The Southern Agrarians represent one of the most interesting movements of the first half of the twentieth century. Principled as well as intellectual, the Agrarians offered much for America to ponder.
Sadly, however, it is quite possible the Southern Agrarians of the 1920s and 1930s will be remembered, if at all, as a footnote to the great storm and whirligig of literature, ideas, and ideologies of those same decades. One might reasonably make the argument—as many have—that the Agrarians were merely nostalgic, or, at the very least, motivated by nostalgic longings.
As demographer and historian Walter Nugent has shown, the United States possessed a population perfectly balanced between those living in urban areas and those living in rural areas in 1920. Since then, the growth of the cities and the decline of the rural regions of America has grown precipitously.
A decade after America’s rural population lost its “half,” the Agrarians spoke. They might have been several decades too late. Whatever their motives, the Agrarians also present something fascinating in first few decades of Progressive America—in particular, a revolt against a consolidating nationalism. As is obvious by their very name, the Southern Agrarians give a voice to the South.
In this idea, they were not alone. The 1910s through 1950s witnessed a veritable explosion of regional writers gaining a national and sometimes international audience: Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, John Steinbeck, A.B. Guthrie, to list a few.
This piece appeared in one of the many non-leftist journals of the period: The American Review.
The Pillars of Agrarianism
Frank L. Owsley
Since the appearance of I’ll Take My Stand in 1930, the Agrarians have been subjected to a fusillade of criticism. I suspect that our philosophy as set forth in that book and in later essays, published in certain periodicals, especially in the Distributist-Agrarian AMERICAN REVIEW, has irked the devotees of our technological civilization. Venturing an even stronger word, it begins to appear that the doctrines announced in I’ll Take My Stand have actually infuriated these people. Just recently, on an important examination for a certain scholarship, it seems that the Committee inquired of each candidate what he thought of agrarianism. It was noteworthy that the successful candidate summed up his opinion by saying that the advocates of such a system were “cockeyed”. One of the candidates who was not only rejected, but was urged not to apply again on the grounds of age (he has just celebrated his twenty-second birthday, and the age limit of the scholarship is several years above this age) answered that as far as he understood it he heartily approved of agrarianism. The most recent and, perhaps, the most violent attack upon the advocates of an agrarian state is that of H. L. Mencken. While Mencken’s attack is so violent and lacking in restraint that it does not fall far short of libel, I have no desire to single him out as a critic worthy of an answer. However, I must confess that Mencken’s attack, because it is typical – outside of the billingsgate – of those coming from the pillars of industrialism, has prompted, to a certain extent, this essay. Such essays as his, appearing with amazing regularity, have without a doubt troubled the mind of the neophyte and, in many cases, have utterly confused him and made him lose sight of the principles and specific objectives of agrarianism.
Few if any of the Agrarians have expended any effort in answering the criticism of those who attack our principles. From the beginning we have pursued the attack rather than the defence; nor have we – if I may continue the military figure of speech – seen fit to consolidate our positions. However, it seems to me very proper, at the present time, for the sake of those who have been confused, or those whom we hope to draw into our way of thinking, to restate and elaborate the fundamental economic and political principles on which an agrarian society will probably have to rest in the United States, and most particularly in the South.
I shall not attempt to restate and discuss all the principles and programmes of our hoped-for agrarian society, for this, as John Crowe Ransom has said in another connection, would indeed institute an infinite series. My purpose is to confine my discussion to the five great pillars upon which this society will have to rest. Before going into an exposition of the foundation of a restored agrarianism in the south (or other regions), it will be well to restate our definition of an agrarian state as set forth in the introduction of I’ll Take My Stand:
Opposed to the industrial society is the agrarian, which does not stand in particular need of definition. An agrarian society is hardly one that has no use at all for industries, professional vocations, for scholars and artists and for the life of the cities. Technically, perhaps, an agrarian society is one in which agriculture is the leading vocation, whether for wealth, for pleasure, or prestige – a form of labour that is pursued with intelligence and leisure, and that becomes the model to which the other forms approach as well as they may.
