American President, Thomas Jefferson, admired the small farmer’s humble ability to live an independent life toiling on farm land in an effort to produce a simple abundance of crops to support the family.[1] Such a simplistic approach to life led to the noble development of the yeoman’s heroic reputation in America.[2] However, the yeoman farmer was indeed a commercial farmer and not independent of the market, as indicated by theorist that perpetuated the agrarian myth.[3] When the opportunity to sell crops was made available the small farmer did not limit crop production to the needs of the family, as the agrarian myth implies.[4] The virtuous image of the yeoman farmer is more applicable to a type of status designation of a myth-based character than to the reality of life of the 18th century small American farmer.[5]

            The word yeoman was not readily used during the 18th century.[6]According to American bibliographer Charles Evans’s work entitled American Bibliography, the word yeoman is not located in the more than thirty thousand literary works published in the United States between the years 1760-1800.[7] Thomas Jefferson’s most infamous work titled The Notes on the State of Virginia does not include the word yeoman, but words such as husbandmen, poor, farmer and laborer are used.[8] The word yeomanry was used, more so, to describe the common or ordinary people of the 18th century.[9] The ordinary farmer lived independently and toiled on farm land in an attempt to produce a decent crop; however, such independence was typically a result from a lack of transportation to sell their goods abroad, from a lack of money to increase their farm production, or from the lack of an accessible market to sell more crops to the public.[10] Once the farmer had such access or ability to sell crops, then an opportunity to make money was not disregarded.[11] Although the small farmer is respected for living off the land, the poor farmer attempted commercialism when opportunity was available in an effort to increase financial profit for the family.[12]

            During the last thirty years of the 18th century, population growth in Europe began to put a strain on the European food supply. The European population had to look elsewhere for food, as Europeans were unable to feed themselves.[13] American farmers took advantage of the food crisis in Europe. Grains grown in America, such as wheat, were planted by the small farmer and the Atlantic trade world provided a market for the farmer’s harvests.[14] Wheat and grain prices began to increase the financial status of the small farmer and this eventually led to more development in infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, throughout rural America.[15] The ordinary farmer was taking advantage of the profitable European market because access to transportation and a marketplace were available.[16] “At 1772 price levels, farmers and grain merchants could afford to ship flour 121 miles and wheat 64 miles to reach the grain exporting seaports of Norfolk, Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia and New York.”[17] A great number of farmers lived within marketing range of the inland waterways that “flowed into the sea-lanes of the great Atlantic commerce.”[18] After 1788, there was a price increase in England for various commodities such as hemp and bee’s wax.[19] The range of commodities in demand throughout Europe benefited the small American farmer. The small farmer grew the crops indigenous to Europe, such as wheat, flour, Indian corn, clover seed, and flax seed which commanded good prices throughout cities like Liverpool, Amsterdam and Barcelona.[20] The small farmer’s harvest was enhanced in value.[21] In 1788, grain and livestock prices fostered an upward surge that allowed prosperity for 30 years.[22] Farmers gradually regarded farming as a way of making money by growing much needed crops for sale in the market economy.[23] The price increase for crops allowed the small farmer to make more money in the market, and more money eventually helped liberate and elevate the small farmer’s plebeian status from a once ordinary existence.[24] When small farmers began to steadily produce larger crops for the Atlantic trade world, 18th century American politicians and writers, such as George Logan and Philip Freneau, were drawn closer to the noncommercial aspect of the American farmer.[25] The word yeoman developed into a status designation for “the ordinary farmer of postrevolutionary America.”[26]

            As American agriculture became more commercial the desire for American society to “cling in imagination to the noncommercial agrarian” values became more prominent, and more merit was found in what the noncommercial farmer’s spirit was believed to have embodied. [27] The small rural farmer was understood to have once been a happy, independent, wholesome and honest individual that was unable to be corrupted by the commercialism aspect of business and the “depraved populations of the cities.”[28]  The concept of the humble small farmer was a literary idea fashioned by the upper classes to create a sentimental attachment to rural living and rural life.[29] Men such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine initially propagated the myth, and the myth carried on its significance well into the 19th century.[30] Once the agrarian myth was created, it had such universal appeal that the image of the honest and simple rural farmer toiling farm land became apparent in economic books, pastoral poetry and political philosophy.[31] Englishmen and New Englanders used the word yeoman to indicate a status designation.[32]As the myth of the yeoman became more fictional it also became more popular, eventually it became a part of America’s “political folklore and its nationalist ideology.”[33]

            The agrarian myth was created to perpetrate the image of America’s rustic origin. As the population of the cities increased, as the farmer’s male progeny left the farm to move to bigger towns, and as corruption became linked to an urban setting the agrarian myth secured a humble way of life which contrasted commercial corruption. [34] The small farmer that engaged in raising successful crops for the Atlantic trade world was presented with an opportunity that heightened their class status from a simple farmer to the new national elite in America.[35] The livelihood of the humble self-sufficient farmer did exist, but the desire of the small farmer to make money was not easily neglected when the opportunity was made available.[36] The first United States census in 1790 registered 93% of Americans as farmers.[37] The small farmer understood that without cash in hand “he could never raise above the hardships and squalor of pioneering and log-cabin life.”[38]








[1] Appleby, Joyce, “Commercial farming and the “Agrarian Myth” in the Early Republic,” The Journal of American History 68, no. 4 (1982), pg. 834, (accessed Sept. 12, 2011)

[2]  Hofstadter, Richard, The Age of Reform (New York: Random House, 1955), pgs. 24, 30

[3] “Ibid” pg. 37

[4] Appleby, Joyce, pgs. 834, 841

[5] “Ibid” pg. 833

[6] “Ibid” pg. 837

[7] “Ibid”

[8] “Ibid”

[9] “Ibid”

[10] Hofstadter, Richard, pg. 23

[11] “Ibid”

[12] “Ibid” pg. 38

[13] Appleby, Joyce, pg. 839

[14] “Ibid”

[15] “Ibid” pgs. 840- 841

[16] “Ibid” pg. 841

[17] “Ibid”

[18] “Ibid”

[19] “Ibid” pgs. 839, 843, 847, 849

[20] “Ibid” pg. 841-842

[21] “Ibid” pg. 841

[22] “Ibid” pg. 840

[23] Shideler, James H.,“The Farm in American History,” OAH Magazine of History 5, no. 3 (1991), pg. 19, (accessed Sept. 10, 2011)

[24] Appleby, Joyce, pgs. 839, 843, 847, 849

[25] Hofstadter, Richard. pgs. 26-27

[26] Appleby, Joyce pg. 835

[27] Hofstadter, Richard, pgs. 24-25

[28] “Ibid”

[29] “Ibid”

[30] “Ibid” pg. 26

[31] “Ibid” pg. 27

[32] Appleby, Joyce, pg. 837

[33] Hofstadter, Richard, pg. 28, 30

[34] Hofstadter, Richard, pg. 24, 30, 34, 44

[35] Appleby, Joyce, pg. 849

[36] Hofstadter, Richard, pg. 23

[37] Shideler, James H., pg. 18

[38] Hofstadter, Richard, pg. 37