- Plowed Earth Policies
At the end of the Civil War, Winslow Homer painted a man swinging a scythe in a wheat field. The man has set aside his Union coat and canteen and puts his back into the work. The grain and a blue sky radiate around him like a halo. We cannot see his face, a view that renders him no particular veteran in a new field but every veteran. He is the people as a whole, the strength and optimism of a unified Union. The scythe symbolizes the death he escaped and the life he is making on the Prairie or the Great Plains. The Veteran in a New Field is more than an expression of armistice. It speaks to a vision of politics and society that preceded the war, a conception of the rural household as the fundamental unit of the Republic. The language of agrarian possession saturated political speech in the North. The outcome of the war depended as much on the price of corn in the South as it did on Lee’s strategies and the number of casualties. In two recent books, Adam Wesley Dean and R. Douglas Hurt explore different aspects of the agrarian history of the Civil War era.
There is a longstanding relationship between farmers and war. The citizen-soldier was often a husbandman. Think of ancient Greece’s hoplites and the minutemen of Concord. Both stilled their plows and fell into formation under officers who also conceived of themselves as plain practical yeomen. In the mythology of nationalism, the farmer embodies blood and soil. Governments and monarchs come and go, but nations continually emerge from an agrarian fusion of The People and The Land. Lal Pahadur, Prime Minister of India, declared in 1965: “Hail the soldier. Hail the farmer.”1 Pakistan had just attacked India, and the country needed food and fighters. But note the implicit contradiction. Farmers charging in battlefields are not laboring in wheat fields. In societies that depend primarily on agriculture in the household mode of [End Page 104] production, the same people fulfill both roles. The tension between ideology and materialism opens rich ground for interpretation.
Dean’s An Agrarian Republic is a tour through the Republican notion that smallholders formed the stronghold of the Union, that they distinguished the free North from the enslaved South. In Dean’s telling, the party conceived of itself as representing the interests of farmers, putting them forth as the rightful occupants of the Great Plains and California. The free-soil arguments of the 1850s make no sense without farmers as the instruments of political ideology, and even the establishment of Yosemite National Park owes something to the same sense of land well managed.
One recurrent subject in the book is the division of land and its distribution by government in order to accomplish social ends. Dean does great work by excavating the tangled arguments for and against the Homestead Act, first passed by Congress in 1860 and vetoed by President James Buchanan. Whigs sought to deploy white smallholders across the public domain for a variety of reasons. Quarter-section wheat farms would increase food and population, block the expansion of plantations, and establish the region as the dominion of whites. Southerners saw the bill as a political land grab. In his veto, Bu-chanan claimed that it would drain Tennessee and Kentucky of its agrarians, and he believed that settlement in the West would “demoralize the people” (p. 96). The bill passed again in 1862, and President Abraham Lincoln signed it. Representative George Washington Julian of Indiana had advocated the law for decades.
The Homestead Act wrapped landed possession in racial politics. Every discussion of the future of the public domain had to do with who would be given small pieces...