The Fountainhead of White America:
Richard Bushman’s The American Farmer in the Eighteenth Century

[1]2,756 words

Richard Lyman Bushman
The American Farmer in the Eighteenth Century

New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2018

Most of us who are not farmers are tempted to take farming for granted. We certainly see the results of farming in the produce sections of our supermarkets. Beyond that, we have pleasant images of industrious country folk in denim overalls just doin’ their thing amid amber waves of grain. While this image is not false, Richard Lyman Bushman rounds it out considerably in The American Farmer in the Eighteenth Century. He offers a history that underscores how the genius, passion, and violence of the American farmer played an essential role in the formation of the American nation during the colonial period.

He explores the concept of farming and farming life, which often contradicts common perceptions of eighteenth-century American history. He relies heavily on the diaries of farmers both famous and obscure. He offers relevant biographies of some of farming’s more pivotal and controversial characters. What’s more, he humanizes his subjects. He never judges them — even for their bad behavior. Instead, whether he realizes it or not, he depicts a life that may very well represent the zenith of Anglo-Saxon — read, white — civilization. The traditional, patriarchal status quo that the hectoring Left is impinging upon today can be found in its glory period in The American Farmer in the Eighteenth Century.

Bushman first explores the very idea of farming. Separate from the science of agriculture, the farming idea describes a way of life that was uniquely suited to the character of the northern European whites who first colonized the American plains. Nature could be capricious and cruel, but if you prepared for that you could survive. If you could fabricate the appropriate means using only your wits and Nature’s gifts, then perhaps you could thrive. Beyond an intricate understanding of the farm in its entirety, this required backbreaking work, large orderly families, staying out of debt, and dealing honestly with others. Such an environment provided the ideal evolutionary pressures to weed out the great from the good and the good from everyone else.

When a person such as Joshua Hempstead of New London in the Connecticut colony was appointed justice of the peace in 1727 and then later to the general assembly, it was not because he greased the right palms or had the right donors or pandered to one electorally influential minority at the expense of another. It was because within a society that praised honor and hard work, he was one of the most honorable and hardworking. Being a successful farmer in those days was a sign of exactly that.

One idea Bushman expresses throughout his book is that American westward expansion had one fundamental cause. It was not due to an incipient Manifest Destiny or thirst for conquest or greed for dollars or hatred of the indigenous populations. Westward expansion was fueled primarily by the insatiable desire of farmers to bequeath land and social status to their children. Families with six or more surviving children were common during a period when approximately eighteen people lived in rural areas to every one who lived in a town. Families were the bedrock of rural life, and everyone knew it. Since generations of large families cannot stay on one farm indefinitely, farmers placed relentless pressure upon their colonial leaders to make more land available. Land became the source of identity back then in the way that careers are today. Bushman bluntly states that “national acquisitions were driven by family need.” And at the head of these families was the unimpeachable authority of the patriarch.

The ideology that sustained the social relations of family production was patriarchy, the unquestioned assumption that authority resided rightfully in the father, and all were obligated to follow him. Patriarchy did not have to be trumpeted or preached; it seemed completely natural. Fathers governed by right of having generated their children. According to a New England aphorism, “Disobedience to Parents is against the Lawes of Nature and Nations.” The father, like the king, governed by divine right. The basis of chattel slavery could be questioned; the authority of fathers could not. To patriarchy was added the imperative of survival. The brute facts of farming meant that the family had to work. Everyone knew their lives depended on it. Much as children may have resented their father’s heavy hand, they knew that only constant toil kept them from hunger. Reality, as well as ideology, was on the father’s side.

In his section on New England, Bushman draws comparisons between Hempstead and the Native American Mohegan leader Uncas. History buffs may remember Uncas as one of the pro-British Native American belligerents in King Phillip’s War in the late 17th century. While not hostile to the whites, his relationship with them was typically cordial. He may have realized the futility in resisting white expansion, but he did so for a time. His people did have a claim to the land and had practiced agriculture before the whites arrived. But they were not organized or cohesive enough to resist white expansion. Like in other places in North America, “the Indians’ own rivalry was too bitter to permit cooperation.” By necessity, Uncas had to sell off his land piece by piece to the ravenous settlers until there was little left. He also did not always act responsibly in his own interests and had to employ a sympathetic white to manage his land transactions. After his death, however, his son, who was often dissipated by alcohol, sold off almost all of what remained.

