Chapter 12

The Yeoman and the Fee-Simple Empire

By 1830 the west had engendered two distinct agrarianisms: the society of yeoman farmers and the slave-holding plantation system of the Deep South. The Southern ideal--rooted in the established rhythms of life in the older slave states and imaginatively expressed in the literature of pastoral and feudal romance--had little in common with the vision of Western agrarianism-- the idealized yeoman toiling in the Garden of the World--which developed north of the Ohio River. The debate over slavery in the Virginia legislature in 1832 brought the tensions between these conceptions into focus. Citing the successes of the new western states north of the Ohio River, delegate Charles J. Faulkner argued that Virginia should abolish slavery and follow the Jeffersonian ideal of a republic based on small, independent farmers; the legislature voted down his proposal.

The ascension of the yeoman farmer from common laborer to powerful symbol of American identity remains of utmost interest to the study of the development of democratic ideas in the United States. The yeoman is the myth of mid-nineteenth-century America, the beginnings of which can be found in James K. Paulding's The Backwoodsman (1818) and Timothy Flint's Recollections of the Last Ten Years (1826), both of which portray Crevecoeur-esque democratic agrarian utopias; to these Eastern authors the west represents economic and social opportunity for settlers of all classes to establish "fee-simple empires" and live in unremitting prosperity. Flint draws a contrast between the social tranquility of Ohio and the disquieting social landscape of the slave states. Both of these writers did, however, express considerable ambivalence about the actual or potential nobility of the inhabitants of the West.

James B. Lanman, writing in the late 1830s in Hunt's Merchants' Magazine, suggests that agricultural enterprise like that in the West is the solid foundation of a country's happiness and independence. Over the years, the figure of the yeoman farmer had accrued antislavery overtones, eventually prompting Southern writers to critique the foundations of the Jeffersonian ideal. Among apologists for slavery, it was commonly held that the slave-fashioned leisure of large landowners was of greater value than the efforts of the virtuous individual farmer, and that only such a class could be counted on to develop and preserve sound political principles. Virginia's George Fitzhugh, for example, asserted in Cannibals All that Nature instructed all of those who could to avoid agricultural labor, and justified slave agricultual labor on the grounds that it made the profitable leisure of free society possible.

Chapter 13