Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Yeoman Farmers in a Planters' Republic: Socioeconomic Conditions and Relations in Early National Prince George's County, Maryland

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Yeoman Farmers in a Planters' Republic: Socioeconomic Conditions and Relations in Early National Prince George's County, Maryland

Article excerpt

Ever since Richard Hakluyt first envisioned English New World colonization, the idea of America as a field of economic opportunity has had immense importance. Colonial proprietors, their agents, and promotional writers stressed above all else that by moving to America migrants might obtain land and the economic independence that accompanied its ownership. After the Revolution, agrarian writers such as Thomas Jefferson and John Taylor of Caroline canonized the independent husbandman as the ideal republican citizen. These ideas have subsequently resonated through American historiography, at least among those who have taken agrarian writers at their word, and even today the yeoman farmer, free from markets and the machinations of the will of others, and uncorrupted by slavery, is frequently portrayed as the archetypal American of the early republic.1

Yet Jefferson, Taylor, and other contemporaries might have known better, coming as they did from the Chesapeake region where, by their day, the extent of landownership had been in palpable decline for quite some time. Historians of the colonial Chesapeake such as Lois Green Carr, