Jefferson's commercial yeoman, via Appleby

Joyce Appleby "Commercial Farming and the 'Agrarian Myth' in the Early Republic" Journal of American History 68:4, March 1982
Joyce Appleby uses Early Republic agriculture as a jumping-off place for an argument about the Jeffersonian Republicans’ attitudes toward commerce and national growth. Richard Hofstadter’s 1955 book,
The Age of Reform, had found “the roots of the nostalgia that flowered with the Populists” in Jefferson’s feelings for the “noncommercial, nonpecuniary, self-sufficient aspects of American farm life.” Appleby says Hofstadter’s Jeffersonians “created an ‘agrarian myth’ and fashioned for the new nation a folk hero, the yeoman farmer” (833-4). Hofstadter misunderstood or misrepresented Jefferson's attitude toward commerce, she claims, based on two “very shaky” citations (834). Neither A.W. Griswold nor C.E. Eisinger were saying what Hofstadter thought they were, Appleby says. In fact, they were arguing not for a Jeffersonian preoccupation with noncommercial yeoman self-sufficiency, but for a freehold concept linked to rising population, increasing demand for food production, and foreign grain markets.

Although “yeoman has become a favorite designation” for early American farmers, and “a code word for a man of simple tastes, sturdy independence, and admirable disdain for all things newfangled,...Anyone searching for the word yeoman in the writings of the 1790s will be disappointed...The error in current scholarly usage, however, is not lexical, but conceptual” (835, 837). In reality, she says, after a post-war depression that ended in 1788, American farmers enjoyed a generation of rising wheat prices based on the growing inability of Europe to meet its own needs. Farmers “anticipated participation in an expanding international commerce in foodstuffs created the material base for a new social vision...the battle between Jeffersonians and Federalists appears not as a conflict between the patrons of agrarian self-sufficiency and the proponents of modern commerce, but rather as a struggle between two different elaborations of capitalistic development in America” (836). Appleby’s Jeffersonians, unaware of the impending technological revolution we see so clearly in hindsight, looked to the “long upward climb of prices...[of] crops that ordinary farmers could easily grow” as the basis of continued growth and stability in the new republic (839). The shift from tobacco to wheat farming in the mid-Atlantic “promoted in two decades the cities, towns, and hamlets that had eluded the Chesapeake region during the previous century of tobacco production” (839-40). “Philadelphia and New York, both drawing on a grain-raising hinterland, surpassed Boston in population, wealth, and shipping” (840).

This is an interesting approach to data that Allan Kulikoff uses quite differently. “In the single decade of the 1790s,” Appleby says, America’s 75 post offices increased to 903 while the mileage of post routes went from 1,875 to 20,817. The number of newspapers more than doubled; circulation itself increased threefold” (841). Things were going well for many American farmers and communities. And maybe this leads to the main point: after “1788 a new upward surge in grain and livestock prices ushered in a thirty-year period of prosperity” (840). Increased opportunity for American farmers, rather than a successful political settlement, insured the peace after 1787. Appleby stresses the idea that international demand for grain allowed farmers “to increase surpluses without giving up the basic structure of the family farm.” There was no wide, difficult transition from subsistence to commercial agriculture: farmers could remain diversified, meet their families' needs and still “could participate in the market with increasing profits without taking the risks associated with cash crops” (841). In a complete reversal of conventional wisdom, Appleby suggests “diversification, not specialization, held the key to raising crop yields and maintaining soil fertility...Economies of scale had no bearing” (842). To support this claim, she notes that “the wealth of the North surpassed that of the South for the first time in the period from 1774 to 1798,” before Northern industrialization.

Appleby goes on to make a case for the Jeffersonians’ belief in commercial agriculture, rather than some pristine pre-capitalist yeoman competency. A growth-oriented agricultural vision meshes better with Jefferson’s political program of western growth. She notes that “Hamilton’s response to the Louisiana Purchase” was that “the extension of America’s agricultural frontier...threatened to remove citizens from the coercive power of the state” (848). From this point (and in several later articles), the argument goes toward  interpretations of democratic versus federalist issues. The value of the argument, from my perspective, is that it suggests there was change in the way these Jeffersonian ideas have been understood. By the time the Populists called on Jefferson, America believed he had said something different. This may or may not be what Hofstadter says it was -- that will take more investigation. But long before the end of the nineteenth century, the myth was already in motion.