I was not here for Dr. Fleming’s talk, but I imagine he made the point he often likes to make: the term “agrarian” is problematic, because in European and general political terms “agrarian” suggests a group of wild-eyed radicals who want to seize and divide up other peoples’ property. Of course, this not what our Agrarians are about, but I think I know why they adopted the term, and it is fitting, in a sense, because the generation before had been a populist movement in the South. They were not agrarians in the bad sense, but they had been accused of being so by the corporate interests. So, our Agrarians adopted the term partly because of that. My mission is to deal with Agrarianism from John Taylor of Caroline up to I’ll Take My Stand.[1] That’s 110 years of history, so I’ll have to generalize rather broadly, and I deal mostly with politics and economics, which is to ignore the most important part of Agrarianism, which is a way of life.

Politically, Agrarianism has almost always been a Southern (or primarily Southern) phenomenon. It’s true that William Jennings Bryan spoke about not crucifying the farmer on the cross of gold.[2] Bryan’s family originally came from Virginia and he grew up among Southern-derived people in Illinois before he moved to Nebraska. And he was most popular in the South, of course. There were (and I suppose still are) true Agrarians in the Midwest, but the Midwest succumbed to agribusiness fairly early. The McCormick reaper (which was invented by a Southerner, by the way) and the John Deere plow (and later, the tractor) made possible large-scale farming on the prairies and the plains, and such large-scale farming required a good deal of capital. I saw a movie a few years ago called Troublesome Creek: A Mid-Western, about an Iowa farm family that was in trouble because they could not service the two-million-dollar debt they had for purchasing equipment for their farm. That much money wasn’t seen in a whole county in the South in ten years in most of our periods since the War to Prevent Southern Independence. I don’t think Troublesome Creek is exactly what we’re talking about when we talk about Agrarianism.

Speaking broadly, American history from John Taylor to the Agrarians is divided into two parts. The first part is up to the War to Prevent Southern Independence, and that period is largely a story of a Southern holding-action against the Hamiltonian and Lincolnian nationalist program of collusion between centralized government and big capital. After 1861 there is a complete triumph of what the Agrarians called capitalism (which isn’t exactly capitalism as I’ll explain a little later). The American regime after 1861 was largely a question of state capitalism, that is to say a system in which big business, particularly big bankers and industrialists, were backed, fostered, and supported by government. This was not a situation of free enterprise. The official policy of the U.S. was state capitalism throughout this period (and it still is for that matter). Oh, there was and is a lot of free enterprise in America, but not among big business. And this regime of state capitalism was something the Agrarians took for granted when they wrote I’ll Take My Stand. It had been the established de facto regime for a long, long time by 1930, so they took it for granted, and it’s part of what they meant when they talked about industrialism. And it’s why they believed the system was rigged by law so that the wealthy interests, the capitalists of the Northeast, profited at the expense of everybody else, particularly at the expense of the farmer who actually produced the real wealth rather than simply manipulating paper and legislation for profit. They also spoke from an assumption that the South was tributary to this regime and had been for a long time. This was how they saw the American world, and this was the traditional Agrarian viewpoint from Taylor, Thomas Jefferson, John C. Calhoun, the Populists, and on up to the Agrarians of I’ll Take My Stand.

I wish we had to explore some of the specifics of Agrarian economics, as it seems to me that their position was correct (though, of course, it’s very disputed in American history). The regime which Taylor had described and fought against was the de facto reality after 1861, and it seemed to be the American way. I wish could explore the questions of banking and currency. They are very troubled questions that almost nobody has written very clearly about. We could be here until Christmas just discussing the banking question. While I don’t have time to explore the specifics, let me set the scene of what I mean by “the state-capitalist regime” by citing “Honest Abe” Lincoln, who, the first time he appeared before the voters, announced: “My politics are short and sweet, like the old woman’s dance. I am in favor of a national bank. I am in favor of the internal improvement system, and a high protective tariff.” But what did this mean? The so-called “national bank” is really a grant of government power to a private banking cartel which then has the right to expand and contract the credit of the country, which is a power that almost trumps all other powers and is immensely profitable for those who control the national banking system. A protective tariff (taxes on imports) would protect Northeastern industrialists by excluding their foreign competition from the American market and require every consumer to pay higher prices. Internal improvements meant that the government would subsidize private development corporations, and when Lincoln said this it had already been shown that this was a corrupt and unsatisfactory system (except for those who profited from it). In fact, after one disastrous venture into internal improvements Lincoln’s own State of Illinois had passed a constitutional amendment forbidding the State from engaging in internal improvement spending. But Lincoln still thought it was okay for the Federal government to fund them. These were already well-established policies, and by the time the War against the South was finished, Alexander Hamilton would have been perfectly satisfied with the government that had come into existence.