I shall edit this definition. We had in mind a society in which, indeed, agriculture was the leading vocation; but the implication was more than this. We meant that the agrarian population and the people of the agricultural market towns must dominate the social, cultural, economic, and political life of the state and give tone to it. Today the Scandinavian countries are fair examples of such a state. France before the World War was a most beautiful example, where 30,000,000 people lived on the land and 10,000,000 lived in the towns and cities engaging in commerce and industry. Even today, after the disastrous War and its effects upon mechanization of industry, France presents the best balanced economic system of any first-class nation in the world. The ownership of property is more widely distributed there than in any nation comparable in wealth and population. Governments may rise and fall, but the French peasant and farmer seems eternal when compared to those of the United States. Yet the United States has less than three times as large a population as France.
Before entering into the details of our fundamental programme, let me say that we are not exotics, not a peculiar sect living in a vacuum, untouched by public affairs, merely irked by the noise of factory wheels and machinery. We fully realize that our programme cannot be put into operation until matters affecting the nation as a whole are set aright. Everything which affects the agrarian interests also touches industry, finance, and commerce. Our programme, therefore, intimately involves national problems. We are on the side of those who know that the common enemy of the people, of their government, their liberty, and their property, must be abated. This enemy is a system which allows a relatively few men to control most of the nation’s wealth and to regiment virtually the whole population under their anonymous holding companies and corporations, and to control government by bribery or intimidation. Just how these giant organizations should be brought under the control of law and ethics we are not agreed. We are, however, agreed with the English Distributists that the most desirable objective is to break them down into small units owned and controlled by real people. We want to see property restored and the proletariat thus abolished and communism made impossible. The more widespread is the ownership of property, the more happy and secure will be the people and the nation. But is such a decentralization in the physical property as well as in ownership possible? We are confident that it is, however much we may differ among ourselves as to the degree of decentralization that will prove desirable in any given industry. We are all convinced, though we hold no doctrinaire principles as to method, that these robber barons of the twentieth century will have to be reduced and civilized in some form or other before any programme can be realized by our state and Federal governments.
While we are deeply interested in the whole nation, yet, as Agrarians and Southerners, we are not desirous of launching a crusade to convert or coerce the other sections of the country into our way of thinking. We therefore, while inviting all who wish, to go with us, have a fundamental programme for the south to which I have referred as the five pillars of agrarianism.
The first item in our agrarian programme is to rehabilitate the population actually living on the soil. This farming population falls into several categories: large and small planters; large and small farmers, both black and white; black and white tenants who own their stock and tools, and rent land; black and white tenants who own no stock or tools, but are furnished everything and get a share of the crop for their labour. Finally, there is the wage-hand either coloured or white who is furnished a house, and perhaps food and a certain cash wage.
Today the farm population in the South whether wage-hand or large planter is in a precarious and often miserable state. The exploitations by the industrial interests through high tariffs and other special favours from the Federal government, which force the farmer to buy in a protected market and sell in a world market, and the periodic industrial depressions following in close order since the Civil War, have greatly oppressed the Southern agricultural population. The majority of the planters do not really own their lands, the real owners are the life insurance companies or the banks. The payment of the interest on his mortgage leaves the almost mythical landowner little on which to subsist. Repayment of the principal is out of the question. Actually, most of the planters are without credit, and are no better off than the tenant or share-cropper. In fact the renter and share-cropper frequently come out of debt with some cash, their corn, sorghum, potatoes, pigs, cows, and other live stock above the board. The fate of the small or large farmer is much better. As a rule he is thrifty, owes less than the other classes, and lives to a great extent off his farm. Sometimes he sends his children to college, especially the agricultural college. His house is usually comfortable and sometimes painted. For the farmer as a class, there is less need of state intervention in his affairs than in the affairs of the tenant and planter classes. Yet a new political economy is necessary for him as well as the planters and tenants, or he will eventually lose his land and status. This new political economy will be discussed later. As for the planter class, there are many whom even the new political economy cannot save. Their equity in the once broad acres which they held in fee simple is too small. It will be best for them to liquidate and begin over as small farmers under the plan which I shall presently offer in connection with the tenant farmers.
