Here nature opens her broad lap to receive the perpetual accession of new comers, and to supply them with food. I am sure I cannot be called a partial American when I say, that the spectacle afforded by these pleasing scenes must be more entertaining, and more philosophical than that which arises from beholding the musty ruins of Rome.
--CREVECOEUR, Letters from an American Farmer (1782)
The Garden of the World
and American Agrarianism
Although it was endlessly exciting for nineteenth-century Americans to contemplate the pioneer army moving westward at the command of destiny, and the Sons of Leatherstocking performing their improbable exploits in the wilderness, these themes had only an indirect bearing upon the major trends of economic and social development in American society. The forces which were to control the future did not originate in the picturesque Wild West beyond the agricultural frontier, but in the domesticated West that lay behind it.
With each surge of westward movement a new community came into being. These communities devoted themselves not to marching onward but to cultivating the earth. They plowed the virgin land and put in crops, and the great Interior Valley was transformed into a garden: for the imagination, the Garden of the World. The image of this vast and constantly growing agricultural society in the interior of the continent became one of the dominant symbols of nineteenth-century American society -- a collective representation, a poetic idea (as Tocqueville noted in the early 1830's1) that defined the promise of American life. The master symbol of the garden embraced a cluster of metaphors expressing fecundity, growth, increase, and blissful labor in the earth, all centering about the heroic figure of the idealized frontier farmer armed with that supreme agrarian weapon, the sacred plow. Although the idea of the garden of the world was relatively static, resembling an allegorical composition like that depicted in the
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first illustration, its role in expressing the assumptions and aspirations of a whole society and the hint of narrative content supplied by the central figure of the Western farmer give it much of the character of a myth.
The myth of the garden affirmed that the dominant force in the future society of the Mississippi Valley would be agriculture. It is true that with the passage of time this symbol, like that of the Wild West, became in its turn a less and less accurate description of a society transformed by commerce and industry. When the new economic and technological forces, especially the power of steam working through river boats and locomotives, had done their work, the garden was no longer a garden. But the image of an agricultural paradise in the West, embodying group memories of an earlier, a simpler and, it was believed, a happier state of society, long survived as a force in American thought and politics. So powerful and vivid was the image that down to the very end of the nineteenth century it continued to seem a representation, in Whitman's words, of the core of the nation, "the real genuine America."2
The myth of the garden was already implicit in the iridescent eighteenth-century vision of a continental American empire, "vested," in Lewis Evans's prediction of 1775, "with all the Wealth and Power that will naturally arise from the Culture of so great an extent of good Land, in a happy Climate."3 It was present in embryo in the mighty kingdoms which Jonathan Carver foresaw beyond the Mississippi.4 But at this stage the vision of the future empire in the West resembles something out of Charles Rollin's Ancient History rather than something concretely American. It is merely the last of the familiar series of world empires and derives its coloring from them. Nathaniel Ames of Harvard, predicting in his almanac for 1758 that "Arts and Sciences will change the Face of Nature in their Tour from Hence over the Appalachian Mountains to the Western Ocean," thought of the Mississippi Valley in the future as dotted with metropolises like Rome, Paris, or London. "Shall not .... those vast Quarries," he asked, "that teem with mechanic Stone, -- those for Structure be piled into great Cities, -- and those for Sculpture into Statues to perpetuate the honor of renowned Heroes ....?"5 In their poem written for the
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Princeton commencement of 1771 young Freneau and Brackenridge drew similar parallels: new states, new empires, they prophesied, would arise in America,
and a line of kings,
High rais'd in glory, cities, palaces,
Fair domes on each long bay, sea, shore or stream.....
. . . . . . . . .
Hoarse Niagara's stream now roaring on
Thro' woods and rocks and broken mountains torn,
In days remote far from their antient beds,
By some great monarch taught a better course,
Or cleared of cataracts shall flow beneath Unnumbr'd boats and merchandize and men....6
It is true that these predictions of an urban commercial society were reasonably accurate concerning the remote future of the Middle West. But before the palaces appeared beside the rivers and lakes of the interior there was to intervene a long period of development during which the West was overwhelmingly devoted to agriculture. This fact, on the plane of rational and imaginative interpretation, emerged as an agrarian social theory.
