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Myth of the Yeoman Farmer as Thomas Jefferson's American View

Updated on September 26, 2012
Stiff pull. A portaryal of the hard work in early farming.
Stiff pull. A portaryal of the hard work in early farming. | Source

The Yeoman Farmer Myth

American politics and culture have been strongly influenced by the concept of  farming and farmers represnting an ideal life. The influence came from John Locke and was taken up by Thomas Jefferson in movements known as agrarianism and romaticism.

 

Recently I had an online discussion with a liberal friend who took to bashing conservatives. I thought I could  get him to better understand that today’s conservatives are like the classic liberals such as Thomas Jefferson. In checking the dictionary I find ‘liberal” can describe almost anything. Whatever the case, he said he read some material he got from Monticello when he was there and concluded that if Jefferson were alive today he would probably live on some small isolated farm somewhere.

That struck me as rather odd until I remembered some college discussion about the ideal of the “Yeoman farmer.”

Thomas Jefferson's estate
Thomas Jefferson's estate | Source

Monticello


 

Monticello was Jefferson’s estate, which he had designed himself. Slaves worked it. Jefferson had many accomplishments in a variety of endeavors but I don’t think he spent much time plowing fields. If Jefferson lived on a farm today it would probably be what we call a large industrial farm.

A poet like Carl Sandburg might move to the country and live on a small farm and raise goats, I don’t think Jefferson would.

So where does the idea of the Yeoman farmer come from? It was a concept that many of our leaders idealized.

The western Yeoman did not have particularly high status but he became the hero of the 19th Century myth of America.

The United States was developing at the time European intellectuals were changing their views on Agriculture in society. The concept of what a farmer  and farming was becoming a new image and, to these intellectuals, an elevated status. The concept of a noble cultivator of the earth started to form the foundation of the new democracy in America.

The image developed of a new Garden of Eden or simply the New Eden. Free citizens would work the land that had all the virtues the Creator originally gave to the husbandman. It wasn’t long before the image of the Yeoman added flavor to our politics. Right after the revolution there was division between Federalist and Agrarian forces in the government. Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists were divided from the wanted a strong Federal government. The landed few would hold the most power and leaned toward the commercial and industrialization.

Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans believed in strong local government and a mainly agrarian national economy with many small independent farmers.  This is an image that still prevails in our politics and influences the farm subsidies that actually seem to benefit the big industrial like farms while glorifying the small independent farmer.

The American yeoman farmer was a symbol of Jefferson’s Agrarian Philosophy. Horace Greeley later wrote about “The Farmer’s Calling,” and recommended farming as an occupation above all professions.

Agrarianism

 

Agrarianism is a similar term, which finds itself in the literary pastorial tradition, which started as far back as ancient Greece. In this tradition the natural world is seen as an escape from the complexities of modern urban life. A rural scene somehow restores character and character is improved by interaction with nature. Sometimes there is a hope for a new golden age restoring the life of long ago.

Philosophically agrarianism reflects the writings of John Locke. In his Second Treatise of Civil government he expounds that those who work the land are its rightful owners. Thomas Jefferson was influenced by Locke’s labor theory and Jefferson’s thought shaped the way nineteenth century homesteaders viewed the ownership of their farms.

 

John Deere tractor
John Deere tractor | Source

Romanticism



Later in the eighteenth century the European Romantic movement influenced agrarianism. The Romantics placed attention on individuals and described nature as a spiritual force. The farmer became the one most in contact with nature.

Private property is important to agrarianism.

Influence

I believe much of the influence of the Yeoman Farmer, Romanticism and Agrarianism are still reflected in today’s culture and politic. As previously mentioned our farm policy reflects an idealism of the small, independent farmer although most of the farm program benefits the large farms while the small farmer is going out of business. At the same time the hardware store and other small business do not get the same kind of attention that agriculture does.

In reality farming is a business but it is treated differently than other businesses. If Jefferson were here today he would find that the farms are highly mechanized and capitalized, much as any business.