The War caused vast expenditures which had two primary effects. The first was the cementing of the Republican Party into power, because of their vast number of employees, contractors, and other beneficiaries of the huge government spending of the time. In other words, they bought political support. And this was followed by the Union war pensions. This is often overlooked, but the Union war pensions were the first U.S. government entitlement program. These pensions were one of the largest Federal expenditures for about forty years after the War, and it was a mainstay of the Republican electoral power in the post-bellum years. The second primary effect of the War was to bring about a massive national debt (which is, I believe, one of the reasons it was waged to begin with). Part of this debt had piled up in depreciated greenbacks which the Republicans, in good Hamiltonian fashion, proceeded to pay off in gold and interest-bearing government bonds, vastly enriching the speculators who had bought up these greenbacks for cents on the dollar. Jefferson recorded an evening on which some folks were having supper and during the meal John Adams commented: “The government of Great Britain would be the best government on earth if they could only get rid of its corruption.” Hamilton hastily intervened and contradicted: “No, it is corruption which makes the British government powerful and stable.” This divides the Agrarians from the capitalists very clearly. This is what Taylor and Calhoun fought against. The confederate Constitution was designed to prevent the kinds of legislation that led to the state-capitalists’ regime. I am saying very little about Calhoun in this program, but you can accept that what Calhoun had to say in terms of constitutional principles and political economy was an elaboration on what John Taylor had said. That will pretty well describe it.

After the War, the planter class was destroyed, and, in effect, the American agricultural interest was beheaded. Never since has the agricultural interest had any real, effective political leadership (of course, I distinguish agri-business from agriculture). The Agrarian ideal of Jefferson, it seems to me, was not an unrealistic hope. It reflected American reality at the beginning of the 19th century. Ownership of substantial property was very widespread and easily attainable. Americans were pleased that the Revolution had left them with governments that were restrained by written constitutions and by the people. Everybody understood that America understood a widespread popularity that was barely conceivable in the Old World. In the Old World, cutting down a tree or hunting on somebody else’s land could get you in trouble with the law. Your only hope of prosperity in the old country was either to be born the eldest son of a prosperous family or to elope with an heiress, if you could manage that. From the Jeffersonian perspective, there was no reason this happy situation could not continue indefinitely. There was still an abundance of land. The continent could provide livelihood and independence for succeeding generations, as far as one could imagine. And we had products to raise and sell: Tobacco, cotton, rice, sugar, hemp, and lumber; things that we could produce and the world would purchase, in exchange for which we could acquire, by foreign trade, those things we did not produce. In this situation, not much industry was needed, and what industry might develop would do so through the free market’s operation, without government subsidy.

The population of America was also increasing exponentially by natural means (including the slaves). The New World, compared to the Old, was relatively healthy, happy, and prosperous. There were, before the Revolution, immigrations of Germans and Scotch-Irish. From then until the 1840’s, there was very, very little immigration into the United States. The population was increasing tremendously just by natural increase of the Americans who were there. It was not until the later 1840’s and the famines and revolutions in Europe that a new wave of immigrants began to come in. Immigrants were not needed; George Washington was already the fifth generation of his family in America. Once they got into power, one of the planks of the Lincoln/Republican Party program was a contract labour law which facilitated the removal of gangs of labour from Europe to the United States. This was controlled, cheap, immigrant labour for the industries of the Northeast (and these importers of immigrants were the people who were all exercised about slavery, of course).