As has been noted earlier, the materials for such a theory were present in the writings of Franklin from the 1750's onward. They became increasingly prominent after the United States had achieved independence from Britain. When he surveyed the society of the new nation, the aging statesman consoled himself for the idleness and extravagance of the seaboard cities with the reflection that the bulk of the population was composed of laborious and frugal inland farmers. Since the hundreds of millions of acres of land still covered by the great forest of the interior would every year attract more and more settlers, the luxury of a few merchants on the coast would not be the ruin of America.7 "The great Business of the Continent," he declared with satisfaction in the late 1780's, "is Agriculture. For one Artisan, or Merchant, I suppose, we have at least 100 Farmers, by far the greatest part Cultivators of their own fertile Lands...."8 The body of the nation consisted of the "industrious frugal Farmers, inhabiting the interior Part of these American States...."9
Such ideas were widely current in late eighteenth-century
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America, as Chester E. Eisinger has pointed out. He uses the term "freehold concept" to designate a complex of general notions arising from the effort of many writers to interpret the new society that was coming into being under the influence of an abundance of land awaiting settlement.10 He finds repeated reference to the doctrines that agriculture is the only source of real wealth; that every man has a natural right to land; that labor expended in cultivating the earth confers a valid title to it; that the ownership of land, by making the farmer independent, gives him social status and dignity, while constant contact with nature in the course of his labors makes him virtuous and happy; that America offers a unique example of a society embodying these traits; and, as a general inference from all the propositions, that government should be dedicated to the interests of the freehold farmer. The concrete imaginative focus for these abstract doctrines was the idealized figure of the farmer himself, called variously "husbandman," "cultivator," "freeman," or -- perhaps most characteristically -- "yeoman."11
The best known expositors of the agrarian philosophy in the generation after Franklin were St. John de Crèvecoeur and Thomas Jefferson. But one must remember that these men were uttering ideas shared by many of their contemporaries.
Crèvecoeur, a Norman of good bourgeois family who served as a cartographer with the French forces during the French and Indian War, later married an Anglo-American wife and settled on a farm of 371 acres twenty-five miles west of the Hudson in Orange County, New York.12 His Letters from an American Farmer, written for the most part before the Revolution, were published at its close and achieved great popularity in this country during the 1780's and 1790's.13 Like Franklin, Crèvecoeur took it for granted that American society would expand indefinitely westward.
Many ages [he exclaimed] will not see the shores of our great lakes replenished with inland nations, nor the unknown bounds of North America entirely peopled. Who can tell how far it extends? Who can tell the millions of men whom it will feed and contain? for no European foot has as yet travelled half the extent of this mighty continent!14
The process of westward expansion would create three main divisions of the society: a remote fringe of backwoods settlements, a
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central region of comfortable farms, and, to the East, a region of growing wealth, cities, and social stratification. Crèvecoeur believed that both the beginning and the end of the process brought about undesirable social conditions. But the middle condition offered a unique opportunity for human virtue and happiness.
In dedicating his Letters to the Abbé Raynal, a former Jesuit whose widely read Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade of the Europeans in the East and West Indies (1770) summed up many ideas of the French Encyclopedists,15 Crèvecoeur declared, "you viewed these provinces of North America in their true light, as the asylum of freedom, as the cradle of future nations, and the refuge of distressed Europeans."16 He found abundant confirmation in his own experience for Raynal's opinion that in the simple agricultural communities comprising the bulk of the American colonies "a certain equality of station, a security that arises from property, a general hope which every man has of increasing it" fostered "one general sentiment of benevolence."17 These conditions, Crèvecoeur believed, were unknown either among the half-barbarous hunters of the most advanced frontier or in the cities of the seacoast. But in the great body of American society, as it spread westward across the continent, would prevail an ideal simplicity, virtue, and contentment.