The most serious problem, however, is not the bankrupt planters but the tenant-farmers, black and white, because of their great number. I do not know the exact ratio between the tenant-farmer class and the landholding class; but I have heard it said that 75% of the population living on the land in the South are tenants. If this estimate is too high, it will not long remain so unless strong measures are taken, for the tenant class has been increasing so rapidly in recent years that it threatens to engulf the entire agricultural population of the South. Most of the white tenants were once landowners, but have been thrust near to the bottom of the economic and social order by the loss of their lands through industrial exploitation, depression, and, frequently, through high pressure salesmanship of radio, automobile, and farm machinery agents. Industrialism has persuaded, or created a public opinion which has virtually driven, the farmer to accept industrial tastes and standards of living and forced him to mortgage and then to lose his farm. Battered old cars, dangling radio aerials, rust-eaten tractors, and abandoned threshing machines and hay balers scattered forlornly about are mute witnesses to the tragedy of Industrialism’s attempt to industrialize the farmer and the planter.
A portion of the lower class of white tenants, especially the adults, are beyond redemption. Through diseased tonsils, adenoids, unbalanced rations, tuberculosis, hook worm, malaria, and the social diseases, many have been made into irresponsible, sometimes – but not often – vicious people who are lacking in mental alertness and the constancy of will to enable them to till the soil without close supervision. Such people would not be able to make a living on land which might be granted or sold to them on easy terms by the government. However, the county and state public health departments should be enabled to take the steps necessary to salvage the children of such families in order that they may become owners of small farms and good citizens when of proper age. It is this class of whites in particular, who own no stock, plant no gardens, raise no chickens, who are frequently and perhaps accurately described as the “po’ white trash”.
The higher class white tenants, those who own their stock and cattle and have their gardens and truck patches, are ready to become the proprietors of farms. Frequently they are good farmers and send their children through the high schools. They are probably in the majority in most of the Southern states and, as I have suggested, their families have been landowners; they were, in short, once a part of the Southern yeomanry; and for a nation or section to allow these people to sink lower and lower in the social and economic scale is to destroy itself.
As for the Negro tenant class, the majority of the Agrarians agree that the really responsible farmers among them who know how to take care of the soil and who own their own stock and cattle, should be made proprietors of small farms.
The planters and large farmers who are left after liquidating their debts will still have an abundance of tenants who work well under supervision, but who are irresponsible and incapable of taking care of themselves without supervision. In the south, the wage-hand is usually the son of a tenant. He is frequently young and more intelligent than the lower tenant class. He should, where his intelligence and sense of responsibility permit, be homesteaded like the better-class tenant. Otherwise, he should be kept where he is, under the supervision of one who has good judgement and a sense of responsibility.
Now, instead of the Federal or state government spending $2500 in building a house for the homesteaders, with whom they are very gingerly experimenting, and several hundred dollars on small tracts of land, let the national and state governments buy up all the lands owned by insurance companies and absentee landlords– which are being destroyed rapidly by erosion–and part of the land owned by the large planters who are struggling to save a portion of their lands, and give every landless tenant who can qualify, 80 acres of land, build him a substantial hewn log house and barn, fence him off twenty acres for a pasture, give him two mules and two milk cows and advance him $300 for his living expenses for one year. By this means 500,000 persons can be rehabilitated in one year at $1,500 a family or $300 per person. An outright gift of the land is advocated to the homesteader with one condition attached: the land must never be sold or mortgaged, and when abandoned it should automatically escheat to the state which should be under immediate obligation to rehabilitate another worthy family.
