Land-as-Growth (4): Mechanization and Commerce Begin to Change What is Done with Land

During the first decades of the U.S. as a nation, what it meant to “settle” and “farm”land began to change.Historian Richard Hofstadter notes that:

Between 1815 and 1860 the character of American agriculture was transformed. The independent yeoman, outside of exceptional or isolated areas, almost disappeared before the relentless advance of commercial agriculture….  To take full advantage of mechanization, they engrossed as much land as possible. To mechanize fully, they borrowed cash…. (The Age of Reform from Bryan to F.D.R. N.Y. Alfred A. Knopf, 1955, pp. 38-39.)

The fathers of the Homestead Act [see below] ….had acted on a number of assumptions stemming from the agrarian myth which were out of date even before the act was passed… they expected that the land really would pass without cost into the hands of the great majority of settlers; and they took it for granted that the nature strength of the farmer would continue to rest upon the abundance produced on and for the farm.  These assumptions were incongruous with the Industrial Revolution that was already well under way by 1862 and with the Communications Revolution that was soon too come…  [The farmer’s] standard of living, as well of the security of his home, became dependent upon his commercial position, which in turn was dependent upon the vicissitudes of the world market. (pp.57-58)

Life back in the “settled” parts of the United States was changing just as rapidly.  “The expansion of manufacturing and commerce,” writes historian Jack Larkin (The Reshaping of Everyday Life, 1970-1840) was “creating greater material abundance, providing greater comfort, raising the standard of living.”  

With increased abundance, came new (or at least newly troublesome) problems. In the early 1800s, for example, Larkin notes, “increasing inequality” already gave some families ability“to garner an increasingly large share of the wealth”–a trend that has persisted (with only a few sporadic decades of abatement) throughout U.S. history.  British historian Thomas Carlyle (Signs of the Times, 1829) also noted a “widening distance between rich and poor.” (See “Widening Gap” in A Larger Pie: Book I.

By the 1840s, quite early given that a focus on land dominated American thinking well into the 20th Century, a popular book, Progress of the United States in Population and Wealth (1843), noted the nation’s “increase of wealth,” but emphasized that a more effective use of land was one key reason:

Having ascertained the amount of the national income, it would on many accounts be desirable to ascertain also its ratio of increase, and more especially whether it increases at the same rate as the population or at a different rate.
There are obvious reasons why the wealth of an industrious and prosperous community should increase faster than its population. Every year adds to its stock of labour-saving tools and machinery, as well as improves their usefulness. Lands, too, are made more productive by draining, ditching, manuring, and better modes of culture. Both science and practical art are constantly enlarging the quantity of manufactured commodities, and yet more improving their quality. By means of cheaper and quicker modes of transportation, much of that labour which, in every country is expended, not in producing, but in transferring products from place to place, is saved and rendered directly productive : and lastly, the small excess of annual income over annual expense is constantly adding to the mass of capital, which is so efficient an agent of production.( p.201)






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