Lincoln, Jefferson, and American Agricultural Romanticism

This essay explores the history of American agricultural romanticism through the perspectives of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and others. It asks questions about what their perspectives were, and to some extent, whether they are compatible with modern American agriculture. Your thoughts are very much welcome. Just use the "Click to Comment" text in green above. I have heard many times over my 25 years of studying agriculture that many people have an overly romanticized view of farming, farms, and the farm life. Agrarian romanticism has a long tradition in American history, politics and literature, but it has also been legitimately challenged by many authors. I recently became re-interested in this issue because of a quote I read from Abraham Lincoln, whose life, ideals, political and moral views have recently become topical based on the recent Spielberg film "Lincoln". In his address before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in September of 1959 Lincoln said: "Population must increase rapidly-more rapidly than in former times-and ere long the most valuable of all arts, will be the art of deriving a comfortable subsistence from the smallest area of soil. No community whose every member possesses this art, can ever be the victim of oppression of any of its forms. Such community will be alike independent of crowned-kings, money-kings, and land-kings... No other human occupation opens so wide a field for the profitable and agreeable combination of labor with cultivated thought, as agriculture. I know of nothing so pleasant to the mind, as the discovery of anything which is at once new and valuable-nothing which so lightens and sweetens toil, as the hopeful pursuit of such discovery. And how vast, and how varied a field is agriculture, for such discovery. The mind, already trained to thought, in the country school, or higher school, cannot fail to find there an exhaustless source of profitable enjoyment. Every blade of grass is a study; and to produce two, where there was but one, is both a profit and a pleasure. And not grass alone; but soils, seeds, and seasons-hedges, ditches, and fences, draining, droughts, and irrigation-plowing, hoeing, and harrowing-reaping, mowing, and threshing-saving crops, pests of crops, diseases of crops, and what will prevent or cure them-implements, utensils, and machines, their relative merits, and [how] to improve them-hogs, horses, and cattle-sheep, goats, and poultry-trees, shrubs, fruits, plants, and flowers-the thousand things of which these are specimens-each a world of study within itself."

The agrarian romantic tradition is typically more closely associated with an earlier US President: Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s agrarian ideal involved a belief that farms would form the basis of a democracy and a healthy American Republic. And there are clearly echoes of Jeffersonian ideals in Lincoln’s comments.

In Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), he states:

“Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phænomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. It is the mark set on those, who not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry, as does the husband-man, for their subsistence, depend for it on the casualties and caprice of customers.”

Jefferson, in contrast to many of his contemporaries (most notably Alexander Hamilton), believed that the autonomy and authenticity of farm life presented an superior alternative to a society based on commerce, manufacturing, and aristocratic elitism. It would be interesting to know what Jefferson might have thought about modern agriculture, in light of the now widely held idea that American farming has in many ways become another form of manufacturing and commerce though the process of “agricultural industrialization”.

Lincoln’s comments above, are particularly interesting in that they seem to specifically address “small farming”. It is important to note that this speech was given two years before the beginning of the Civil War. As a Midwesterner addressing a Rural Midwestern audience, it is not impossible to imagine that Lincoln’s comments were not necessarily meant to be inclusive of Southern “plantation farming”. But it is also important to note that in speaking of agrarian “kingdoms” Lincoln clearly seems to be channeling the Jeffersonian ideal – one that has been criticized based on the fact that Jefferson himself was a slave holder.

One significant difference between Lincoln’s speech and Jefferson’s writing is that Lincoln clearly focused on scientific development within agriculture, while Jefferson is focused on its spiritual qualities. It is also ironic that many historians attribute, at least in part, the outcome of the Civil War to the superior manufacturing infrastructure of the Northern States to that of the largely agriculturally-based economy of the South.

The plantation system of the south, it should also be noted, was not totally unlike many of the agrarian societies that preceded it over the past several thousand years, which were often based on slavery and serfdom. Nor was Jefferson’s ideal of the farmer as holy something that was understood to be incompatible with the brutality and injustice of slavery. Fredrick Douglass, in his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave describes a particular small (poor) farmer who both brutally used slavery in his own pursuit of commerce, and was regarded within his own community as moral and “pious”:

“Mr. Covey was a poor man, a farm-renter. He rented the place upon which he lived, as also the hands with which he tilled it. Mr. Covey had acquired a very high reputation for breaking young slaves, and this reputation was of immense value to him. It enabled him to get his farm tilled with much less expense to himself than he could have had it done without such a reputation. Some slaveholders thought it not much loss to allow Mr. Covey to have their slaves one year, for the sake of the training to which they were subjected, without any other compensation. He could hire young help with great ease, in consequence of this reputation. Added to the natural good qualities of Mr. Covey, he was a professor of religion pious soul member and a class-leader in the Methodist church. All of this added weight to his reputation as a “nigger-breaker.”

Nor does it seem that American agriculture has totally shed the darkest parts of its history. In his book Tomatoland, Barry Estabrook documents cases of slavery within the modern agricultural system. And it is also quite clear that not everyone is enamored with all the current practices by which science (promoted by Lincoln as “pleasant”) is being used to improve yields. But that is issue for a different post.

Taylor Reid

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