“The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.”


When we write of Southern rural life (as when we write of Southern speech, manners, history, or literature) we essay a phenomenon significantly different from that which would normally be suggested were the modifier “Southern” to be replaced by “American.”

In the beginning, Southern agriculture laid the foundation for America. It was Southern tobacco, and to a lesser extent rice, indigo, cotton, and naval stores, which provided the economic incentive and raison d’être for the British settlement of North America. Aside from the fur trade, the Northern colonies had no function in the British Empire except as a haven for Dissenters. The adherence of the South to the War for Independence was an act of sheer political idealism, against self-interest and without the economic and religious motivations of New England.

Even through the first half of the 19th century, the Southern staples were the core of American agriculture. During most of that period cotton made up more than half the dollar value of exports of the United States. It therefore provided the wherewithal for our imports, and since the Federal government was chiefly financed through the tariff on imports, cotton provided the government’s revenue base. The commercial greatness of New York was built to a considerable extent on the cotton-carrying trade. Alabama was a flush outpost of a vital international commodity when Indiana, at the same longitude westward, was still a backward world of subsistence farmers. It was not until the last decade before the Civil War that the great Midwestern breadbasket came into its own, with the construction of railroads to the Northeast and the production of machinery that could cultivate the virgin prairies and plains and harvest on a grand scale.

The great agricultural historian Lewis Cecil Cray has written that the plantation system constituted the scenic highlands of the antebellum Southern economy, though most of the land area was occupied by small independent farmers. Though rice, sugar, and hemp required the large capitalization of a plantation, cotton and tobacco were democratic crops that could be grown and sold for a profit as readily by the small farmer as by the planter. A considerable portion of the population, as has recently been reemphasized, lived in the Old South on the large-scale open-range grazing of livestock, an American adaptation of traditional British border economy and the direct, legitimate sire of what is thought of as “Western” ranching. The South of the late antebellum period was prosperous and stable.

The Southern population, including blacks, except in the less developed areas, lived snugly in rough abundance, content with the Jeffersonian ideal of independence and relatively immune from the tremendous religious and economic stresses of modernization being endured by Northern society. During the panic of 1857, when Northern banks and mercantile houses experienced a landslide of bankruptcy and the Bank of England saved itself by extraordinary measures, Southerners were hardly touched. It was at this juncture that an over-cocky Southern spokesman told the world that “Cotton is King!”

As always, hubris extracted its price. The failed war of Southern independence left the antebellum infrastructure in ruins. There was immense destruction, confiscation, and theft of property, without any postwar Marshall Plan. The slaves were freed, itself a vast liquidation of capital which at the same time drastically lowered the value of land in the most productive parts of the South. The freedmen were of interest to the North chiefly as political pawns. They had few economic alternatives except to remain on the land as a dependent labor force. Somehow, a considerable number of black people acquired land and achieved some independence. How this happened is not understood, because, while liberal historians have devoted billions of words to the black experience, they have shown little interest in how this truly constructive feat was accomplished.

The planter had few economic alternatives either. His capital, if he was lucky, consisted of the land and a cache of Confederate bonds. He had to borrow to supply and feed his labor force through the year; his survival depended on a network of credit that led ultimately to outside powers. The crop was already mortgaged before it was planted. There was no cash for wages; and anyway, too many Southerners, white and black, were endowed with the Jeffersonian ideal of independence to submit to wage labor. A system of sharecropping and tenantry grew up, leaving thousands of farmers at the mercy of distant forces of supply and demand over which they had no control. Except for flush periods, like World War I, the price often did not meet costs, and vast numbers sank into an inescapable pit of debt. A majority of the black population remained in a condition that cannot be called peonage because it was too vagrant. Startlingly, large numbers of formerly independent white families were reduced to similar status. In fact, by the end of the 19th century, the number of white croppers and tenants exceeded the number of black (though a higher percentage of the black population was in this condition). No Southerner ever suffered from the strange delusive assumption, encountered repeatedly in conversation with upper-middle-class Northern liberals, that most poor people are black and that poverty is chiefly the result of racism.

