nineteenth century, under the stimulus of apparently limitless world markets for cotton, created a slave power which was agricultural and yet quite unlike the free Northwest.
By 1830 there were thus two agrarianisms in the place of one, and their inherent opposition to one another was to become clearer with each passing decade until it reached a climax during the 1850's in the contest for control of the territories beyond the Mississippi. Each of these new agrarianisms found expression in imaginative and symbolic terms: that of the South in a pastoral literature of the plantation, that of the Northwest in the myth of the garden of the world with the idealized Western yeoman as its focal point. The Southern social ideal owed nothing to Western experience. Its emphasis was upon the settled patterns of life in the older slave states along the Atlantic seaboard rather than upon the newer, rawer Southwest. The main tradition of Western agrarianism was developed north of the Ohio River and thence transported into the trans-Mississippi region as a consequence of the Northern victory over the South in the Civil War. The conflict between the ideal of a society composed of yeoman farmers and the plantation slave system came to dramatic
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formulation in the debate over slavery in the Virginia legislature in 1832, only six years after the death of Jefferson. Charles J. Faulkner, delegate from Berkeley County in the Shenandoah Valley and leading spokesman for the small farmers who were being pushed into obscurity, demanded that slavery be abolished in the state. The bold and intrepid forester of the West, he declared, should not be forced to yield to "the slothful and degraded African." If the plantation system continued to expand, the Western valleys which had until then re-echoed with the songs and industry of freemen would be blighted by the withering footsteps of slavery. Virginia was faced with a choice between two social patterns: the plantation system, with its masters and slaves, and the Jeffersonian ideal of a society of small landowners tilling their own soil. Faulkner's praise of his constituents shows that the figure of the yeoman had become the focus of a developed agrarian philosophy:
Sir, our native, substantial, independent yeomanry,
constitute our pride,
The same cliches had been applied to Roman, French, and English farmers down through the centuries, but they had no doubt been at least partly true all along, and they were true enough in 1832 to constitute an accurate prediction of the intellectual history of the free-soil West for the next half-century. Contrasting Ohio and Kentucky, Faulkner described the blighting effects of slavery in a region that had once seemed to hold such a brilliant promise of freedom and prosperity. The true meaning of the West must now be sought in the free states north of the Ohio River, where happiness and contentment, the busy and cheerful sound of industry, rapid growth in population, and the development of education showed to what heights of social well-being America might aspire. When the Virginia legislature, at the close of the debate, voted down abolition, it spoke for a South that had abandoned Jefferson's ideal of a republic based on small subsistence farmers.2
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The yeoman ideal that was henceforth to dominate the social thinking of the Northwest had emerged as a fusion of eighteenth- century agrarian theory with the observation of American experience beyond the Alleghenies. But the process had been slow. Only gradually had the Western farmer become a distinct figure for the imagination and his role in an essentially classless society recognized. The old attitude of upper-class condescension toward the plowman made it difficult for even sympathetic observers to become fully aware of the social revolution that was taking place in the interior. As late as 1819, the surveyor and gazetteer Edmund Dana, who knew his subject first hand, remarked casually in his Geographical Sketches that "The main business of common laborers, constituting the great mass of population in the west, will be the cultivation of the lands."3 Faulkner himself, whose allusions to independent yeomen are a far cry from the unconscious snobbery of Dana's phrase "common laborers," could nevertheless refer to the "peasantry west of the Blue Ridge" in a way that would have been inconceivable ten years later. The Western yeoman had to work as hard as a common laborer or a European peasant, and at the same tasks. Despite the settled belief of Americans to the contrary, his economic status was not necessarily higher. But he was a different creature altogether because he had become the hero of a myth, of the myth of mid-nineteenth-century America. He no longer resembled even the often-praised English yeoman, darling of poets and social theorists. The very word had changed its meaning in American speech.4 The Western yeoman had become a symbol which could be made to bear an almost unlimited charge of meaning. It had strong overtones of patriotism, and it implied a far-reaching social theory. The career of this symbol deserves careful attention because it is one of the most tangible things we mean when we speak of the development of democratic ideas in the United States. The beginnings of it can be observed in James K. Paulding's early poem The Backwoodsman, published in 1818. Paulding's story begins in Crevecoeur's country, the Hudson Valley, but a single generation has brought a lamentable change there in the condition of the agricultural laborer. Instead of the Arcadian bliss which Crevecoeur had described on the eve of the Revolution,
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poverty and even starvation threaten Paulding's hero, the worthy but unfortunate Basil. The hardest toil and the most unremitting frugality cannot now earn independence for the agricultural laborer without inherited capital. There is no longer any land for him. After a week of desperate exertion in the fields -- another man's fields -- he spends his Sundays trying to find game or fish to keep his family from starvation, but to no avail, and when he falls ill the household faces absolute despair. If Paulding has darkened the shadows for dramatic effect, the picture still stands in impressive contrast with that presented in the Letters from an American Farmer.
