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  • The American Farmer in the Eighteenth Century: A Social and Cultural History by Richard Lyman Bushman
  • Jacob Bruggeman
Richard Lyman Bushman, The American Farmer in the Eighteenth Century: A Social and Cultural History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018. 294 pp. $40.00 (cloth).

Richard Lyman's Bushman's The American Farmer in the Eighteenth Century is a comprehensive study of the farmer and farming as omnipresent parts of early American culture and society. Bushman, a historian of United States cultural and social history, is best known for his scholarship on Mormonism and, more broadly, religion in America. But American Farmer, based upon two decades of primary source research set forth in captivating, forceful writing, offers a new history far more interesting than its title may imply. Its pages provide readers of all backgrounds points of interest. Indeed, rather than a tome intended for specialists and agricultural enthusiasts, Bushman's is an accessible book that avoids jargon. It offers in its stead a cornucopia of insightful analyses about an image central to American culture and history: that of the farmer and the farm. However, scholars of the Midwest and Midwesterners in general should be particularly interested in this volume, for farming—a practice encoded in the cultures and pictures of the Midwest—remains a relatively common occupation in that place. Additionally, and for better or worse, images of farmers continue to dominate public perceptions of the region. This new history can serve as both a monument to the past and a tool for reclaiming popular images of the Midwest in the present.

Bushman consumes a wide diet of sources, including correspondence, diaries, and farm records of prominent individuals such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Bushman describes his research [End Page 182] process as searching for golden nuggets—those crucial kinds of data that make up historical narratives. "But," Bushman warns, "in mining the ore and refining the gold, we may lose sight of the mountain" that represents "a cultural system, a set of routines, a vast map of social interactions and human purposes;" its complexities can neither be captured nor conveyed by the glimmer of any one nugget (23). Colonial farmers' records—principally deeds, wills, tax documents, promissory notes, and other legal documents—comprise their "crystallized experience[s]" that represent "peculiarly intense" pieces of the past. In the "focused form" of a written document, they capture both the aspirations and day-to-day, grinding goings-on of colonial farm life (24).

Drawing from this diversity of sources, Bushman's history attempts to enliven and enrich academic and popular depictions and discussions of farmers and farming. Indeed, while the farmer-as-male formulation is central to the book—and the father, Bushman contends, "like the king, governed by divine right"—the author's project is, at its core, an attempt at broadening the American farmer's portrait (12). Moreover, as readers make their way through Bushman's book, its scope expands beyond portraiture to become a landscape painting. In it, he beckons readers to imagine other actors behind and beside the American farmer. Daughters and wives, toiling in the home and at the hearth, and sons, out in the fields taking cues from their fathers, figure prominently in this articulation of American farmers' lives. "Work bonds," Bushman emphasizes, "and family ties were interwoven" (10). Enslaved people and masters' vicious "techniques of control," usually placed precariously near the edge of the frame in popular culture, are center stage, their labors and profits essential components of American agriculture (244). Native Americans, whose lands were stolen and used by farmers, and whose communities faced violence from them, also figure prominently. Their story casts a shadow over the American farmer, who, in Bushman's words, was "ultimately responsible for the conquest of America and the subordination of its original inhabitants" (22). In the background, readers also see bevies of "squatter-settlers," homeless and hungry and looking for land, who were oft en "left in limbo" as they moved west "without legal rights to their lands" (61).

The growing landless class, whose dreams of land and success never materialized, was a major source of social tension in the eighteenth century. The tensions surrounding...