The Northeast did not have the natural resources that South had, and could not achieve her agricultural prosperity. And in the early 19th century, they knew that they were losing power, relatively, and they could only prosper through Federal legislation. So, there was a natural division, there, in this happy American situation. The hand of government was very light. If you look at the political economy of the Agrarians from Jefferson up to I’ll Take My Stand, they sometimes talk about the utility, efficiency or reasonableness of their economic approach. But, at the bottom, all of them, if you read them closely, you’ll see that they are talking in the realm of values, not just economics. What they’re defending is a system that, as they see it, is the best for human beings, not because it’s economically productive, but because it promotes public virtue. Calhoun understood banking and currency better than anybody in the United States at the time, and he made brilliant arguments about the bad consequences of collusion between the bankers and government. Finally, however, his main point was that this was very bad for public virtue. The economics were less important. The twelve Southerners who write in I’ll Take My Stand make practical, utilitarian arguments for the agrarian way of life, but at bottom they were talking in the realm of values. It was part of the virtue of the Southern Agrarian interest throughout this period that, basically, it needed nothing from government. Maybe a little national defense was needed, but otherwise we needed nothing from the government, nor did we need much of it. Unlike the other section of the country, which almost from the first day of the government was asking for legislative favours. The Agrarians through the whole span saw history in these terms: Most of the experience of mankind had been that of the powerful, those who control the government, taking bread from the mouths of the farmers who were the people who had produced the real wealth out of the land. Real wealth is produced by labour and natural resources, but it tends to get into the hands of those who are able to manipulate their fellow beings in some way or other. The American version of this is what John Taylor critiqued as the “paper and patronage aristocracy.” America was in pretty good shape, and the Agrarian hope that this could continue was not an unreasonable one, but from the very first moment of the government, Alexander Hamilton walked in with his funding program and it was clear that there was a different plan for the American future and this plan scorned all the ideals of Agrarianism – its politics, its economics, its very way of life. And it was this plan, this initiative, that forced Jefferson and Taylor into politics. Agrarian politics has almost always been defensive. It has been elicited by the maneuvers of other people and has seldom sought anything for itself.

I’m sort of circling around here, trying to get to an explanation of what might seem a contradiction. The Agrarian thinkers, it seems to me, are the foremost defenders in American history of economic freedom and private property. At the same time, the works of Taylor, Calhoun, and others are full of scathing criticism of “capitalists,” “speculators,” and “stock-jobbers,” (those were probably Calhoun’s favourite epithets, “speculators and stock-jobbers”) as those who had messed up the country. These people are defenders of private property and economic freedom, so what’s going on here? How did they get off calling capitalists bad names? There seems to be a contradiction there. Well, there is no contradiction if you understand that the capitalists they’re talking about are the state-capitalists, the ones who profit from government, from subsidies and corruption. And that’s what most people mean when they talk about capitalism today, in the United States, whether they’re for it or against it. They don’t mean free enterprise. They mean government-supported and fostered “big” economic interests. So, when Agrarian spokesmen call capitalists to account for their sins, they are not attacking economic freedom or private property. They are doing just the opposite. For them, economic freedom meant the security of private property, including the earnings of labour, and an important aspect of the security of private property was that it be free from predators, especially those who were able manipulate the government for their own benefit. At no time did the Agrarians suffer from a Marxist alienation between economic freedom and another kind of liberty. As they saw the world, those who portrayed themselves as the great conservatives, the upholders of private property – the Federalists, the Whigs, the Republicans – when they spoke of protecting private property, they didn’t mean all property. They meant their particular kind of property, paper property, for the most part. And the capitalism the Agrarians were condemning was one in which Northerners (or, rather, some Northerners) profited by the manipulation of the government at the expense of the agricultural interest. And the agricultural interest was the bedrock of society in every way, not only economics, but in virtue and way of life. So, when an Agrarian attacks a “capitalist,” he does not mean “a bold, socially useful entrepreneur.” He means “a speculator in government influence; a smiling deceiver who asks for special benefits from government as if he were doing society a favour.” Alexander Hamilton called a public debt a public blessing.[3] That struck Jefferson like a flash and made clear what was really going on. “A public debt is a public blessing.” What an evil, evil proposition!

