2 views of agrarian radicalism

Alfred F. Young, ed. Beyond the American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism,1993

Allan Kulikoff, “The American Revolution, Capitalism, and the Formation of the Yeoman Classes”


As you’d expect from the title, Kulikoff argues that there was class-consciousness among yeomen farmers, separating them not only from aristocrats and merchants, but also from capitalist farmers. Kulikoff has written extensively on farmers and the revolutionary period, and I’ll need to look at his books to discover whether his claims are supported, because he doesn’t provide any primary evidence in this article (this is frustrating, and may be a warning to me, never to write an article without evidence, regardless how retrospective I think it is). He defines yeoman farming as being based solely on family labor, and although sometimes selling surpluses in the market, primarily oriented toward self-sufficiency and survival (he does not use the word competency, but that seems to be the idea). There’s an intermediate group of commercial farmers, who sometimes employ wage labor and credit, and who produce for the market. And finally, there are capitalist farmers, who are completely committed to the market. Kulikoff does not provide any concrete examples of these types (which is clearly a problem, for me).

I've written my thoughts about Kulikoff's argument in italics, as it goes. This seems most useful to me, and hopefully will make sense to readers.

Kulikoff says “These Virginia
yeomen, who constituted three-fifths of the white heads of families in the colony, owned land and knew that freeholding land tenure was their only claim to political participation, their only security against impoverishment...To gain votes in the 1790s and beyond, gentlemen, especially Jeffersonian Republicans, placed this yeoman self-image at the center of their message, thereby legitimating and co-opting the political rhetoric of the sturdy yeoman.” (81-2) While I find the idea that politicians used (and partly manufactured) this yeoman image, partly to the detriment of the actual farmers, plausible, I think Kulikoff’s argument is strained and too heavily informed by theory.

Yeomen,” he says (his italics), “were small, producing farmers who owned land and participated in markets to sustain familial autonomy and local exchange. [in other words, they were philosophically committed to local, barter exchange within the community? Where? When?] Practicing ‘safety first’ agriculture, they grew much of the food they consumed and tried to procure the rest through trade with neighbors. [others put safety second? Doesn’t this really mean they had families to feed, they were living at a subsistence level, and the only people around to trade with were their neighbors, because there was no effective transportation to distant markets?] Avoiding entangling debts, they retained the independence needed to make virtuous political decisions. [they did this on purpose? Or were they living in a remote, rural, subsistence economy where they were unable to get credit, and would have had no use for it anyway. The Jeffersonians said this was virtuous -- are we falling for the same political line they sold to the yeomen?] Yeoman farmers can be contrasted with capitalist farmers, who sought greater market embeddedness, concentrated on staple crops, and on occasion bought financial instruments. Unlike yeomen, they often hired wage laborers to increase their output and profits. [am I being cynical, or do they have to use “financial instruments” and wage labor, and the yeomen have to be innocent of that sin, or the predetermined structure Kulikoff is building for us doesn’t work?] They became part of a capitalist economy, one where profits were divided between the original producers (farmers, artisans, small urban capitalists, wage laborers) and a class of capitalists who owned and controlled the means of production and who expropriated part of the value of goods every producer made. [how’s that again? Who are these über-capitalists? How do they expropriate this surplus value? No, not in theory -- on the ground! Who and where are they??]” (84) The citation at the end of this paragraph actually directs the reader to Kulikoff’s own book, The Agrarian Origins of American Capitalism, which I’ve been meaning to read.

“Repudiating feudalism,” Kulikoff says, these American yeomen “rarely held property in common; disliking capitalism, they nonetheless espoused private property in land, and the land markets, economic interdependence, and capitalist development they disliked inevitably followed.” (85)
Brian Donahue challenges the claim that commons were uncommon. And again, development of land markets (and speculation, etc.) is ironic, but is it inevitable? Is theory filling in for evidence?

Kulikoff says events like the resistance of Hudson Valley tenants in the 1760s “led yeomen to greater self-definition as a class,” (88) and this is fine as far as it goes. But so what? What did they do? What happened as a result? A “yeoman class ideology can be traced to justifications of their right to land when either gentlemen or native Americans threatened...To legitimate their rights to land, yeomen embraced a labor theory of value, one they had carried over with them from England, but that lay dormant until conflict broke out.” (90) This is really frustrating, because Kulikoff’s determination to make these guys into little proto-Marxists almost obscures some really interesting ironies. The “labor theory” these yeomen were using was the idea that unimproved land, which (deliberately?) misunderstanding the Indians‘ agricultural and hunting techniques, they believed the frontier to be, couldn’t be owned. The irony is that they had to appeal to the “gentlemen” in charge of the government for protection against these Indians, even as they tried to maintain their claims to the land and their autonomy. “Indians, John Winthrop...insisted, ‘enclose noe Land, neither have any setled habytation, nor any tame cattle to improve the Land by,’ and therefore had no right to retain ownership of it. Only human labor improved the land, thereby bestowing ownership rights upon it.” (90) Okay, in the first place, Winthrop said this over a hundred years before the story Kulikoff is telling about the revolution. It’s unclear how much of this Winthrop believed, and how much was a justification drawn from Locke. Winthrop actually says (and Kulikoff neglects to quote) “...nor any tame cattle to improve the Land by, and soe have no other but a Naturall Right.” But in any case, this passage does not prove the yeomen espoused a labor theory of value. Based on the quote, Winthrop could as easily have been arguing for a “Cattle” theory of value, or less ridiculously for “habitation” as a basis for land title. This is a claim squatters would later make, along with the improvement argument, when defending their farms against landlords from the cities.

