Farmers Sow Permanent Revolution

From that moment that the first discoverer arrived on the North American continent the story of America's bountiful agricultural system has been one of a never-ending search by a few to mine the nation's abundant natural resources, quantify them in monetary terms, and rapidly convert them into more lucrative processed and manufactured commodities.

Likewise, throughout our history we have seen government and business, with the latter's best interests nearly always uppermost in mind, actively pursue policies and programs to exploit from "sea to shining sea" this nation's vast treasure-trove of natural and human resources.

Describing the role agriculture has taken in this historical process Joseph Petulla stresses in his authoritative American Environmental History: The Exploitation and Conservation of Natural Resources:

"It is almost an understatement to assert that Americans have been all too willing to exploit natural resources to their limits for personal gain. But to decry America's materialism and greedy profit-seeking, its collective attitudes of waste, would be an oversimplified moralization. Attitudes -- materialistic or otherwise -- are born in history.

"Economic, political and social institutions create a culture and a mentality which in turn live long after those institutions have given way to new structures. With them technologies are developed to meet new needs and engender habits, even new cultures of their own. Economies and politics, attitudes and beliefs, technologies and habits -- - these variables interact in a complex web of relationships in the creation of a culture."

In a very real sense, therefore, the history of American agriculture is not a series of revolutions, but rather a continuing revolution based primarily on increasing productivity per dollar and per worker invested. For nearly 200 years the nation was wedded to a policy of land settlement based on an abundance of land and a scarcity of labor. Then from hand to animal power to tractor power to high technology this agrarian revolution became characterized by a dehumanization process which has worked in concert with the treatment of natural resources exclusively for their market profitability.

As Dr. Petulla points out, American exploitative attitudes, "were derived from the specific historical situations. Natural resources were available for the taking; social status came from rapid material advancement and affluence; economic opportunities encourage risk and the plunder of nature; national policy opened increasingly larger areas of land and subsequent markets; technologies to exploit and more resources followed the need; the 'good life' and economic security seemed to require an ever-increasing rate of resource exploitation."

When the early English colonists first settled in this new land called America they soon faced the "quit-rent" system, a holdover from the centuries-old "land ownership" system in Europe. Under such a system tenants could only get title to the land subject to a perpetual small fee paid to an absentee landlord who usually resided in England.

In addition to this "quit-rent" system, the new farmers also came to resent the British government's efforts after 1763 to forbid the establishment of settlements west of the Alleghenies and its efforts to control the marketing of products from that area by imposing unfair taxes on them. It was these three efforts by the British to regulate the structure of American agriculture which became the basic causes for the American Revolution, a war that was led and fought mostly by planters and farmers.

When the early settlers began to move inland at the end of the 18th century small-scale farming started to dominate the agricultural scene. Such a trend began to alarm industrialists, bankers and the large plantation owners because it signaled the effort by the new settlers to distribute the country's real wealth -- - its natural resources -- - into as many hands as possible.

Geographer Ingolf Voegler characterizes the land-settling efforts by early pioneers as a desire to achieve an egalitarian land base. He reminds us that it was that revolutionary concept through which economic democracy was meant to sustain political democracy.

"For Jefferson and other eighteenth-century intellectuals, a nation of small farmers would provide political freedom, independence and self-reliance, and the ability to resist political oppression. In their minds, these goals were predicated on the right to own property, especially land. The right to land, the primary form of wealth in the eighteenth century, meant the right to a job and economic independence."

Jefferson reasoned that in a democracy, access to the land must be provided by the national government.

"Whenever there are in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate a natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on. If for the encouragement of industry, we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be provided to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not, the fundamental right to labor the earth returns to the unemployed."

Unfortunately, the Ordinance of 1785 is an early illustration of how to this day we have basically failed to insure that the distribution of land in the US shall be determined through a system that recognizes "equal justice under law." Although the prevailing philosophy of agrarian democracy that motivated the ordinance was a dominant influence for 75 years, in practice the ideal was poorly served.

From the start, for example, Alexander Hamilton saw speculators and land companies, not individuals, becoming the principal buyers of public land.

Because such sales were by an auction system, it became relatively easy for land companies and speculators to gain large tracts of land at cheap prices and then resell them at excessive profits to actual settlers. Over 220 million acres would be bought and sold in this fashion.

The new government in seeking to raise revenues soon began selling land at prices much higher than its original purchase price, which discouraged actual settlers from purchasing it. The cost to the federal government, including interest, of the major and historic land purchases of the early 19th century was four and one-half cents per acre. Much of this same land, under the provisions of the 1785 ordinance, was in turn sold to settlers for over one dollar per acre.

A newly adopted Federal Constitution and an ever-expanding market for American goods now began preparing the groundwork for later technological innovations that would encourage new economic and social developments in agriculture. One has only to look at the composition of the delegates to the convention that drafted this Constitution to see that while future expansion of the national economy was important, protecting one's own immediate financial interests was absolutely vital to many of its drafters.

Of the 55 delegates to the Constitution Convention, 40 were holders of public securities, 14 were land speculators, 24 were moneylenders, 15 slave owners, and at least 11 were entrepreneurs. No one represented small farmers or artisans.

The Constitution's delegation of power to Congress to "pay the debts of the United States" provided the opportunity for Alexander Hamilton, the nation's first secretary of the treasury, to induce Congress to assume all of the Revolutionary War's debts.

But, by using tariffs and excise taxes on whiskey, Hamilton not only curried the favor of Eastern merchants, manufacturers and other money lenders who profited from such federal largesse, but he also angered and alienated small farmers, whose corn whiskey stills were taxed, forcing them to pay higher prices for their imported goods. It was this action that fomented numerous small protests leading to uprisings such as the Whiskey Rebellion, which many regard as the first of this nation's farm protest movements.


A.V. Krebs operates the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project which publishes the on-line newsletter The Agribusiness Examiner. Email