The next step would be to bring the technologically unemployed, intelligent city people back to the country. First, those who have had experience as farmers should be rehabilitated; next, but relatively few at a time, those without experience should be permitted to become tenants on plantations, whereupon, if such tenants and their families should feel that they would like to go on, the government should grant them a homestead with sufficient stock and cattle and enough cash to subsist them one year. It seems quite clear to the Agrarians that technological unemployment is destined to increase with rapid acceleration until the majority of the population once employed in industry will be thrown out of the system. The government will be faced with perhaps three alternatives: it could put these permanently unemployed on a dole—until the government becomes bankrupt or an orderly slave state is established; it could refuse the dole and have a revolution; or it could rehabilitate the unemployed by giving them small farms. We, as interested citizens of the United States, urge this last policy upon the government as the only permanent relief from permanent technological unemployment. As Agrarians we urge it as an opportunity to restore the healthy balance of population between city and country, which will aid in the restoration of agrarianism and in the restoration and preservation of civilization.
Next in order of importance but simultaneous with the first step should be the rehabilitation of the soil. We, in common with the agricultural colleges of the country, urge that small and large farmer, small and large planter, regard the enrichment and preservation of the soil as a first duty. Those who own the soil must be held accountable in some way for their stewardship. Undrained, unterraced, single-cropped land, and lack of reforestation, should be prima facie evidence that the homesteader is not a responsible person and his land should, after fair warning and action in Chancery Court, escheat to the state. As for those farmers and planters who acquire their land by purchase or inheritance, a heavy suspended fine should be imposed upon them; and unless the planter or farmer remedies the abuses within a reasonable time or gives good reason why he has not been able to do so, the fine should be collected. The county agent and three men appointed by the state department of agriculture, should serve in each county as a kind of court to pass on such matters, and appeal from their decision should be allowed to go to Chancery Court. In short, land must be conserved for future generations and not exploited, as has too often been the practice, by the present owners. Another drastic proposal which would aid in conserving the land as well as preventing its being alienated or becoming encumbered with debt, is that by state constitutional amendment, no land could be mortgaged, except by consent of a court of equity; nor should any kind of speculative sale be permitted. It must become impossible for land to be sold to real estate and insurance companies or banks. In thus making alienation of the soil difficult and its proper management necessary, I am suggesting a modified form of feudal tenure where, in theory, the King or state has a paramount interest in the land.
When the rehabilitation and conservation of the soil and stability of tenure have been provided for, the next consideration must be the products of the soil.
Subsistence farming must be the first objective of every man who controls a farm or plantation. The land must first support the people who till it; then it must support their stock. In the olden days when there were no money taxes or mortgages to meet, nor automobiles and fine carriages to buy, nor life and fire insurance to keep up, and when the priest and the teacher were paid in kind, this type of farming, if carried on with the scientific knowledge available today, would have supported the grandest of establishments. But today, a minimum outlay of cash is necessary even for those fortunate souls who are without debts: taxes, insurance, clothing, certain articles of luxury, and medical attention require cash.
After subsistence come the money crops. In the South these crops, too often planted at the expense of the subsistence crops, are peanuts, rice, sugar cane, tobacco, and cotton. Cotton and tobacco, the two leading staples, can be raised in the South in almost limitless quantities and must always depend, to a large extent, upon the foreign or world market. Considerable talk has been going its rounds concerning the danger of losing the foreign market because of crop limitation. Crop limitation, however, has no bearing at the present time, at least, upon the problem of cotton and tobacco. There are between nine and twelve million surplus bales of cotton and large quantities of tobacco above current crops, stored in the United States; and there can hardly be any question about loss of world markets because of crop limitation when we are unable to dispose of this terrific surplus. Further, considerable alarm has been expressed concerning the inability of American cotton growers to compete with Russia, Egypt, Brazil, Turkey, China, and India. This is a groundless fear, for even in the days when the South produced the scrub variety of cotton, the world depended largely upon American cotton, because, with the exception of limited areas in Egypt, the Sudan, and South Africa, no part of the world could raise as much cotton per acre or as good a fibre as the American South. Now that the Coker of South Carolina and other plant breeders have produced an upland staple with a fibre about two inches in length, which will grow on any soil in the south, and which is being rapidly introduced everywhere, there can hardly be any serious competition with the South, as far as cheapness of production, quality, and quantity are concerned.
