Thomas Jefferson believed that virtue was to be found in the Spartan simplicity of ancient Greece rather than in the decadent cities of Caesar’s Rome. Agriculture, Jefferson wrote, was what developed moral and political virtue. Big cities corrupted people, he thought, and neither city men of commerce and capital nor city men who labored could be trusted to preserve democracy. He idealized agriculture as a way of life and affected rustic dress and a casual pose in public. The secretary of the British legation commented that Jefferson as President looked like a “tall, large-boned farmer.”
In 1801, when Jefferson took the oath as third President of the United States, some 95 percent of all Americans lived on farms. Jefferson tried to insure that this ratio would continue through the Louisiana Purchase of April 30, 1803. In fact, Jefferson so wanted this great block of land that he ignored his principles to get the treaty ratified.
A strict constitutionalist, he could find nothing in the Constitution authorizing the government to acquire new territory. At first he considered an amendment to authorize the purchase, but amending the Constitution took time. Jefferson therefore simply sent the treaty to the Senate for ratification, ignoring his constitutional scruples about what the government could or could not do. He felt that acquiring the Louisiana Territory was far more important than debates about the powers of the federal government, for, he reasoned, the Louisiana Territory would satisfy the American need for agricultural lands for the next five hundred years and thereby guarantee that the country forever would be a land of yeoman farmers.
Jefferson was not sufficiently optimistic about how fast Americans could move west and settle the Louisiana Territory. His dream of owning land had become the American dream. Americans wanted to be farmers, and they believed that virtue was on the land, not in cities. As Horace Greeley would urge them decades later, they went west, especially in the years after the Civil War.
During this period the government, along with most Americans, believed that the public domain should be put into the hands of those who would make productive use of it as fast as possible. This meant actually searching for ways to turn over public lands to farmers, miners, timbering concerns, and anyone else who would begin using the land. Legislation to this end included the Homestead Act of 1862, the Timber Culture Act of 1873, the Desert Land Act of 1877, and the Carey Act of 1894.
Also hastening the pace of settlement on the Plains were the slaughter of buffalo in the 1870’s; the removal of the Indians to reservations, largely completed by 1877; and a period of adequate rainfall during the same period. Likewise, there was increased immigration from Europe by people anxious to own land, the introduction of improved farm machinery, and the building of railroads.
In fact, the railroads had as much—or more—to do with the rapid westward migration as did the government itself. The transcontinental railroads were the recipients of millions of acres of public land, and they set up “land departments” and “bureaus of immigration” that lured customers and arranged prices, sales, and credit. They, along with steamship companies, advertised in Europe, spending millions on brochures not closely related to the truth and sometimes using high-pressure selling methods.
The post-Civil War rush to the Great Plains was encouraged not only by the railroads and steamship companies, but also by local residents themselves. Their goal, of course, was to drive up their property values. Almost every state and territory put out literature designed to lure settlers west, as, for example, this from Dakota Territory in 1870:
Think of it young man, you who are “rubbing” along from year to year, with no great hopes for the future, can you accept for a little while the solitude of nature and bear a few hard knocks for a year or two? Lay aside your paper gloves and kid gloves. Work a little. Possess your soul with patience and hold on your way with a firm purpose. Do this, and there is a beautiful home for you out here. Prosperity, freedom, independence, manhood in its highest sense, peace of mind and all the comforts and luxuries of life are awaiting you. The fountain of perennial youth is in the country, never in the city. Its healing, beautifying and restoring waters do not run through aqueducts. You must lie down on the mossy bank beneath trees, and drink from gurgling brooks and crystal streams. . . .
Young men predominate in the West, while maidens are scarce; therefore I say to you, get yourself a wife and bring her with you. You will be happier and more contented, and, I have no doubt, make money faster. To young women I would say just a word. Out here
“There is no goose so gray but soon or late.
Will find some honest gander for a mate.”
Therefore, attach yourself to some family immigrating, and if you are over 21 years, your 160 acres of land, to which you are entitled, and your other attractions, will soon find you a nest and a mate.
Such advertising, along with government programs designed to put land into the hands of users as rapidly as possible, had the desired result. The amount of land in private ownership devoted to agriculture in the United States rose from 407 million acres in 1860 to 871 million acres by 1900. During the 1870’s alone, Kansas gained 347,000 people, Nebraska 240,000, and other Plains states and territories in proportion.
Most of the farmers who rushed onto the Great Plains came armed with the courage of complete ignorance about what they faced. The inhospitable climate ranged from blizzards to searing heat. Recurring droughts turned much of the region into a desert, and grasshopper plagues filled the Plains farmer’s cup of frustrations. The worst invasion occurred in 1874, when the whole area from the Dakotas to Texas was devastated. The grasshoppers ate everything, leaving, as one farmer said, nothing but the mortgage. Many farmers continued to fight the battle with nature. Others became cynical about Jefferson’s dream; as they left their byword was, “In God we trusted; in Kansas we busted!”
Farmers were also plagued by falling prices and rising costs as they became too productive. By the mid-1880’s the United States had a surplus of wheat, along with too much corn and other commodities. The farmer was caught in a squeeze. The price of what he produced was falling, while the cost of moving his crop to market was rising, as was the cost of farm machinery. As one settler bitterly stated, “The farmer sells wholesale and buys retail, but pays the freight both ways.”
These economic miseries sapped the spirit of many who settled the Plains, putting creases in their brows as they worried about losing the homeplace to the bank and becoming tenants on land which they had broken to the plow. And changing the look in their eyes from shining optimism to tearful pessimism was the stark and soulwrenching loneliness of their existence.