Hamilton (and those who agreed with him) were affirming a system which allowed rich people to put their capital into interest-bearing government bonds at no absolutely no risk. The “capitalist” the Agrarians were attacking was a smiling deceiver who pretended that he was enriching everyone with his government banking privileges, government bonds, corporate welfare, and tariff protection. For Southerners who lived on the land and sold on an open world market but were forced to purchase from the protected domestic market from which the other section profited, this was an artificial transfer of wealth from one section to the other. There was nothing benevolent, and certainly nothing American, about this “American System,” and the fact that the people who promoted this “American System” were quite often also the moralists of American society, the people who were prohibitionists, abolitionists, and all kinds of other “reformists” did not make Southerners any more hospitable towards the program. John Taylor remarked somewhere that he saw no difference between a sedition law and a pension law.[4] In other words, they were both abuses of the Constitution and of the Federal government. In the Southern view, Yankees distorting the Constitution for economic exploitation or for moral imperialism was all a part of the same program against the South.

This “American System” was long-established when the writers of I’ll Take My Stand came on the scene, and was the American gospel (although the Depression shook it up a little bit). The Agrarians hoped that the Depression might cause people to reconsider the so-called “American System,” but they had very little success at this. The writers of I’ll Take My Stand were outside the normal liberal and conservative dialogue of American politics. M.E. Bradford (who I’ll talk about later) described them this way:

“You must recognize that the Nashville Agrarians were not cultural or political conservatives in the mold with which Americans have become familiar since the fatal conclusion of the War for Southern Independence….they were (and those surviving still are) inclined to be conservative Democrats, hostile to Social Darwinism and the other reaches of state-sponsored, laissez-fare capitalism…As you will quickly perceive upon reading the ‘Statement of Principles’ which opens I’ll Take My Stand (to which they all subscribed), atomistic or impersonal corporate business and the omnicompetent state are for the Agrarians two faces of one phenomenon. Both lead finally to Marxism, with which they were all profoundly alarmed. Both depersonalize and thus preclude the development of genuine communities. And both are finally servants of the will to dominate and thus to reshape a given creation, the commonplace blasphemy of our age.”[5]

The twelve writers of I’ll Take My Stand came out of a land that was agricultural, and had been for a long time. It was also a land that, for a long time, had been a land of agricultural poverty, poverty widespread, poverty largely caused by military conquest and destruction and government policy. We sometimes underestimate the effects of the War. The War destroyed forty percent of the infrastructure and other capital of the South. Forty percent. If you count the value of slave property, the War destroyed sixty percent of the wealth of the South. The destruction of this capital meant that post-bellum Southerners could only get going by borrowing. In 1860, the South had for over two centuries been supplying the vast majority of all American exports. In 1900, there was actually less land under cultivation in the South (except in Texas) than there had been in 1860. In 1860, almost every white family in the South was land-owning and independent. They had a material stake in society and enjoyed a roughly abundant way of life. In sad contrast, in the South of 1900, the majority of the black population were tenants or sharecroppers in a permanent condition of poverty and debt that could not be called serfdom because it was too transient. Amazingly, in 1900 an even larger number (in absolute numbers) of white families were in the same situation, although sharecroppers were not as high a percentage of the white population as of the black. This was the situation of the South after the War. Sharecroppers were in debt to the landowner. The landowner was in debt to outside capital to support the people and the operations until harvest and sale. In order to pay back these debts, most production had to be devoted to cash crops like cotton, and the more cotton was produced, the lower the price became. The greater the supply, the lower the price. Basically, this was not a winning proposition, except for a few periods like World War One when prices were high.