Everything being equal in the world markets, the South could soon drive its competitors out, as it did until past the turn of the century when other factors entered. These factors will have to be dealt with intelligently by the government of the United States or by the regional governments to be discussed later, else the South will be wiped out economically. One factor is that within the last twenty years America has ceased to be a debtor nation and become a creditor. As a debtor we shipped cotton to England, France, or Germany which created foreign exchange with which to pay the principal and interest on our debts and purchase foreign goods. The South could raise large cotton and tobacco crops and be sure that the world markets would take all. As soon as we became a creditor we could no longer ship our cotton and tobacco with the assurances of a sale. England and Germany and France and even Japan, wherever possible, have bought cotton from those countries which owed them money. This loss of foreign market was seemingly made permanent by the rising tariff scale in America, which effectually cut off foreign goods from our markets, and thereby destroyed the chief sources of foreign exchange in this country with which Southern staples could be bought. The tariff, which was a guarantee of the home markets for the industrial interests of the country, principally located in the East and a belt following the Great Lakes, has been the greatest permanent factor in destroying the foreign market on which the South chiefly depended.
It must be said, at this point, that such a situation was envisaged in 1833 when South Carolina nullified the tariff law of 1832, and again when the Southern states seceded from the Union in 1861. The belief that industrialism, as soon as it got control of the Federal government, would not only exploit agriculture but would destroy the South was behind the whole secession movement. Today, we Agrarians witness the fulfillment of the jeremiads of Robert Barnwell Rhett and John C. Calhoun. We, however, are not hoping for or advocating another break-up of the Union; but we are demanding a fair hearing for the fundamental cause of the South – now that slavery can no longer be the real issue. If the industrial interests continue the monopoly of the home market and thereby cause the agricultural South (and West) to pay a much higher price for goods than the world price level, we must have a quid pro quo: a subsidy on every bale of cotton and pound of tobacco or other important agricultural products shipped abroad, based on the difference between world and domestic prices. In order that foreign countries shall have sufficient American exchange with which to purchase our staple farm exports we further insist that all farm products and raw material shipped into the United States be used in creating foreign exchange with which cotton and tobacco may be purchased and exported. (James Waller in A New Deal for the South suggests this technique of establishing parity between agriculture and industry.) In short, the South – and, if I may be so bold as to speak of the agrarian interests of another section, the West – must have agriculture put upon the same basis as industry.
With such political economy the South would soon become one of the most important parts of the world and it would add much to the prosperity of the other sections of the country. It is doubtful, however, whether such intelligent legislation is possible under a government so dominated by particular sectional interests.
For that reason—which is founded upon the history of the last one hundred and forty-six years—we are striving for a new constitutional deal which will help put the several sections on equal footing and prevent the exploitation of one by the other. We are in the front ranks of those who insist that the United States is less a nation than an Empire made up of a congeries of regions marked off by geographic, climatic, and racial characteristics. It has been suggested that New England would form a distinct region, the Middle States another, the Middle West another, the Rocky Mountain and Pacific States another, perhaps, and the South another. Of course the region to which a state wished to affiliate would be determined by a plebiscite. W. Y. Elliott of Harvard suggests that the regional governments be granted the present powers of the states, and that the states themselves be deprived of anything save administrative functions. He further suggests that one set of courts should serve both as Federal and state courts, thus eliminating the maze of courts by which justice is delayed and defeated and encouragement thereby given to lynch law.