Here [he wrote in his celebrated letter entitled "What Is an American?"] are no aristocratical families, no courts, no kings, no bishops, no ecclesiastical dominion, no invisible power giving to a few a very visible one, no great manufacturers employing thousands, no great refinements of luxury. The rich and the poor are not so far removed from each other as they are in Europe. Some few towns excepted, we are all tillers of the earth, from Nova Scotia to West Florida. We are a people of cultivators, scattered over an immense territory, communicating with each other by means of good roads and navigable rivers, united by the silken bands of mild government, all respecting the laws, without dreading their power, because they are equitable. We are all animated with the spirit of an industry which is unfettered and unrestrained, because each person works for himself. If he travels through our rural districts he views not the hostile castle, and the haughty mansion, contrasted with the clay-built hut and miserable cabbin, where cattle and men help to keep each other warm, and dwell in meanness, smoke, and indigence. A pleasing uniformity of decent competence appears throughout our habitations. The meanest of our log-houses is a dry and comfortable habitation. Lawyer or merchant are the fairest titles our towns afford;
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that of a farmer is the only appellation of the rural inhabitants of our country .... We have no princes, for whom we toil, starve, and bleed: we are the most perfect society now existing in the world.18
Jefferson was primarily interested in the political implications of the agrarian ideal. He saw the cultivator of the earth, the husbandman who tilled his own acres, as the rock upon which the American republic must stand. "The small land holders," he wrote, "are the most precious part of a state."19 Such men had the independence, both economic and moral, that was indispensable in those entrusted with the solemn responsibility of the franchise. Thus the perception of Franklin and Crèvecoeur that the waiting West promised an indefinite expansion of a simple agricultural society became the most certain guarantee that the United States would for a long age maintain its republican institutions. Not for many centuries would the vacant lands be filled and an overcrowded population fall into the depravity of crowded Europe.20 The policy of the government should obviously be to postpone this unhappy day as long as possible by fostering agriculture and removing all impediments to westward expansion. Jefferson's program for the state of Virginia included the abolition of entails and primogeniture and the proposal that every landless adult should be given fifty acres from the public domain.21 Although he was not able to persuade the Virginia legislature to adopt this early homestead proposal, Jefferson did succeed in establishing a federal policy favoring westward expansion. He framed the Northwest Ordinance that opened the trans-Allegheny to settlement and provided for the eventual admission of new western states; he devised the system by which the public lands were to be conveyed to individual owners; and later he consummated the Louisiana Purchase, which more than doubled the area awaiting settlement in the West.
The agrarian doctrines of Jefferson and his contemporaries had been developed out of the rich cluster of ideas and attitudes associated with farming in European cultural tradition: the conventional praise of husbandry derived from Hesiod and Virgil by hundreds of poetic imitators, the theoretical teaching of the French Physiocrats that agriculture is the primary source of all wealth, the growing tendency of radical writers like Raynal to
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make the farmer a republican symbol instead of depicting him in pastoral terms as a peasant virtuously content with his humble status in a stratified society.22 The restatement and revision of these ideas in America during the period of the Revolution gave them a nationalistic coloring by insisting that the society of the new nation was a concrete embodiment of what had been in Europe but a utopian dream. The second stage in the development of American agrarian theory began with the perception that settlement beyond the Alleghenies promised an even more perfect realization of the agrarian ideal on a scale so vast that it dwarfed all previous conceptions of possible transformations in human society.
Crèvecoeur had stated the theme in his account of a journey to the upper Ohio River which he probably made in 1767:
I never before felt myself so much disposed for meditation: My imagination involuntarily leaped into futurity; the absence of which was not afflicting, because it appeared to me nigh -- I saw those beautiful shores ornamented with decent houses, covered with harvests and well cultivated fields .... I consider .... the settling of the lands, which are watered by this river, as one of the finest conquests that could ever be presented to man .... It is destined to become the source of force, riches, and the future glory of the United States.23
But this was prophecy. The actual character of the society created by agricultural occupation of the interior was only gradually realized. The writers who described the earliest trans-Allegheny settlements in Kentucky were too much preoccupied with the beauty and fertility of the land and with the stereotypes of political theory to concern themselves with the details of social change. Thus John Filson presents in The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke (1784) a rapturous picture of luxuriant Nature -- a country "like the land of promise, flowing with milk and honey, a land of brooks of water, .... a land of wheat and barley, and all kinds of fruits." In Scriptural accents he proclaims that in this central part of the extensive American empire, "you shall eat bread without scarceness, and not lack any thing in it," under mild skies where no infectious fogs nor pestilential vapors spread disease. The West is, grandly and abstractly, a place where afflicted humanity raises her drooping head; where conscience ceases to be
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a slave, and laws are no more than the security of happiness. In the great wilderness "nature makes reparation for having created man; and government, so long prostituted to the most criminal purposes, establishes an asylum .... for the distressed of mankind."24
Gilbert Imlay's widely read Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America develops these political ideas at greater length. Imlay was a New Jersey surveyor and veteran of the Revolution who went out to Kentucky in the 1780's, presently migrated to London, and then proceeded to Paris, where he moved in the circle of Tom Paine and formed a temporary liaison with Mary Wollstonecraft.25 The Topographical Description appeared in London in 1792, the year before the publication of William Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and was probably written there, although it is cast in the form of letters from Kentucky to a correspondent in England. The book abounds in the clich‚s of contemporary European radicalism. Imlay announces that his purpose is to contrast "the simple manners, and rational life of Americans, in these back settlements, with the distorted and unnatural habits of the Europeans," who are oppressed by priestcraft and gothic tyranny.26 The beauty of the landscape reinforces his political enthusiasms. "Every thing here," he writes, "assumes a dignity and splendour I have never seen in any other part of the world." Flowers decorate the smiling groves, as if a florist had cultivated them.