Paulding's theme is the opportunity waiting in the West for
such unfortunates. The crux of the matter is the ownership of
land, which constitutes independence.5 As long as he
must till another's land, Basil can never rise above grinding
poverty. This will forever be the miserable destiny of "old
Europe's hapless swains," but in America the great virgin West
offers land for all who will cultivate it:
Hence comes it, that our meanest farmer's boy
Basil accordingly gathers his family together and joins the
throngs heading westward.
Settled beyond the Ohio on land bought from a benevolent
landlord with liberal terms of credit, Basil is transformed. He
now has that blessed independence which is the basis at once of
physical comfort and moral virtue. Where free or virtually free
land is available Crevecoeur's Utopia can flourish again.
It is worth noting, incidentally, that Paulding's version of an
ideal society in the West likewise has a strong tinge of that
delight in the village which distinguished the stream of New
England influence (as expressed for example in Dwight's
Greenfield Hill) from the Southern frontier pattern of
settlement in scattered clearings. Basil and his family had wept
to leave behind the village church and tolling bell and the smoke
of rural hamlets in their old home, but the backwoodsmen
immediately create "a little rustic village" on the bank of the
To cultivated fields, the forest chang'd,
The white church and the school are of New England but we must also make allowance for British influence. Paulding's acknowledged master, Thomas Campbell, had already transplanted a very literary village to the Pennsylvania frontier in his Gertrude of Wyoming (1809). And back of Campbell was, among others, the Goldsmith of The Deserted Village (1770). The sturdy plowman, it will be recalled, is the mainstay of his country in war as well as in peace. The mettle of the Ohio emigrants is soon tested by Indian troubles arising from the War of 1812. Paulding points out that the hardy peasantry in Germany and Spain had stood to defeat Napoleon after kings and nobles had fled: Freedom's band, the militia of the West, are warriors even more formidable than the downtrodden slaves of the Old World.8 When Basil and his companions confront the Indians at Tippecanoe they have become "our bold yeomen."9
At this stage of Basil's development Paulding's failure to grasp the implications of his material is strikingly evident. Like many later writers who dealt with the settlement of the West, he means to depict the "rise of the common man." But there are two ways of thinking about this rise. The political ideology of the 1830's and 1840's assumed that the common man had risen to dominate, or at least to share control of the government without ceasing to be the common man; it was a process whereby power in the state passed from one class to another. If this theory were analyzed rigorously, it would probably appear that the transfer of power to a new class was believed to have been accompanied by a decided weakening of all lines between classes. Certainly the myth of the garden as it
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had matured by the middle of the century interpreted the whole vast West as an essentially homogeneous society in which class stratification was of minor importance.
But The Backwoodsman was written before these changes had become apparent. Furthermore, Paulding was a prisoner of literary convention. Although Campbell, closer to the centers from which technical innovation was radiating, had written of the American frontier in Spenserian stanzas, the provincial Paulding was not up to this revolutionary daring and felt incapable of managing anything beyond the heroic couplet. But this choice of a measure committed him to linguistic and social conventions thoroughly unsuited to his theme. There was a basic impropriety in trying to write about the fluidity of classes in a measure which proclaimed with every caesura that order was Heaven's first law. In this dilemma Paulding resorted to irony:
My humble theme is of a hardy swain [he began],
We are to understand that the theme seems humble only when looked at from the standpoint of an indefensible code of aristocracy; the hardy swain appears degraded to those who venerate the knight, but a true scheme of values would make the swain the hero and consign the knight to the gallows.