The popularity   of Western films and books reflects a romantic view of nature and opposed to cities which are often seen as somehow places of evil. The cowboy always wants to get back to the natural life on the plains away from the city.

Jefferson did later recognize that some industrialization was good.

In conclusion farming and the image of the Yeoman farmer is a national myth that pesists to this day in our politics and our national and popular culture.

Yeoman farmer

Do you think the Myth of the Yeoman Farmer has influenced our cuklture?

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    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 months ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Tank you for the comments. My grandparents were farmeers but often had to do other thing as well to get by.It has an appeal in it's various forms.

    • profile image

      Tim Morris 

      8 months ago

      I grew up on a family farm in edgecomb cnty, nc. It was a 3rd generation farm and about 400 acres. Tobacco, corn, soybean, peanuts, cotton the main crops... My family was from the tide-water area of south-eastern Va. We've been here since before the revolution, family fought for our freedom from GB, and in the civil war... I think Jefferson our most brilliant founder... I have now, at 53, realized what my family lost when they sold the farm in 1993. We lost our true freedom... One might say there's none, but let me tell you that there is. It's too much detail for here but when you owe no one; have none lording you, remain debt free, have little or no government influence; and rely totally on self and God for your livelihood then you are as free as one can be here in this country. It's hard at times be the end result and reward is all the much better. You have true value, it's you... You are more than a ss number... The land is your total resource and it will provide. You become one with nature; not a company or corporation... Hence, your loyalty is yours and no one requires it. The ball is totally in your court... There's much more but it has to be lived to gain a true picture of what I'm trying to say... Jefferson was right; Hamilton was not.

    • profile image

      Enrigorry 

      3 years ago

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    • profile image

      Enrigorry 

      3 years ago

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      3 years ago

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    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Not sure I understand. You might want to explain the relationship to my article.

    • profile image

      Genesousice 

      5 years ago

      We utilized to obtain high on lifetime although recently I have established the level of resistance.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for visiting and commenting.

    • profile image

      Genesousice 

      5 years ago

      I utilized to get on top of living but recently We have developed some sort of amount of resistance.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      The farm image in this hub has much to do with American political idealism and maybe not that much to do with farming. The Mennonites probably, along with some other groups, actually live something of the ideal, but most of us live very different lives. When I was young I thought farming would be a nice life, but mostly people have to grow up in it. I did work with some people who were part time farmers but made their living doing other things.

      Thank you for your observations and for reading the hub.

    • techygran profile image

      Cynthia 

      6 years ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

      Very interesting hub, food for thought as someone mentioned above. My own agrarian roots go back to Adam (I'm thinking this, since my genealogy is one long stream of peasant farmers with Northern European roots). My maternal Anglo-Irish Great-grandfather, was one of those idealizing gents who bought the land but actually didn't do much farming himself. I believe that my father (his son's son-in-law)was the first "real" farmer on that land, now passed down to my brother. My father's paternal family were Mennonites who colonized Kansas around the time of the Bolshevik Revolution. My grandfather on that side homesteaded in Saskatchewan and at age 50 passed the "home farm" on to a few sons, who although not raised in the Mennonite faith (Granny was Scots Presbyterian), farmed collectively, a very Mennonite practice. I'm proud to say that several of my kin-- brother, an uncle, cousins-- still farm "back home." I'm also rather sad and anxious about my nephews not having taken up the farming gauntlet but interested that our younger son who has no farm (at this point in time) is what he calls a "nomad farmer"-- pitching in with friends to produce various crops, many of them learned of from reading and the Internet. The idealizing, sentimental me (old farm girl) bemoans the lack of "traditional" farmers from my comfortable suburban home thousands of miles away from the "family farm" (although I do grow lots of fruit, etc. in the backyard). Sorry for hijacking your comment thread here-- very interesting!

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      vocalcoach, learning is always worthwhile, so if I can contribute to it in any way I'm glad. Thank you for your omment.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      6 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      I liked this hub so much! You always teach me something new and I love learning. Well written and I enjoyed it.