Although this brief sketch oversimplifies the history of Southern agriculture, it does provide the necessary context for FDR’s famous statement that the South was the nation’s Number One Economic Problem. The profitability of cattle and later oil in Texas and Oklahoma modified the picture, as did industrialization in some areas and the partial survival of the independent small farm class. But the bleak pronouncement remained broadly true. Meanwhile, Southerners continued to hold on to a militant Jeffersonianism, both as political program and folkway, for which the economic base had disappeared, while the North was swept along by that combination of open-ended material progressivism and social democracy which for most people constitutes the American way. Pete Daniel, in Breaking the Land, recounts that the Southern way of life began to change in the I880’s, with the arrival of agricultural colleges and extension agents, quintessential progressive American institutions, which generated a new sense of technical prowess and profit motive and thus began the slow transformation of Southern agriculture to its modern scientific and capitalist form. Daniel’s work provides a sound and welcome amendment, but does not alter the larger story, for the real change came in the 1930’s with mechanization and farm subsidies. This corrective commentary, by way of background, brings us to more recent history and to the books in hand.

As Rare as Rain, the less important of these works, is concerned with the question of rural relief as it presented itself during the Depression year 1930, when the rainfall fell to as low as one-third of normal in parts of the South and pushed many people over the line between normal hard times and disaster. Thus we have a historical case study of pre-New Deal welfare— of the attempts to relieve localized suffering without a governmental apparatus of permanent relief The author sees the case as another proof of the failures of Hooverism. Woodruff may well be right, for all I know, that a public and more permanent system of welfare was needed. However, I am not sure that the evidence presented proves the point. To begin with, the rural and urban problems of the Depression were different. It is not at all self-evident that a welfare system designed for industrial relief was the best answer to rural distress.

Woodruff’s treatment falls into a recognizable genre of liberal complaint. Relief must not simply relieve distress, it must get to the root of “the problem of poverty”—that is, it must be political. The charitable institutions which assisted in the Southern crisis must, by definition, be judged failures. They did not try to use their leverage to alter the social structure which enlightened urban thinkers considered to be the fundamental cause of the problem. Heaven forbid, relief was even administered through local landowners and officials, who also were not political.

At the root of the analysis, though here expressed in a very mild and temperate form, is the urban intellectual’s hatred and fear of the landowner or any rural person above the dependent class. Not sharing the urban liberal scale of manners and values, such persons represent a threat. The fear of the countryman is a persistent theme in American manufactured popular culture from the time of Sinclair Lewis. In television drama, the humane sensitive urbanite is always violated by the vicious small-towner, never the other way around (despite what statistics tell us about comparative crime rates). At present, thousands of the best minds of the East and West Coasts lie awake nightly into the wee hours, fretting in fear that primitive Christians from the boondocks may actually rise up and put a crimp in the drug traffic and pornography industry. This attitude, in a much more virulent form, accounts for the worst excesses of the Bolshevik Revolution. The Bolsheviks did more than adopt a mistaken farm policy; they deliberately set out to exterminate or enslave all independent and productive farmers, for whom they had an irrational hatred built upon feelings of vulnerability and inferiority.

It is not clear to me that Woodruff’s evidence demonstrates that the old ways were completely hopeless, and it certainly does not demonstrate that the welfare and farm subsidy programs that have since grown up were the best or only alternatives. The most serious distresses seem to have been localized, like the credit crunch in the Arkansas delta, for instance, or to have involved a marginal lumpenproletariat of the sort that had always existed in the Kentucky mountains. It is not at all clear that the farmers who reluctantly asked for help in extremis were in the least interested in political revolution, And the landowners and small-towners whom the author finds controlled by their own narrow interests seem to me to have been, for the most part, decent, public-spirited, and commonsensical folks who were doing the best they could, and whose moral concern for their fellow man far transcends that of most Federal officials or college professors.

