The American Farmer in the Eighteenth Century: A Social and Cultural History


August 15, 2018
by Titus Belgard Also by this Author


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Book Review: The American Farmer in the Eighteenth Century: A Social and Cultural History by Richard L. Bushman (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, May 2018).


Farming is hard work, always has been. Farmers make their livelihoods cultivating the earth and typically shun the limelight. Students exposed to the colonial and Revolutionary periods of American history are made to focus on the growing tension with Great Britain, the lives and personalities of the Founding Fathers, and the major battles of the war. Farmers, if they are mentioned at all, are depicted as average citizens who lived on the cultural periphery and are unworthy of further comment. Richard Bushman, a 1968 winner of the Bancroft Prize, seeks in this new book to switch that focus and place the American farmer front and center.

A bit of clarification bears mentioning at the outset. First, Bushman’s interest is in the whole of the eighteenth century and not exclusively the years in which the Revolutionary War was fought. The narrative builds toward the war, and the war does act as a pivot in charting the thinking and outlook of American farmers. The final chapter features Virginia native John Walker (1785-1867) as an illustration of someone who transitioned from a predominantly colonial frame of mind to an outlook affected by the Industrial Revolution. Second, this is a book about American farmers and not American farming. The men who did the work of farming and not details regarding the techniques used to do the farming are what draws Bushman’s interest. To be sure, this is not a portrait of the rugged, rough-hewn frontiersman. For that, one would do well to look to Home Rule: Households, Manhood, and National Expansion on the Eighteenth-Century Kentucky Frontier by Honor Sachs (Yale University Press, 2015).

Bushman’s book unfolds with two introductory chapters plus two chapters providing a general overview of North America. This material on North America centers around climate. An element that had repercussions beyond the life of farmers, climate impacted the surveying of boundaries that separated one colony from another and one colonial region from another. Climate was the factor that caused Mason and Dixon to draw the line that divided North from South. Where the climate allowed for a 180-day planting season, primarily south of the Mason-Dixon Line, slavery took hold. However, during the eighteenth century, due to this six-month planting season, slavery existed to a smaller degree along coastal pockets of New England and Long Island also. The more deeply slavery became entrenched, the more it became a point of contention as the eighteenth century progressed, up to and including the Constitutional Convention. The backdrop of those debates between North and South were farming and the North American climate.

After these introductory chapters comes the real heart of the book. Previous studies on the history of farmers and farming in the colonial period focus on one colony or one city or region within a colony. Bushman takes a multi-regional approach. Connecticut stands in for New England, Pennsylvania is the focus for the mid-Atlantic colonies, and Virginia represents the South. Each of these has its own substantial segment of the book, and each segment consists of three chapters. In each segment, Bushman uses primary sources as the backbone of his analysis. For Connecticut, he uses the diary of Joshua Hempstead (1678-1758). For Pennsylvania, we have Letters from an American Farmer, a 1782 series of essays authored by Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur, an idealized view of American agrarian life filtered through the voice of a fictional farmer named Andrew. Additionally, Bushman draws on another cache of writings from Crèvecoeur discovered in 1922. For the Virginia portion, Bushman examines the writings of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

In each instance, all farmers held some things in common. First and foremost was the survival of the family, a point Bushman emphasizes throughout the book. Second was the availability and acquisition of land for farmers to pass down to their children. Also, in each region, farming could be a stepping stone to becoming an influential figure in the community. Informal economic exchanges between a farmer and his neighbors built trust and could serve as a way for farmers to carry out elected offices such as sheriff or justice of the peace with integrity. This was the case for Joshua Hempstead and for Thomas Jefferson’s father Peter. Farmers, in other words, knew and were known by their neighbors. Thus, when the Revolutionary War began in 1775, the idea of Americans practicing self-government was seen as radical only in the eyes of people living in urban areas such as Boston or New York and not to the rural populace living in the interior of the colonies. The war helped to stoke a city-versus-country mentality that already existed and was festering as tensions surrounding taxation by Great Britain increased during the 1760s and led to shots being fired in the 1770s. It was, Bushman tells us, only until the British blockade of Boston harbor in 1774, the crown’s response to the 1773 Boston Tea Party, that farmers abandoned their passivity and fully joined the Patriot cause.

Regional differences in farming are also noteworthy. In New England, where acreage was the smallest, farming was a family affair. In the middle colonies, it was common for farmers to use slaves and indentured servants during the planting season but not during the winter. In addition to the permanent, year-round use of slaves, the South could boast the largest acreage as well as the largest personal wealth of the estate owners. However, such wealth was not typical. Monticello and Mount Vernon sat atop the economic spectrum, but there was a paradox. The appearance and trappings of wealth notwithstanding, the upkeep of large estates undermined their own success. Despite all his accomplishments, for example, when Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, he was very deeply in debt.

In discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the book, it might be best to mention the weaknesses first. To begin, there is no bibliography. There are 71 pages of endnotes, and Bushman uses a wide variety of primary and secondary sources, several accessed online. As to whether the absence of a bibliography was his decision or the publisher’s, or whether this is a current trend in history books, he does not say. Some readers might see the next weakness as being a bit more substantial. Not often but on occasion, Bushman’s connections among his strands of thought could be viewed as more implicit than explicit. For serious students of the American Revolution and the early national period, the good news is that this narrative gains momentum the farther one gets into the book, and the meatiest parts of the book are Chapter 9, titled “Revolution: Why Farmers Fought” (alluded to above), and the section on Virginia which runs seventy-seven pages in length. Sandwiched between these two segments of the book, however, is Chapter 10, a slim seven-page discussion of the ancestry of Abraham Lincoln. Beginning with Samuel Lincoln in 1637, this chapter appears to be a step backward chronologically and in the view of some readers could threaten to undermine Bushman’s train of thought thematically. Why has this little chapter been included? Connections and contrasts between Lincoln and the eighteenth-century Virginia gentry do exist, and Bushman mentions them, not the least of which is the difficulty of documenting the lives of a migrant farm family, which was certainly the case with Lincoln’s ancestors. Some readers may feel that Bushman’s connections are insufficient and that something larger is at play but is being left unsaid. It is. The connection with Lincoln does not come into full bloom until the final chapter with Bushman’s discussion of the 1862 Homestead Act. Occasionally with this book, patience can very much be a virtue.

As to strengths, there are many. Bushman’s prose is always smooth and very reader-friendly. This is not a history professor on the prowl for tenure, and the relaxed tone of his text is very much appreciated. Additionally, readers who enjoy poring over endnotes will be amply rewarded. Frequently, the information provided in these notes is very insightful. The fifth note for Chapter 1, for example, is a table ranking the value of the top ten exports from the British colonies in 1770. The first two notes from the chapter on Abraham Lincoln’s ancestry are more than half a page long. Further, individual chapters are gems in themselves. Chapter 13, for example, titled “Learning Slavery: How Slaves Learned to Be Slaves and Whites to Become Masters,” revolving around slave life at Monticello, should prove to be excellent supplemental reading to Mary V. Thompson’s forthcoming book “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret”: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon. Especially worth mentioning is Chapter 2, “A Note on Sources: How Documents Think.” In it, Bushman takes the time and space to discuss in detail the different types of primary sources he consulted in writing his book, a consideration not always made to the reader. He explains, among other things, how deeds, wills, and tax lists functioned in the life and in the mind of farmers and not just the value such documents hold in interpreting history. In that respect, he has, in the opinion of this reviewer, gone the proverbial extra mile. In sum, with an eye toward Bushman’s discussion of the American Revolution, his material is good and solid, but it can leave the reader wanting to know more of farmers’ experiences during the war. That coupled with the criticism of the chapter on Abraham Lincoln drop the book’s rating down to an 8. If this review had been written for an agricultural journal, it would easily merit a solid 10.


  • Bushman is a solid historian and has written previously on the travails of the American farmer in the 18th century. Despite the reference to Lincoln, seems like it should not detract from its receiving a 10! Regardless, I have put in my order to Amazon and look forward to its arrival.

    And a thank you to JAR for these book reviews. I don’t buy a lot of books, but have now purchased two in the past three weeks because you brought to light writings I would not have otherwise been exposed to.

    1. I too am ordering, and appreciate the book reviews as well. They really help weed through the new books to find topics and authors of interest.

    2. Gary, thank you for the kind words. I agree that Bushman is a solid historian, and I wanted in the worst way to give this book a 10. Bushman’s scholarship and writing style are certainly of the first rank, but I felt that the chapter on Lincoln’s family, situated as it was in the text, knocked the score down a notch or two.

  • Thank you, Mr. Belgrade for your thorough and balanced review of this book, which I intend to purchase, as it addresses a little discussed aspect of the American colonial period and the Revolution. And thanks, too, to JAR for your entertaining and informative exposition of the people and events of the Revolutionary War.

  • Many thanks, Titus, for your candid review, highlighting the highs and lows of this altogether enriching study. I am working on Colonial America and would be delighted to be able to correspond with you on some aspects of daily aspects of colonial life.
    A dix-huitièmiste French historian.

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