Two major differences between the Indians of New England and the white farmers can explain the ascendancy of the latter. One was that the whites clung much more tightly to the land, and in doing so, worked harder — both mentally and physically — and produced much more. Throughout the book, Bushman provides detail after detail of the excruciating effort it took to run a flourishing farm. And it went far beyond working the land. Yes, farmers had to hoe and plow and harvest and slaughter and chop firewood. They had to know what to plant, where, and when. They had to constantly protect crops from insects, livestock from wolves, and both from the elements. The men had to mow grass, cut trees, repair fences, as well as transport lumber, hay, casks of wheat, barrels of meat, and other things to market or port. The women had to churn butter, boil soap, cook meals, tend to gardens and livestock, clean wool, spin flax, to say nothing of giving birth, rearing children, and nursing the sick. On top of this, farmers had to understand the market value of countless items on his farm. Appraising was an invaluable skill for a farmer. Many had to know how to use a Gunter chain to properly survey land so precise boundaries could be respected. They had to keep track of countless labor and barter transactions with neighbors. They had to be good shots with a rifle, especially in winter. They also had to double as carpenters, joiners, cobblers, tanners, and a host of other occupations.


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In comparison, Bushman dedicates a meager two-and-a-half pages to Indian agriculture. They grew corn, squash, beans, pumpkins, and a few other crops. But the men focused more on hunting, fishing, and military matters, leaving the bulk of the actual farm work to the women. This is perhaps why polygamy was so common among the Mohegan at that time. Bushman credits Uncas and his people as being expert trackers who could memorize square miles of pathless wood and navigate through it all, even at night. One passage describes how an Indian singlehandedly created an excellent canoe out of a chestnut log using nothing but a hatchet and fire. Despite Indian genius in such realms, this does not compare with the whites who were simply more energetic, resourceful, and productive with the land.

The second difference deals with the use of the written word. Uncas’ connection with the land relied upon memory, custom, verbal treaties, tricks of oratory, and other nebulous things. The Mohegans were a mobile people who had only a vague understanding of boundaries to begin with. Certainly, as a peaceful group, they had claims that the whites respected. However, the whites came to the negotiating table armed with deeds, wills, survey papers, contracts, and other documents to which the Indians had no defense. “[T]he moment the Indians put their marks on paper,” Bushman tells us, “they had given away the game.”

Bushman recognizes the tragedy inherent in the displacement of Uncas and his people. And so should we. They were a peaceful tribe as far as Indians went, and when they did go to war, they fought for the sake of the Crown. Uncas lost two sons as a result. Further, Bushman constantly reminds us of how contemporaneous whites had respect for Uncas’ people, but little concern. People like Hempstead cared most about their farms and their families, and bequeathing a good life for their children whom they loved.

Without intending cruelty or dominance, English settlers such as Hempstead possessed a sense that their family project must prevail. The cost to the natives was scarcely contemplated by Hempstead, any more than southern farmers measured the toll when their government refused to recognize slave marriages.

This was not arrogance, nor was it sinful. Farmers weren’t even motivated by greed. Bushman makes the point often that farmers across America should be thought of as pre-capitalists because they did not look for financial return on their investments. For them, farming was a way of life that could not be measured in dollars and cents. In 1783, when British farm reformer Arthur Young asked George Washington and Thomas Jefferson about the profits one could gain from farming, the responses from these two future presidents were touchingly naïve. Profits? What profits?

Young’s inquiry puzzled Jefferson. Young wanted to know about the return on capital investment, and Jefferson was of little help. “I had never before thought of calculating what were the profits of a capital invested in Virginia agriculture,” Jefferson wrote Washington, “yet that appeared to be what mister Young most desired.” The two Virginians were certainly calculating agriculturalists. They conducted experiments, invented farm equipment, maximized labor, but calculating a return on investment never occurred to them.

Bushman takes a similarly evenhanded approach in his chapter on black slavery during the colonial period. He points out that slaves were a status symbol among whites, and describes in detail the effort and expense it required to keep them. Slaves were tremendously valuable, and were most often treated as such. It made no sense to abuse slaves, and although some owners did, the worst punishment an owner could give a slave was not to whip him but to sell him off (a theme Mark Twain explores in Pudd’nhead Wilson). Bushman relies much on Thomas Jefferson since Jefferson kept meticulous records. As Bushman tells us, “Jefferson’s highest priority was management of his large, valuable, and unwieldy workforce.”

