Land has always been agriculture's most valuable resource in addition to historically being this nation's cornerstone of individual wealth. How that land was to be used, who controlled its riches and what the structure of American agriculture would be were all issues that would help spark the American Revolution.
The prominent agricultural historian USDA Wayne D. Rasmussen reminded us that when we speak of such structures we are talking about the basic control and organization of resources needed for farm production. "Questions of farm structures have always related to the structure of the entire food and fiber system and, indeed to the total economic, social and political organization of the United States."
When the early English colonists first settled in this new land called America, for example, 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 that became the basic causes for the American Revolution, a war that was led and fought mostly by planters and farmers.
Soon after independence was proclaimed and a federal constitution established, the fledgling government sought to encourage a land policy that would discourage sectionalism and provide an equal opportunity for all citizens to become land owners. By developing a township and range land survey system the Federal government sought to divide blocks of property equally so as to provide equal access to the land.
Already, however, feudal estates modeled after traditional Western European land holdings were in existence in the new land along with a number of various politically and religiously organized villages located principally in New England.
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.
The consequences of this conflict would soon become apparent, for it was in this colonial period that the dual US agricultural economy that persists to this day first emerged. On one hand there was a traditional subsistence form of agriculture, while on the other hand was a system destined to become the forerunner of modern corporate agribusiness.
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. This same idea would also soon come to inspire people from abroad by the millions to settle in this new, rich nation and/or attempt to emulate its ideals elsewhere in the world.
"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 United States shall be determined through a system that recognizes "equal justice under law."
This ordinance, which authorized the survey of all US-owned lands ahead of settlement into six-mile-square townships and square-mile sections of 640 acres each, was drafted by a committee chaired by Jefferson. 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. In turn, such entities would then be free to sell off that land to actual settlers for a profit. In fact, this is what did happen and it was not until the Homestead Act of 1862 that an attempt was made to change the practice.
Also stipulated in this Ordinance was the provision that one-half of the townships were to be sold as a whole and the other half in 640-acre sections. But, because such sales were by the 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.
Jefferson's belief that square grids were intrinsically democratic unfortunately led him to overlook the fact of existing geographical differences, which was a complicating factor from the start, one that quickly led to the packaging of land parcels and the advent of a lucrative and flourishing real estate business in America.
The government 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. Revenue realized from these sales, of course, was a key means by which the Federal government and Congress, composed at the time of many large landowners, generated revenues.
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 were slave owners and at least 11 were entrepreneurs. No one represented small farmers or artisans.
A.V. Krebs publishes the online newsletter The Agribusiness Examiner, which monitors corporate agribusiness from a public interest perspective. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.