“Whig leaders,” says Kuliloff, “came to understand that to gain support of white property holders they had to appeal to the lived experience of the yeomen, to their fears of losing their land.” (94)
The implication is that urban Committees of Correspondence deliberately crafted their message to their rural audience, to play on fears the city-folk didn’t share. But “wherever yeomen (or would-be yeomen among tenants) saw Whig gentlemen as enemies, they joined the British or stayed neutral.” This is an interesting argument, especially if it led to the Whigs promising (or hinting at) a revolutionary settlement they had no interest in or intention of supporting, once the war was won.

After the war, in the period leading up to the Constitution, Kulikoff says the Whig delegates to the Philadelphia convention “sought a stronger national government, with the power to tax, regulate commerce, suppress internal conflict, and encourage economic development. They uniformly opposed agrarian laws, a term used to imply the redistribution of wealth and the leveling of property.” This is interesting. I’d love to know what some of these “agrarian” law proposals were. Franklin also suggested it might be a good idea to limit the accumulation of capital and land -- but he was ignored. Who would be able to vote and hold office went right to the taxation and representation claims the revolutionaries had made against England. “In pushing for greater freeholder democracy in the 1780s and 1790s,” Kulikoff says, “yeomen became more conscious of themselves as a political class, distinct from gentlemen and merchants.” (104) Again, okay -- but to what degree was somebody else (Democratic Republicans fighting the Federalists) trying to form that group consciousness in them, to lead them into the party?

“White settlers in the Ohio Valley welcomed the military campaigns of the 1790s that ultimately ended what they saw as the Indian menace.” (105) Heavy irony here: these sturdy individualist yeomen are appealing to the state to conquer the Indians, so they can have lands they will subsequently claim are theirs by natural right and not subject to taxation or competing claims by gentlemen who have the backing of that same state. Maybe the continuing presence of the Indian issue prevented these yeomen from ever really coming together to form a “party.”

Kulikoff admits that “older [yeoman] strategies of communal self-sufficiency in food [quickly became] difficult, if not impossible.” He continues, “These yeoman ideals influenced the political leaders who created a powerful ideology that historians have commonly called ‘Jeffersonian agrarianism’...Agrarian realists like Thomas Jefferson contended that the best possible society was one dominated by small, independent producers. Only widespread distribution of land could prevent usurpation of power and destruction of the republic by the wealthy.” Again, the implication is that this was a political position rather than a sincere philosophy. It’s an attractive idea, and I wish he’d provided evidence. But, in the long run, for my purposes, does it matter whether Jefferson believed or not?

“The Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture illuminates the improving spirit that animated capitalist farmers. Founded in 1785 by merchants, doctors, and gentlemen (including Benjamin Rush and Robert Morris), nearly all of whom opposed Pennsylvania’s democratic constitution of 1776 and applauded the federal Constitution of 1787, the society gave its first prize...to George Morgan, a gentleman farmer from Princeton, New Jersey.” (106)
This is interesting: if they are really like Kulikoff says, are they a little proto-Country Life Movement? Kulikoff concludes that the “defeat of yeoman popular democracy in the revolutionary era was only the first stage in the struggle of yeomen to maintain their communal social order. On every frontier yeomen reinvented their class and remade a world of patriarchal family government, food-producing farms, and communal self-sufficiency. As capitalist farmers expanded on the northern frontiers, conflicts with yeomen ensued...only the radical legacy of the Revolution sustained yeomen democracy for so long, nurturing the yeomanry through their protracted struggles of the nineteenth century.” (108) This is just not true. Agricultural settlers did NOT face the same conditions, did not go out west to get away from the market economy (especially after the railroads), and certainly didn’t aspire to utopian communalism except in rare instances. But it’s a strong myth, that probably draws a lot of its strength from Turner, and a lot from the desire of historians to tell a story like this. A continuous struggle, of a self-conscious class. Maybe that’s the real central question: can people be part of a continuous class, based solely on their self-association with a myth, regardless of the fact that their life experience completely invalidates that association? Obviously, I need to plan a chapter on the myth of the yeoman farmer, and its effect on rural history/historiography (both what happened, and what’s been said about what happened).