The pattern of settlement on the Plains was to homestead individual plots of 160 acres, each family living on its own land. To provide them a place to shop and to market their crops, small towns were established at intervals of six to ten miles apart, and county boundaries were drawn some 30 miles square so that anyone (theoretically) could get to the county seat and back in a day’s time. This was totally dissimilar to the practice in Europe, where farmers settled in walled villages, going out to their fields each day to work and then returning to their homes with their farm animals each night for security and protection. This meant that European towns were usually no more than three or four miles apart.
In 1896 there was a brief bit of relief from the economic misery of Plains farmers when drought caused poor harvests in Europe, and there was great farm prosperity during World War I. But the agricultural depression descended again in the early 1920’s and was compounded by the necessity of buying farm machinery—great steam tractors and other types of steam-breathing behemoths. With them came more debt. When this could not be repaid, the bankers came to take the land. Tenancy was on the rise dramatically in the 1920’s, and then was compounded in the 1930’s when the Dust Bowl days came to blow Plains topsoil out into the Atlantic.
Another result of increased use of machinery was greater productivity per farmer—which, in turn, caused prices to fall and yet more bankruptcies. Machinery began to increase the average size of the farm from the 160 acres of the Homestead Act to 200 and then 300 acres and then more. By the 1950’s the average size of a farm necessary for maximum efficiency had grown to some 600 acres, and the number of farmers working the land had dropped to 10 percent of the total population and then to 5 percent—and now is less than 3 percent. And the sale of farm machinery goes forward, always more expensive, always allowing greater productivity.
Today the size of a farm needed for maximum efficiency is approaching 1,500 acres—and there are cries that greater government help is needed. In 1988 the government’s total appropriation for agriculture, if divided equally among all farmers, would be $19,000 each. Greater government aid might keep more farmers on the land, but the size of the farm necessary for maximum efficiency in ten years, by some estimates, will grow to 3,000 acres—which will drive yet more farmers into bankruptcy and bring the number living on the land down toward 2 percent and perhaps even less. Every day in every county it seems another aging farm couple sells out and heads for Florida or South Texas, leaving the farm to a corporation. And as farmers have left the land during the past 50 years, small towns likewise have withered.
Hard-surfaced farm-to-market roads and automobiles have enabled those still on the land to drive to bigger cities where they can make their purchases in larger stores, causing local merchants to close. In addition, educators have successfully argued that rural schools cannot provide the same quality schooling as larger ones in bigger cities. When the small-town school consolidates and the post office closes, the small town is terminally ill. Today there are many small towns that are only a shadow of their former selves, with abandoned buildings that match the farmsteads rotting and falling in across the countryside. To an increasing degree the West is getting empty again.
All these changes pose grave problems for America as we approach the 21st century. In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner, a brash young historian, said the frontier was the birthplace of democracy in America. He argued that it was on the frontier that most truly American traits were born: individualism, freedom, inquisitiveness, ingeniousness, and materialism—people impatient of restraint yet willing to follow strong leadership. On the frontier most individuals were on the same economic level—poor—leading to a belief in programs of social amelioration as well as government programs encouraging individualism, freedom of opportunity, and the acquisition of wealth. Thus most frontiersmen wanted lenient land legislation, internal improvements at government expense (dams, removal of Indians, etc.), a protective tariff on agricultural products, and a central government strong enough to do these things. Simultaneously, however, these were people who had a strong distaste for authority, a belief in individual initiative, and a commitment to free enterprise.
By the 1930’s, as more and yet more people moved off the land and into town, there was a great longing for “the good old days.” Almost all of these people remembered their belief in the nobility of rural life, which, according to the growing myth, brought peace, security, kindness, honesty, and goodness. William Allen White, the famous Kansas newspaper editor, argued that “only those living in small towns have the true American ideals.” Governor John Hammill of Iowa, speaking in 1929, asserted, “Rural life is a . . . beacon of virtues that cuts through the darkness of a world gone wrong.”
Much of this is romantic nonsense, but there is truth that in the small towns of the Plains country we can see reflections of what our President calls “a kinder, gentler America,” and rightfully we might ask, “Must the land be left to a few giant corporations to be farmed by company employees who commute to work each day from some city?” Must Americans approaching the 21st century choose between security and slums, honesty and crime, humanity and congestion? If the small town dies, is democracy in trouble?
We doubtless are never going back to the days of people living on small farms, the yeoman whom Jefferson hoped would be the backbone of the America he envisioned. There will be no great return to the land despite the fact that rural Americans now have a way of life infinitely better than that of their ancestors. The same technology that has given us giant tractors and combines and seed drills also has brought us television programs available by satellite dish. A farmer on the Plains on any given evening can choose baseball or ballet, football or Shakespeare, high drama or low comedy. In his living room he can watch the launch of Discovery, the proceedings of Congress, the grilling of a politician, or the violence of terrorists. Modern roads and cars enable us to get where we can use our plastic to buy all the goods our society makes available.
Is it the fate of people in small towns “not to succeed, but to continue to fail in good spirits,” as Robert Louis Stevenson put it? Should they smile as small towns wither away?
Perhaps the best way to answer these questions is with a question: are the Plains states going to remain in economic thraldom to their industrialized neighbors to the East, analagous to Third World dependencies that export raw products and agricultural commodities in return for the goods and services they need?
The answer provided by almost everyone who studies the question is for small towns to attract industry—small businesses that provide jobs and payrolls to keep people in the area to enjoy the security, honesty, independence, integrity, and humanity reportedly found in these places. Not all residents need go out each morning from town to work a farm to retain those farmers’ virtues. For most of us there will be no 160 acres and a mule nor a section of land and a giant tractor; rather it will be $14 an hour at the plant, a small plot of land for a garden, a pickup with a rifle in the back window, and a nearby lake for fishing. If jobs can be attracted to villages in Iowa, then the shining city on the hill, so often spoken of by our leaders, will once again be small-town America.