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