The Law of the Land: Two Hundred Years of American Farmland Policy

The Law of the Land: Two Hundred Years of American Farmland Policy

The Law of the Land: Two Hundred Years of American Farmland Policy

The Law of the Land: Two Hundred Years of American Farmland Policy

Synopsis

A professor of history at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, John Opie is also director of the Center for Technology Studies and founding editor of Environmental History Review. His other publications include Ogallala: Water for a Dry Land (Nebraska 1993).

Excerpt

This history argues that a cherished American tradition is in large part unfounded. Americans have long been committed to the proposition that the checkerboard land pattern so agreeably laid out over the public domain since 1785 was an ideal instrument to secure ownership of private farmland for the typical American as frontier settlement moved westward. Until the early twentieth century, independent citizen-farmers on their own land made up most of the nation's population. But despite this apparent success story, there is evidence that the policy originally set out by the Land Survey Ordinance of 1785 mismanaged the nation's primary natural resource (chap. 1). Yet the survey seemed so promising an instrument that two years later the new Constitution did not tamper with it. But the process by which the public domain became private property often did not secure the promised fertile garden spot that was to guarantee permanent security for the American farmer. There is evidence that independent family farmers at home on their surveyed tracts--so often eulogized even today as representative (and necessary) Americans--rarely enjoyed prosperity equal to American life off the farm.

This book also argues that land laws and farm policies were based entirely upon the principle of unrestricted ownership of private property for personal profit, another fundamental American tradition (chap. 2). At several critical points, this dedication to private property distorted the stated goals of farmland policy. The real beneficiary of the extraordinary transfer of the nation's sovereign territory was speculative private enterprise. This book is unlike most farmland histories because it emphasizes the great power of private ownership to galvanize Americans of all kinds into a land frenzy (chap. 3). In fact, the inability of today's family farmers to save themselves is based in large part on their continued dedication to the myth that they are the bulwark of private enterprise because they still work their own property. Instead, today's independent farmers find little safety in owning land; they have become trapped by its ever-greater costs and debts whipsawed by uncontrollable global markets.

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