Mr. Elliott suggests that in the new set-up the Federal government retain its present powers much more clearly defined. He further urges that all concurrent powers be eliminated. As far as I know, Mr. Elliott is not an agrarian; but his plan is essentially what the Agrarians have urged constantly, except in the matter of division of power between Federal and regional governments. His plan seems very reasonable and conservative. Something like it will have to be adopted if the United States is to endure. The Agrarians, I believe, advocate that, in the redivision of powers in a new constitutional convention, the regional governments should have much more autonomy than the states have ever had. The Federal government should have supreme control over war and peace, the army and navy, interregional or even interstate commerce, banking, currency, and foreign affairs. On the other hand, the sections should have equal representation in the Federal legislative body and in the election of the president and in the cabinet. The legislative body should be composed of a senate only and should be elected by the regional congresses. Finally, the regions should have control of the tariff: that is, the several regions should have an equal share in making the tariff, which would be in the form of a treaty or agreement between all the sections, somewhat in the fashion of the late Austro-Hungarian tariff treaties. In case one region, say the South, failed to agree to the tariff treaty, then the South should be exempted from the operation of the law until an agreement could be reached. Such an arrangement does not mean that there would be interregional tariffs; it does mean that, if the South should have a lower tariff than the other regions, goods imported through the South from abroad would have to pay an extra duty on entering the other regions operating under the treaty. There would be some smuggling across the Potomac and Ohio, but not any more than through Mexico and Canada.
The Supreme Court, like the proposed Senate, should have equal representation from all the sections, regardless of political parties, and the members of the Supreme Court should not be the creatures of the Senate or the President, but, like the Senate should be appointed by the regional governors subject to the ratification of the regional legislature, which also should be only a senate. The courts—that is, courts of appeal and circuit courts—should be constituted regionally, but should be considered both Federal and regional, sitting one time as Federal and one time as regional.
In our Agrarian programme, not only does it seem necessary to grant more local autonomy because of differences of economic interest, but because of differences on social and racial interests as well. Under such a government, the Civil War would not have been possible, nor would Reconstruction and the ensuing difficulties and hatreds have arisen. And what is more to the point at the present time, Communist interference in the Southern courts, and even conservative interference from the other sections, would hardly take place. In other words, Agrarians—who come nearer representing the opinion of Southern people than do newspapers largely subsidized by Northern owned power companies and Wall-Street-owned banks, or the Southern liberals fawning for the favour of these corporations or of other powerful Northern groups—believe that under regional government each section will find it less difficult to attend to its own social and economic problems, and thereby will be encouraged to restore the old friendships which were crippled or destroyed under our present system.
Let me sum up. The five pillars on which it would appear that an agrarian society must rest are: (1) The restoration of the people to the land and the land to the people by the government purchasing lands held by loan companies, insurance companies, banks, absentee landlords, and planters whose estates are hopelessly incumbered with debt, and granting to the landless tenants, who are sufficiently able and responsible to own and conserve the land, a homestead of 80 acres with sufficient stock to cultivate the farm and cash enough to feed and clothe the family one year; (2) The preservation and restoration of the soil by the use of fines and escheat, and by making land practically inalienable and non-mortgageable—that is by restoring a modified feudal tenure where the state had a paramount interest in the land and could exact certain services and duties from those who possessed the land; (3) The establishment of a balanced agriculture where subsistence crops are the first consideration and the money crops are of secondary importance; (4) The establishment of a just political economy, where agriculture is placed upon an equal basis with industry, finance, and commerce; (5) The creation of regional governments possessed of more autonomy than the states, which will sustain the political economy fitted for each region, and which will prevent much sectional friction and sectional exploitation.
Once this foundation is securely built, the agrarian society will grow upon it spontaneously and with no further state intervention beyond that to which an agricultural population is accustomed. The old communities, the old churches, the old songs would arise from their moribund slumbers. Art, music, and literature could emerge into the sunlight from the dark cramped holes where industrial insecurity and industrial insensitiveness have often driven them. There would be a sound basis for statesmanship to take the place of demagoguery and corrupt politics. Leisure, good manners, and the good way of life might again become ours.
Books on the topic discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
This essay originally appeared in The American Review (Volume 4).