If As Rare as Rain is a political tract masquerading as an academic monograph, Breaking the Land offers a pastoral lament cast in the form of social history. Daniel tells the story of how the South moved from its 19th-century way of life (and it was a way of life and not simply a way of business) to modern commercial agriculture. It is a transformation in human affairs which he considers (with only slight exaggeration) “as significant as the enclosure movement that revolutionized the Old World.” For anyone who knew the South as recently as the 1940’s, there has indeed been a revolution. Any early-middle-aged South Carolinian can remember when almost every available patch of land was aglisten with cotton in the summer, and the mule and wagon was the most common moving sight on the roads. One has to look hard today to find a cotton field, and mules are about as numerous as zebras. Millions of Southerners, white and black, have moved to the North, the West, and the Southern cities. They have left behind them in the country a mechanized commercial agriculture employing only a fraction of the population; the remnants of a yeoman class which gets most of its income out of day labor in the city, though it still clings to the land; and sizable pockets of black communities which have not yet been integrated into the modern economy except insofar as it is represented by the Federal welfare system.

Daniel is less interested in the economics of Southern rural life in the last century than he is in the human story of the replacement of a way of life. The human experiences of the revolution are presented in Breaking the Land with vivid detail, without sentimentalizing the old way of life but with a sympathetic awareness of the genuine loss involved in the destruction of its more consoling features.

The author has another theme that will strike a responsive chord for all of those who are not willingly enfeoffed to the gospel of limitless material progress. The course of the changes that overtook the South was dictated, as portrayed by Daniel, by the decisions of large capital and government policy, decisions which often involved deliberate choice from an ideology of gigantism and maximum productivity. Indeed, it is quite fair to give the New Deal farm policies in the South the greatest share of credit for the pockets of dependency (as opposed to merely poverty) in the South, and as a second consequence of the same dislocations, the Northern urban nightmare. But there were indeed other alternatives, alternatives that, had decisions been made from a different scale of values, might have worked toward the preservation of the viable small farm, owned or tenanted, and toward an optimum rather than a maximum productive relationship with the land. Such policies were, in fact, suggested in the I930’s by Southern Agrarians and others who were enamored neither of big government nor big business. Among the many appealing proposals, none was more drastic than the suggestion that unemployed or underemployed families be staked to a homestead, even subsidized, to remain on the land and produce.

This is doubtless a shocking proposal to the coterie of sophisters and calculators, calling themselves conservatives, who have recently discovered that the production of the staff of life is just another form of corporate enterprise, that our farm support programs represent a nonsensical nostalgia, and that we must let the “marginal” farmer go to the wall so that the market can wisely redistribute resources. But even many who hold no particular brief for the present government price system recognize that every enlightened and prosperous nation on the globe makes special provision for its farmers, and not from an obsolete affection for the yeoman ideal. The truth is that the agricultural market is the great unsolved problem of the modern economy. No one Has as yet devised more than a makeshift solution to the cycles of overproduction and underproduction and price fluctuation that have beset agriculture since at least the 18th century. Whatever due obeisance we give to the market, and much is due, there is something wrong with the approach of the sophisters and calculators.

Leave aside the ad hominem argument that some of these gentlemen were socialists until a few years ago and that they have never been nearer to a real farm than the Chicago futures market. What is more to the point, we do not start with a clean slate. The free market is a grand ideal, but from the founding of the United States government until at least the 1930’s, public policy was not laissez-faire but planned industrial growth by subsidy and favorable legislation for the industrial sector at the expense of farmers and consumers.

Today’s agricultural support can be seen as a redressing of the balance. Today we have a government which builds and maintains waterways and airports for the yachts and private planes of the rich; which subsidizes illegitimacy on an immense scale; which bails out billion-dollar corporations; which pays untalented and obscene poets to write gibberish. Under the circumstances, it should not shock our free enterprise sensibilities too much to hope that policies can be devised that will not only allow the small farm to survive but to increase in numbers.

The goal of encouraging families to flourish on the land is both more attainable and more desirable than most of the ends for which public money is spent. I for one am willing to forego a good deal of the theoretical virtue and actual efficiency of the free market for such an end. I suspect that in the long run even the economic effect would be favorable, but I have no doubt that the social effect would be entirely to the good. For the life of nations, like the life of persons, is more than a balance sheet.


[Breaking the Land: The Transformation of Cotton, Tobacco, and Rice Cultures Since 1880, by Pete Daniel; Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press]

[As Rare as Rain: Federal Relief in the Great Southern Drought of 1930-31, by Nan Elizabeth Woodruff; Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press]