In addition to this kind of economic situation, there was systematic discrimination by the Federal government against the Southern region. The Nashville Agrarians were aware of all this. They took it for granted when they complained about industrialism. Railroad rates were rigged so that it was cheaper to send steel from Pittsburgh and Cleveland to Atlanta than it was from Birmingham to Atlanta. For years and years, the Wisconsin dairy industry kept laws on the books which forbade the use of margarine. Margarine could be made from cotton seed, which could have been sold for that purpose. These are the kinds of ways the system was rigged. Add to this during this period the incessant propaganda from Boston, New York, and Chicago about the ignorance, backwardness, and barbarism of Southerners, whose problems were, of course, all their own fault because they lacked the virtue and enterprise of Yankees. This kind of abuse, of course, had been common since the first settlement of Massachusetts Bay, but it had been given a new lease on life by the Scopes Trial at the time the twelve Southerners authored I’ll Take My Stand. There is still a widespread belief among historians which is nothing other than manufactured Marxist propaganda. According to this view, somehow the evil landowners of the South were responsible for this situation; most of the black and white population were poor because they were being exploited by the evil landowners. For the most part, the landowners were decent Christian people who were doing the best that they could and were themselves caught up in this cycle of debt owed to outsiders. This is never mentioned by the critics of the South.

The authors of I.T.M.S. thus took it for granted that their region was a colony of the North, impoverished and slandered as a matter of routine. Yet somehow through all of this, the South had maintained some sort of allegiance to the Jeffersonian ideal of a self-supporting family on its own land as the best society and way of life. And at the time the Nashville Agrarians wrote, there was enough of this ideal still made flesh in the real world that they had seen that they could hope for a revival. A real revival and embodiment of this ideal could still be possible in the South, but it would require new policies and changes. The Agrarians were familiar with the Populist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was a kind of rebellion of the farmers. As Mr. Stromberg said yesterday, American historians are always setting up alternatives, and the alternatives are almost always false. Populism is often dealt with as a kind of uprising of Midwestern radicals like Sockless Jerry Simpson from Kansas, but if you look closely at the record of the Populist movement to achieve some political power and relief for the agricultural interest, you’ll see it was based primarily in the upcountry plantation regions of the South, which are exactly the same regions that were the strongest for Jefferson and for secession in 1860-1861. Populist presidential candidate Tom Watson of Georgia learned his politics from Alexander Stephens and Robert Toombs. Leonidas Lafayette Polk of North Carolina was another Populist candidate for the Presidency. Polk had been the sergeant-major of the 26th North Carolina Infantry, C.S.A, which is famous for its two charges and casualties at Gettysburg. This Populism flourished for a while, but it faded into Progressivism during World War One, and once more the farmer was reduced to powerlessness.

The Populists were denounced as socialists and radicals because they favoured a few government actions in the economy, such as railroad regulation. That was “radical,” but, of course, four decades of politicians being bought, paid for, and controlled by the bankers and industrialists was not. That, somehow, was “free enterprise.” Like the Populists, the Nashville Agrarians were willing to use the government where necessary, and hoped that the New Deal would be an opportunity to enact government policies that would encourage the flourishing of the small farm. The claim that they made no practical recommendations is untrue. There are no practical recommendations in I.T.M.S., but many of the writers later wrote extensively, in realistic terms, about what might be done to restore and nourish an Agrarian way of life. None of their recommendations were adopted. As Bradford writes:

“they hoped for a wide distribution of what the law calls real property, widespread economic independence (with all the dignity that situation insures)…And they were willing to involve state and Federal powers in the effort to arrange for that distribution, just so long as envy was not in consequence converted into a sanctioned social attitude – and so long as these powers withdrew swiftly after restorative reforms were concluded.”[6]

Alas, instead of encouraging a return to the land, the New Deal opted for socialized agribusiness and urban welfare. After that, the small farmer became an increasingly endangered species, and has now almost disappeared entirely, although some of the spirit remained. One of William Faulkner’s characters (I forget which now) has his world virtually destroyed by New Deal policies. His mental universe cannot absorb the fact that the Federal government will actually pay him to not grow crops. He is simply incapable of absorbing this fact because it’s so far from reality. There was probably no hope that the Agrarians could prevail against the regime of industrialism, even when it was in trouble. Their remedy was older and better than the radical ideas floating around in the 1930’s, but it would have required that Americans give up their compulsive materialism, their blind obedience to the gospel of “progress,” their contempt for Creation, and their lowest-common-denominator mass culture.