Alan Taylor, “Agrarian Independence: Northern Land Rioters after the Revolution”

In contrast to Kulikoff, Taylor’s article is full of references to particular people and events. He quotes “Liberty-Men” who he says were “defending their notion of the American Revolution against betrayal by the Great Proprietors”:

“Who can have better right to the land than we who have fought for it, subdued it & made it valuable which if we had not done no proprietor would ever have enquired after it...Wild land ought to be as free as common air. These lands once belonged to King George. He lost them by the American Revolution & they became the property of the people who defended & won them. The General Court did wrong & what they had no right to do when they granted them in such large quantities to certain companies & individuals & the bad acts of government are not binding on the subject...”

This was a sentiment, Taylor says, that was shared by “the Wild Yankees of Pennsylvania, the Anti-Renters of New York, and the Liberty-Men of Maine...that communities must resist laws that traduced the Revolution’s meaning. This was not what General Know wanted to read.” (224) Taylor gives us two groups, with wildly different world-views and expectations of the Revolution. “As gentlemen of property and standing,” he says, “Timothy Pickering, Philip Schuyler, and Henry Know fought a war for national independence, a war intended to place America’s government in their own hands and to safeguard their extensive property from arbitrary parliamentary taxation. They expected the new order to safeguard pre-revolutionary legal contracts, especially large land grants...But those agrarians perceived Pickering, Schuyler, and Knox as de facto Tories, greedy betrayers of the American Revolution’s proper meaning.”
Why did the agrarians expect this? Who told them this is what they were fighting for? Thomas Paine, for one. How much did they know, going in, that this was not the idea the rich were fighting for? How much were they hoping to push it farther? Depending on democracy to give them that chance?

Agrarians, he says “sought an American Revolution that maximized their access to, and secured their possession of, freehold land on which they could realize their labor as their own private property. This meant minimizing the levies of the ‘great men’: taxes, rents, land payments, and legal fees.” (225-6)
This expression seems much more nuanced and reasonable than Kulikoff’s. The agrarians “sought” a Revolution, after the fact. They realized that in increasingly technological, capital-intensive, and even cooperative enterprises, they lose some of the title to their labor, which they retain in subsistence agriculture. This is a sophisticated distinction. And they realize that society creates the ownership, legal, and power relationships that allow “great men” to enrich themselves. If true, this is very cool.

These agrarians were not seen as kooks -- at least not by everyone. In 1803, Robert H. Rose said of the Pennsylvania rebels: “They can not pay at present. They are a very industrious set of people, & such as make the best first settlers in a country like this; but the difficulty of clearing the land is so great that some years expire before a man can raise a subsistence for his family from it.” (231)
This indicates an understanding that different people and personalities were needed, to settle a frontier, and presumably that there was some type of ongoing social contract with these people, even after the pioneer phase ended. Migration to the frontier “redistributed most of the population increase in the United States to new counties virtually unpopulated by whites in 1760...at the same moment that the Revolution discredited received authority and legitimated confronting rulers who imperiled ‘natural rights.’” (232) The fact that extralegal violence had been sanctified by the Revolution clearly complicated the issue for those trying to impose order from above.

Taylor suggests that “leading men” in remote agrarian communities helped the rebels, until Jefferson’s party gave them a way out of their tight spot between their neighbors and the aristocrats. “Jeffersonianism sapped resistance by winning over the leading men,” both with less draconian policies toward the rebels and with the prospect of acceptance into a slightly broader elite society. (236) After the “Revolution of 1800,” the authorities “simultaneously legislated against extralegal resistance while establishing institutional mechanisms to set compromise prices.” (235) These included a 1799 Pennsylvania “Compromise Act” paired with an 1801 stiffening of the 1795 “Intrusion Act.” Jeffersonians’ propaganda extolled the virtues of the agrarians, which may have mitigated the rebels’ frustration with compromise; but they were practical farmers who were probably by this point more interested in providing for their families than fighting for principle. Taylor concludes that the Jeffersonians’ compromises, and the general belief that this was the best deal anyone would ever get, helped the leading men sell their neighbors on ending the resistance, so that “over time, the social mobility of a strategic few shrank the contested, marginal, autonomous districts that had temporarily expanded after the Revolution.” (237) It’s tempting to think these leading men betrayed their neighbors. But the resolution of these conflicts left many of the rebels with the land they wanted, and in exchange for some autonomy allowed them to stop being marginal. Notwithstanding Kulikoff’s ideal of the self-sufficient yeoman, I think many agrarian families welcomed an opportunity to participate in the market to some degree. So, to some degree, this was a victory for them, which they would never have achieved had they not stood up to the aristocrats in the cities.