“Commercial Farming and the 'Agrarian Myth' in the Early Republic"
Joyce Appleby, Journal of American History 68:4, March 1982

In this article that preceded her 1984 book,
Capitalism and a New Social Order, Joyce Appleby used a discussion of Early Republic agriculture as a jumping-off place for an argument about the Jeffersonian Republicans’ attitudes toward commerce and national growth. The overall argument was less interesting, for my purposes, than her starting-point. She argued that Richard Hofstadter’s 1955 book, The Age of Reform, 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 said Hofstadter’s Jeffersonians “created an ‘agrarian myth’ and fashioned for the new nation a folk hero, the yeoman farmer.” Hofstadter’s misrepresentation, she said, was based on two “very shaky” citations. Neither A.W. Griswold nor C.E. Eisinger had been saying what Hofstadter claimed, Appleby said. In fact, they had been 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.” 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.” Appleby’s Jeffersonians, unaware of the impending technological revolution we see so clearly in hindsight, looked forward 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. The shift from tobacco to wheat farming in the mid-Atlantic states “promoted in two decades the cities, towns, and hamlets that had eluded the Chesapeake region during the previous century of tobacco production.” She continued, “Philadelphia and New York, both drawing on a grain-raising hinterland, surpassed Boston in population, wealth, and shipping.”

This is an interesting approach to data that Kulikoff used quite differently. “In the single decade of the 1790s,” Appleby said, 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.” It would seem, regardless of one’s opinion of Appleby’s assessment of Jefferson, that 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.” This opportunity for American farmers, rather than a successful political settlement, insured the peace after 1787. Appleby stressed 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.” In a complete reversal of conventional wisdom, Appleby suggested “diversification, not specialization, held the key to raising crop yields and maintaining soil fertility...Economies of scale had no bearing.” To support this claim, she noted 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 went on to make a case for the Jeffersonians’ belief in commercial agriculture, rather than some pristine pre-capitalist yeoman competency. This growth-oriented agricultural vision supported Jefferson’s political program of western growth. She noted that Alexander Hamilton’s "response to the Louisiana Purchase” was anxiety that “the extension of America’s agricultural frontier...threatened to remove citizens from the coercive power of the state.” From this point (and in several later articles and books), the argument continued toward interpretations of democratic versus federalist issues. The value of Appleby’s argument, from my perspective, was that it suggested there was change in the way these Jeffersonian ideas were understood. By the time the Populists called on the memory of Jefferson’s agrarian ideals, America believed they meant something different. This may or may not be what Hofstadter said it was -- that will take more investigation. But long before the end of the nineteenth century, the myth was already in motion.