      Thanks for sharing this. Voted up and eager to read more of your hubs. Take care.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Your point of view is interesting.I admire Jefferson very much but I do think he was not the most down to earth practical person.Living on a plantation with slaves to do the work is a long way from the reality of a family working a farm.Today's farm policy also tends to favor the big farm,sometimes with absentee landlords.I don't want to get too deep into this because I have no real farm experience myself.Thanks for commenting and presenting your point of view.

    • profile image

      Aaron Farkas 

      7 years ago

      The yeoman culture persists today with homeowners and small business owners. Owning a home is the American Dream, and is a direct continuation of owning your own land for farming. Owning a piece of land in the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries meant that you were independent. You were not a slave, you were your own person.

      Today most people don't farm, but owning your own home is as close to it as some of us get. Owning a business is more of a direct continuation because you're "growing" your own wealth.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Farming is still idealized and symbolic. America spends a lot of money which is supposed to help small farmers but most of it goes to big farmers who may not even live on the farm but only invest in it.

      Much farming is hard work and I don't want to take away from that, but it has changed and is far more done by machines.

    • profile image

      Car Sol 

      7 years ago

      Interesting!! I love farming. I came from 3rd world country where most people, engaged in small agribusiness, were self-sufficient. These small farmers were hard-working gifted with good family values. But they were gone; and new generations are so indifferent to farming/agriculture. Attitudes change and family values erode. It seems that farming and good attitudes/strong family values are intertwined.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Your choice of a name like "Wannabwestern" might indicate a residue of the romance of the agrarian life. Like someone from another part of the country told me, the farms around the Quad cities would be called ranches out west.

      It is interesting that your grandparents would feel so physically insecure as that.

      Thanks for your comments.

    • wannabwestern profile image

      Carolyn Augustine 

      7 years ago from Iowa

      I loved this hub. It was good brain food and got me thinking about an area totally outside my normal interests. I agree we romanticize and idealize farm life. Most people who do live in cities and suburbs have no idea how difficult farm life is or how much work and specialized knowledge it takes. My grandparents wer farmers too. They worked very hard and had next to nothing, and their livelihood was tied up in family land ownership issues. But when I talk to my grandmother who is now in her mid-80s, she still speaks with great satisfaction about the sense of self-reliance that farming gave her. I think this is what is so appealing about the farming ideal. She also sometimes alludes to the fact that they felt isolated and insecure, as they answered the door many times shotgun in hand, no kidding!

      Kudos, too for your mention of the Utopian aspect of farming.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks Peggy W. I appreciate the compliment.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      7 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Yours usually do just that! Compliment intended!

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for the comment.If the Hub starts someone thinking about things I feel it was worthwhile.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      7 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Just a few generations ago there were many small farms but like you already said, they are being swallowed up by big agri-business. As to the health aspects of our food which randslam mentioned...that is a bit scary. And relying on others for our oil...crazy! I realize this is all off point, but your most interesting hub brings up thoughts of these other topics as well.

      Up and useful!

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thank you very much for the comment and vote.

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 

      7 years ago from malang-indonesia

      Good information. I always learn something new from you. Thanks for writing this. Vote up. Take care..

      Prastetio

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Good morning to you AskAshlie.Thank you for your comments.I guess one of my themes is how myth becomes reality and sometimes reality becomes myth. Our beliefs affect our actions.

    • AskAshlie3433 profile image

      AskAshlie3433 

      7 years ago from WEST VIRGINIA

      Voted up and awesome! Hey dahoglund, how are ya doing? This is a cool hub. I love the history aspect of it. I like the poll question. I guess in all reality, today is always influenced by the past. So, I would say it still is today. I always enjoy your hubs and enjoy talking with you. Best of luck and I will see you later. Good Morning to you.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for the added information.It is a bit outside of my field of knowledge,My main intent was to show the romatization of a way of life that never was and how it indluenced our attitudes.