Yet Paulding is not prepared either intellectually or technically for the reversal of social values which his irony implies; he is not really convinced that the hardy swain is superior to the upper classes. The rise of the common man is for him not a destruction of the class system but the rise of an individual member of the lower class in a social scale which itself is not changed. It is therefore not enough that Basil should be elevated to the rank of a bold and independent yeoman; he must be promoted out of his class. At the end of the poem he is something quite different from either a backwoodsman or a yeoman:
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Old BASIL-for his head is now grown gray-
Timothy Flint's efforts to depict Western life in fiction are even more instructive than Paulding's. A Massachusetts clergy man who went West in 1816 as a missionary and became a leading Western man of letters, he was in theory committed to the dream of a democratic agrarian Utopia. If his New England background led him to emphasize the recreation of the pattern of the village in the West, the villages of his imagination were very close to the soil and represented no alien element in a basically agricultural economy. In his Recollections of the Last Ten Years, published in 1826, he apostrophizes the Missouri River in prophecy of an ideal Western society much like Paulding's: anticipation, rapt away,
Forestalls thy future glory, when thy tide
On occasion Flint could do full justice to a very Jeffersonian yeoman, and like Jefferson he saw the problem of American society as a choice between an agrarian and an industrial order. He defined his position in attacking the apologists for industry who were developing a theory of protective tariffs. Reviewing Alexander Hill Everett's America in 1827, Flint refused to accept either the Boston Brahmin's glowing description of New England mill towns or the pathetic picture of the sufferings of farmers who had escaped to the West:
Thousands of independent and happy yeomen [he declared], who
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branches must be propped to sustain the weight of their
The fee-simple empire on this familiar pattern appears again and again in Flint's non-functional writings. He describes Ohio, for example, as a perfect realization of the ideal, which for him means that it reproduces the bucolic New England of the age before the coming of the cotton mills and land of small farms, as he had described it in 1815 before he left, cultivated by pendent and virtuous owners; of frequent and neat schoolhouses; of village churches standing as emblems of law, justice, order, industry, and temperance.14 Ohio, Flint wrote admiringly in 1833, "seems to have invited a hardy and numerous body of freeholders to select themselves moderate and nearly equal sized farms, and to intersperse them over its surface." 15 Like Faulkner of Berkeley County he points the contrast between this picture of social happiness and the landscape presented by the slave states. Under the plantation system, flourishing villages and a compact population of small farmers cannot develop. Isolated mansions inhabited by intelligent and hospitable families rise here and there, at great distances from one another, but the mansions are surrounded by squalid Negro cabins, and "the contrast of the hovels and the
mansion can never cease to be a painful spectacle to the eye." 16 Yet if Flint took pleasure in the yeoman society of the free Northwest, he was unable to use the yeoman in fiction. His only novel laid in the Mississippi Valley shows that he was even more handicapped by ingrained class feeling than Paulding had been. George Mason, The Young Backwoodsman, published in 1829, is in part autobiographical. The Reverend George Mason, father of the hero, like Flint resigns his pastorate in a New England village because of factional strife in his congregation, and takes his family to the Southwest. They settle on a small claim in the forest probably a reminiscence of Flint's experiences near Jackson, Missouri, although the setting of the story is ostensibly Mississippi. After great hardships which stand in marked contrast to Flint's generalizations about peace and plenty in the West the father dies, but the eldest son George succeeds in becoming owner of a steamboat and at the end of the book the Mason family is installed with a comfortable income in a village on the Upper Ohio. The son and the eldest daughter Eliza have mean while been provided with suitable mates. Flint's feeling about this material is confused. He announces at the outset that he will deal with "the short and simple annals of the poor," who comprise nine-tenths of the human race. His thesis is that a noble heart can swell in a bosom clad in the meanest habiliments, and that "incidents, full of tender and solemn interest, have occurred in a log cabin in the forests of the Mississippi." 17 Certain slaveowners are depicted as illiterate and rude, the coarse and vulgar rich.18 But no instance of nobility in natives of the West is exhibited except in the benevolent slave Pompey. The Masons, although destitute, encounter no person in the backwoods whom Flint considers their social equal. The mates provided for the son and daughter are as wealthy as Cooper would have made them. One is a New Englander, the other a Pennsylvanian. Near the end of the book George's prospective wife turns pale at the thought of having to travel on the deck of the river steamboat with the poor families, instead of in the cabin with the first-class passengers.19 The lesson of Flint's novel and of other novels about the West to be considered later is that the literary imagination
moved very slowly toward acceptance of the democratic principles so glowingly embodied in agrarian theory. This was doubt less due in part to the fact that even bad fiction comes out of a deeper level of the personality than conceptual thought. It owes something also to the inertia of literary forms, a force we have seen operating in the Leatherstocking tales. But the agricultural West in literature presents problems quite distinct from agrarian theory and will be treated in a later chapter.
