Farming Democracy: American Agricultural Policy from the Great War to the Great Society
Biles, Amanda Belle
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In the days of the early republic, agriculture provided more than just an economic foundation; it shaped the country socially, and politically, too. Thomas Jefferson and others wrote at length of the role farming played in the American moral and political order, but by the turn of the twentieth century, agriculture’s share of the overall economy had declined, even as it became enmeshed in the emerging class question that was convulsing US politics. Farm policy followed that shift. While many historians of agricultural policy in the twentieth century limited their studies to the so-called farm bills and thus saw only commodity policy, US agricultural policy from Woodrow Wilson to Lyndon Johnson constituted a massive intervention in the lives and experiences of rural Americans. During this period, policymakers moved purposefully and emphatically beyond commodity concerns and aimed to remake rural life and farmer identity in the United States. They held as their model Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian ideal, a nation of freeholders deeply invested in the preservation of the republic and their own contributions to its success. However, the Wilson administration and its successors went beyond Jeffersonian laissez faire to build a farm policy rooted in the worldview and methods of the Progressive movement: middle class values, concern for social uplift, a growing civil service bureaucracy, and modern scientific and statistical tools. These administrations demonstrated clear intent to wield farm identity as a tool of democratization, growth, and national cohesion not only within the American countryside, but in the nation at large and then around the globe.