Once Jefferson had listed his slaves by families and skills, he began another series of lists accounting for supplies. Food, clothing, and bedding were the ongoing expenses of slavery, and Jefferson sought control here as in everything else on the plantation. His first list recorded the distribution of blankets. He assumed a blanket was good for ten years and so headed each column with a ten-year period: 1792-1801, 1793-1802, 1794-1803. Betty Brown received a blanket for herself in 1792, and a year later another blanket for her two children, Wormeley Hughes and Burwell Colbert.

We know the names of these slaves because Thomas Jefferson knew them all by name. By the standards of the day, he treated them well. He rarely lost his temper and was often kind. When traveling, he often tipped them.

Given our current COVID situation, I was particularly taken with this passage:

He [Jefferson] forbade bleeding, a common remedy, but did inoculate a few slaves at Monticello against smallpox in the 1770s, a risky procedure. Beginning in 1801, after the arrival of Edward Jenner’s procedure, all the slaves were vaccinated.

Bushman also articulates a point made often by Thomas Nelson Page, that in slavery many blacks became highly trained and developed particularly useful skills, such as smithing or carpentry, which served them well once they gained their freedom. As a result, slaves were often integral, not just on plantations but within smaller households as well.

There was also a high amount of trust between white and black during the Colonial period. Bushman relays the story of how Jefferson’s slave George Granger protected his master’s silver when Jefferson’s home was raided by the redcoats during the Revolutionary War. He also brings up the well-known fact, often employed by Southern sympathizers, that only a tiny fraction of slaves chose freedom when the British offered it to them during the war.

Of course, Bushman does not justify slavery, and portrays it as the cruel institution it was. Any slave craving freedom courted tremendous danger. The life of even a compliant slave was often difficult and treacherous. By detailing the lives of slaves during this period, he humanizes them and elicits our empathy. But he also humanizes the whites, both those calculating expenses from Jefferson’s high executive perch to those small planters and homeowners who rolled up their sleeves and worked alongside their slaves. Fifty-seven percent of slaves in Jefferson’s Albemarle County in 1792 worked for such households. People can condemn slavery as a moral abomination all they want. But something must be said for those tough, hard-working white farmers who wouldn’t give to a slave a job they wouldn’t perform themselves.

Bushman encourages us to see farming during the Colonial period as a historical and political force. It begins with the Ice Age. When climate forced the glaciers to retreat past a certain latitude thousands of years ago, the glaciers tore up the landscape, leaving an uneven rocky mess in their wake. This had a profound impact on farming in America — south of a certain line, one could comfortably walk outside without shoes. And people knew exactly where this line was in many places because Charles Mason, Jeremiah Dixon, and others actually surveyed it. The undisturbed soil in the southern half of North America was thus more conducive to plantation agriculture, which led to cash crops meant chiefly for export. The short winters led to the importation of valuable slaves since, unlike Northern planters, Southern ones could keep them employed year-round. In the rougher, colder North during this period, farms tended towards mixed crops for personal or local consumption. In one of his most fascinating chapters, Bushman adroitly describes how climate and geology led inevitably to the stark cultural differences between North and South which would rend the nation apart in the following century.

By the end of The American Farmer in the Eighteenth Century, we realize that we are reading a crucial and overlooked history of white people. More than anything, it was the genius, effort, and suffering of the American farmer which propelled Western civilization across North America and hewed a great nation out of wild, unbroken terrain. Farmers could be heroic when defending their interests, such as the pro-white reformer Herman Husband who battled against an exploitive North Carolina government in the early 1770s. They could also be cruel, such as the Paxton Boys who sought bloody retribution against innocent and peaceful Indians in Pennsylvania after their own farms had endured brutal Indian raids for years.

In either case, the American farmers played a crucial role in developing an environment that especially suited white people and everyone else willing to cooperate with them. Rugged individualism, the nuclear family, providing for one’s children, never-ending hard work, calculated risk-taking, scrupulous planning for the future, living free from government, religious, or social oppression — what more could a white person want? In detailing the lives and aspirations of the American farmer, Richard Bushman depicts the fountainhead of white America, from which greatness sprang.

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