What I’ve tried to do here to give a kind of picture of the worldview and the political and economic inheritance that was the background to I’ll Take My Stand. This was the world all the authors had grown up in and were referring to. The authors wrote in defense of a way of life they knew was real and good. It was not a theory. Industrialism had centralized power, made it unjust, and destroyed the Jeffersonian vision of freedom and prosperity. Even more importantly, the human product of industrialism represented the opposite of progress. Perhaps industrialism was inevitable, but at least we could submit to it with a bad grace, keep a leash on it, do our utmost to keep it in its place. To quote Bradford again:

“All of them knew in their bones the special value, the character, and habitus of the old agrarian order which they chose to salute and recommend as an example to their own generation. Many had experienced farm life firsthand, and they were even better acquainted with the community of established and interconnected families which the arator [farmer, husbandman, ploughman] made possible: the community given its form and flavor by those who live on and out of the land.”[7]

The twelve Southerners who authored I.T.M.S. have been justly praised for their powers of prophesy. Reading it again after several years, it seems to me that their analysis of the unhappy tendencies of American life and the American mind which they call by the shorthand label of “industrialism,” was correct. These tendencies are even worse now than they were in 1930, and the authors of I.T.M.S. clearly foresaw and predicted the way it was going. Besides being prophets, the quality of what the twelve Southerners had to say has broad and enduring appeal. They hoped for an audience beyond the South. They not only got that; they got succeeding generations. They remind us in almost every essay of the necessity and duty to collaborate with like-minded people elsewhere. Stark Young writes: “We defend certain qualities, not because they belong to the South, but because the South belongs to them.”[8] Before we become too cosmopolitan, let me point out that Stark Young’s very sentence is this: “The intelligent course see first our Southern culture in relation to other cultures, and then in the light of its own sum.”[9] Let us remember that the title of the book comes from the Southern national anthem, the first two words of the book’s subtitle are “the South,” and the first paragraph of text begins with the statement: “The authors contributing to this book are Southerners…”[10] The last sentence of that first paragraph affirms this: “all tend to support a Southern way of life against what may be called the American or prevailing way…”[11] It is perhaps a little too easy for us to forget what a radical and perhaps dangerous statement that is, what a radical thing it is to take your stand against the American way of life. But that is what they said and did.

[1]For reasons unknown, Wikisource omits Taylor’s New Views of the Constitution of the United States and his Arator essays.

[2]Bryan’s closing statement, “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold,” in his 1896 address to the Democratic National Convention. For the full text, see: https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/williamjenningsbryan1896dnc.htm

[3]Hamilton denied using the phrase in a letter published under a pseudonym in the National Gazette, 11 Sept. 1792: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-12-02-0274

[4]Taylor actually considered the pension law the worse abuse of the two, as it operated against private property (and thus persons also), and harmed through taxation a greater number of people than had been arrested, fined, and jailed under the sedition law. See, Ibid., 253-255. Cf. Taylor’s comments comparing the destructiveness of “funding, banking, and charter” to sedition laws: An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States (Fredericksburg, VA: 1814), 246.

[5]M.E. Bradford, Remembering Who We Are: Observations of a Southern Conservative (Athens, GA: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1985), 68-69.

[6]Ibid., 69.

[7]Ibid., 68.

[8]Stark Young, I’ll Take My Stand, 336.


[10]Ibid., 35.


Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of www.shotwellpublishing.com, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books.

One Comment

  • “Most of the experience of mankind had been that of the powerful, those who control the government, taking bread from the mouths of the farmers who were the people who had produced the real wealth out of the land. ”

    And so it goes…and so it goes.

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