Soft zephyrs gently breathe on sweets, and the inhaled air gives a voluptuous glow of health and vigour, that seem to ravish the intoxicated senses. The sweet songsters of the forests appear to feel the soft influence of this genial clime, and, in more soft and modulated tones warble their tender notes in unison with love and nature. Every thing here gives delight; and, in that mild effulgence which beams around us we feel a glow of gratitude for the elevation which our all bountiful Creator has bestowed upon us. Far from being disgusted with man for his turpitude or depravity, we feel that dignity which nature bestowed upon us at the creation; but which has been contaminated by the base alloy of meanness, the concomitant of European education....27
Imlay's infrequent passages of direct observation of the life of frontier settlers are colored by literary convention and a stilted rhetoric. An example is his account of making maple sugar:
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The business of the day being over, the men join the women in the sugar groves where inchantment seems to dwell. -- The lofty trees wave their spreading branches over a green turf, on whose soft down the mildness of the evening invites the neighbouring youth to sportive play; while our rural Nestors, with calculating minds, contemplate the boyish gambols of a growing progeny, they recount the exploits of their early age, and in their enthusiasm forget there are such things as decrepitude and misery. Perhaps a convivial song or a pleasant narration closes the scene.28
Most of the other observers who visited Kentucky in the early days tended to see the region, as Imlay did, through a haze of rhetoric. A "European Traveler" whose supposed letters to a friend in London were serialized in Matthew Carey's American Museum in 1788 related that when he stopped at a log cabin in a remote clearing in the western wilds, built only six years previously, he was enchanted by the virtuous contentment of the settlers:
I fancied myself to have fallen upon a discovery, after which the sages of antiquity had sought in vain; and that here in the wilderness, I had found in what the greatest happiness in life consisted: for here was religion without colour of superstition -- here was civil and religious liberty in perfection -- here was independence, as far as the nature of human life would admit -- here fulness was enjoyed without retirement -- and the whole shut out from the noise and bustle of the world.29
Similar sentiments are expressed in anonymous verses entitled "The Banks of Kentucke," in the same magazine, which may not have been based on firsthand observation. There is a liberal sprinkling of genius, virtue, truth, and other abstractions dear to the Age of Reason. The spirit of freedom prevails on the banks of Kentucke; tyrannical power and the foul banner of bigotry will forever be absent from them. The nearest approach to a record of things said and done is a single allusion to "honest industry" and "heart-cheering mirth."30 The Kentucky Gazette of Lexington reprinted all five stanzas -- forty lines -- of this poem, no small tribute when newsprint and space were at such a premium;3l and the original efforts of Western settlers sound just like it. In 1797 a Kentuckian celebrated the end of a series of bloody Indian fights in the Treaty of Greenville by announcing a new era for the state:
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Our soil so rich, our clime so pure,
Sweet asylum for rich and poor --
Poor, did I say! -- recall the word,
Here plenty spreads her gen'rous board;
But poverty must stay behind,
No asylum with us she'll find --
Avaunt, fell fiend! we know thee not,
Thy mem'ry must forever rot;
Dame Nature, by a kind behest,
Forbade you ever here to rest.32
The country north of the Ohio, settled somewhat later than Kentucky, was described in virtually the same terms by early observers. The Reverend James Smith, a Methodist minister from Virginia, wrote in his journal in 1797 at Deerfield (now South Lebanon), Ohio:
O, what a country will this be at a future day! What field of delights! What a garden of spices! What a paradise of pleasures! when these forests shall be cultivated and the gospel of Christ spread through this rising republic, unshackled by the power of kings and religious oppression on the one hand and slavery, that bane of true Godliness, on the other.33
This passage employs familiar conventions, but the writer has clear intimations of the future. He knows that the pioneers with their axes and plows will convert the forest to farmlands; and his allusion to slavery points significantly toward the sectional conflict which the westward movement was eventually to bring to a head.
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