THE YOEMAN


Smith's treatment of westward expansion includes individuals from all areas of society - statesmen Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, capitalist Asa Whitney, artists James Fenimore Cooper and Walt Whitman. Of the many men and women who made their marks, it is arguable that none approached the influence of the one individual who never actually existed: the yoeman farmer.








The Western yoeman 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.

from Virgin Land

The creation of the United States of America coincided with a time when European intellectuals were reassessing the place of agriculture in society. The concept of farming (and the farmer) was taking on a new, elevated status in the minds of the day. This notion of the noble cultivator became a part of the foundation of the new democracy. The Garden would be tilled by free citizens, possessing all the virtues bestowed by the Creator upon the husbandman.

The yoeman became a feature in American politics very early. The Federalist and Agrarian forces in government were divided in opinion just following the Revolution. The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, were in favor of a strong central government with most power in the hands the landed few, and looked to commercial and industrial expansion. The Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson, believed in the primacy of local government and a mainly agrarian national economy, based on small independent farmers.

The American yeoman farmer had become a symbol of the Agrarian philosophy articulated by Thomas Jefferson and later embraced by "The Farmer's Calling" Horace Greeley writes that above all professions, he would recommend farming to a son. Among his reasons is that farming is "that vocation which conduces most directly to a reverence for Honesty and Truth."

The yeoman is most universally characterized by his industry. In a letter to the Earl of Egmont in 1736, William Byrd worries that slavery will "blow up the pride and ruin the industry of our white people" (Simpson, 20.) In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson says of slavery "With the morals of the people their industry...is destroyed" (Simpson, 28.) If the virtue of industry was threatened by the institution of slavery, it was embodied in the figure of the yeoman farmer. The farmer's industry calls him to till the soil, from which he receives God's special blessings.

So perhaps the yeoman is equal parts industry and honesty; we are still left with the question of how the nineteenth century American "sees" the yeoman. Should we happen to come upon him without his sacred plow at his side, how would we recognize the yeoman farmer?



To Longstreet's The Fight