The abstractions of the agrarian tradition were applied with little change to successive areas in the Northwest as settlement advanced into them. James B. Lanman, for example, a native of Connecticut who lived in Michigan for two years in the late 1830's at the height of the land boom, contributed articles to the influential Hunt's Merchants Magazine celebrating the intelligent plow man who, as he followed his harrow over the mellow land, his own land, was filled with "the spirit of independence, always arising in the mind of every freeholder."20 In a later article Lanman invokes the memory of Jefferson and recites all the themes of the myth of the garden:
If, as has been remarked by a distinguished statesman,
cities are the
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couraged as the safeguard of a country, thee promoter of
its virtue, and
As the vision of a Western utopia of yeoman farmers acquired stronger and stronger antislavery overtones, Southern writers undertook an aggressive critique of it. An unidentified writer in the Southern Literary Messenger seized upon the publication of Horace Greeley's Hints Toward Reforms in 1851 to examine the proposals of the National Reformers with whom Greeley had be come associated. The Southerner assailed the very foundations of agrarian theory. He called in question the ecumenical dogma "that all real production is from the soil, and that land possesses some mysterious quality which guaranties to its occupants a more certain abundant, and permanent support than other employments." He also objected to the notion that agricultural labor has a peculiar sanctity. Agriculture was not an end in itself but merely a way of making a living. The small farm which Greeley and his fellows wished to give to every settler, while it might provide the bare necessities of an ordinary family, was not large enough to provide for its cultivated and refined maintenance. Indeed, the agricultural unit should be large enough to provide an adequate support for each of the children when the estate should be divided at the death of the original patentee. The limitation on individual holdings of land should therefore not be placed very low; certainly not lower than a section and a half or two sections 960 to 1280 acres. In other words, the limit should not be brought down below a conceivable size for a plantation employing slave labor.22 The ultimate value assumed in this line of reasoning is not the virtuous labor of the farmer, but the leisure of the landowning class. Other Southern critics of what was now clearly a North western free soil ideal joined in the attack on the notion that farming was a pleasant occupation. This traditional idea, said another writer for the Messenger in 1856, is nothing but a dream of theorists and poets. The actual, manual operations of farming he described as irksome and repulsive to the great mass of man kind. Adam Smith's doctrine that cultivation of the soil promotes keenness of mind is contradicted outright; agricultural laborers
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"have little opportunity to cultivate either the exercise of their intellects or the accomplishments, tastes, and habits, which alone could build up agreeable social communities...." The Southern critic denied even the favorite agrarian doctrine that manual labor in the earth fostered political insight. The arduous toil of the farmer restricted his mental range and prevented him from acquiring a comprehension of the principles on which free government must depend.23 (It was indeed true that the yeoman of the Northwest had proved inadequately grounded in the doctrines of Calhoun.) Sound political principles, in the view of this apologist for the plantation system, could be developed and preserved only by a leisure class freed from the necessity of physical toil. George Fitzhugh of Virginia, the most ingenious among the pro-slavery theorists, summed up the Southern repudiation of the Western agrarian ideal in his Cannibals All!: Agricultural labor is the most arduous, least respectable, and worst paid of all labor. Nature and philosophy teach all who can to avoid and escape from it, and to pursue less laborious, more respectable, and more lucrative employments. None work in the field who can help it. Hence free society is in great measure dependent for its food and clothing on slave society.24
The most suggestive aspect of this Southern critique of the myth of the garden is the extent to which it anticipates the disillusioned view of farm life that was to be taken a generation later by pioneer Middle Western "realists" like E. W. Howe and Hamlin Garland.