    • randslam profile image

      Rand Zacharias 

      7 years ago from Kelowna, British Columbia

      Much of this romanticized farming came from jolly, old England--of course, where did the founding fathers/farmers get their ideologies from, but the English Isle.

      Interestingly, this age did last till perhaps the 70s or 80s, but presently, unless we get a grip on this oil-based economy we will continue to see the agri-business of farming become more corporate.

      "Food Inc.," a documentary on the meat that is coming to market in the US, has some very dire conclusions to reveal and smashing the myth of the gentleman farmer.

      When profit is king and chickens are genetically engineered, along with pork and beef, to grow twice as fast and twice as big as the animals of four decades ago--can we see a breakdown in our food chain?

      Unless, the local gardener and independent farmer continue to grow organic produce and meat--keeping the Yeoman farmer myth alive--we may see huge famines from contaminated foods because of the present-day corporate farms.

      Diversity has always been a necessity in farming, but with engineered strains of corn and wheat--what could happen to our food supply? It is a very real concern and should make one think about painting thumbs green and learning how to can food preservatives from the old family garden that sits in the backyard covered in sod, or worse, weeds.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for commenting. Indeed, today's farming are a far cry from what founders such as Jefferson envisioned. The idea of the land of yeoman farmers was a myth. It did not relate to real life agriculture but the image has had a big influence.Most farmers I have known were part time farmers and worked at other jobs.

    • Cyrellys profile image

      Cyrellys 

      7 years ago from Montana

      Here in Montana we have both small and large farms. The larger ones produce hay or grain crops or livestock. The smaller ones specialize. For example some produce wool for sale direct to craftsmen (spinners, weavers, felters) online, another example is a small farm that raises bum lambs from larger commercial operations. Or a small farm that produces free-range chickens. I know another one that specializes in quantities of goat milk which is then sold to a craftsman who makes specialty soap from it. Most small farms have to specialize to be profitable. For them specialization is more feasible than a larger commercial outfit due to specialized equipment costs and the amount of labor exceeding what a normal employment input would require. A small farm usually has the individuals dedicated enough to put in that extra unpaid time to produce products which is beyond the financial ability of tight-lined commercial operations.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I suppose farming as we think of it went away with my generation. Most of my friends had some experience living on farms but since I was youngest in my family all the farm people were retired by the time I was raised.

    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Hazelton 

      7 years ago from Sunny Florida

      Today the farmer has to struggle to make a living. I believe the days of a farm that stands alone are long gone. You have to depend on the industrial part of the world to make it even mildly successful.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Dennis Pace

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Sounds like you have found some worthwhile endeavor.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      WillStarr

      They also seem to like dictators and extremeist philosophies. Oh yes conspiracy theories.

    • Dennis Pace profile image

      Dennis Pace 

      7 years ago

      Great Ideas! I wrote once about "the Farm in Me". Now I have gone back to the land. Back to the basics. I dont have a farm, I live in a cold harsh environment, but i'm producing some of what we need. And I am loving it!

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 

      7 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      I wonder if it's insanity or intent.

      Those who steadfastly refuse to allow the development of our own natural (and massive!) energy resources are the same people who also seem bent on slapping America down for her imagined sins.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I appreciate the comment. My mother came from a family farm. Her stepfather was leader of the grange in his area. When my fathers family came here from Sweden they did farming along with other things.

      I agree about the dependence on oil. I am bothered by the lack of harvesting the oil and other energy resources we have domestically.It seems notheing hsort of insanity to be dependent on foreign nations for essential products.

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 

      7 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Not so long ago, many Americans still made a decent living on 200 acres, but today, most farms are huge affairs encompassing thousands of acres and cultivated with monstrous machines.

      Today, most Americans make their living elsewhere, including many who still own their family farm but lease it out to the agri-corporations.

      What most Americans do not realize is that we are just an oil shortage away from moving back on the farms in order to eat. Without oil to fuel the big farm machines, the soil will have to be tilled by hand, and that will take millions of hands.

      The easy life depends on energy, and that energy is still oil. Pretending otherwise is foolish.

      Great Hub!

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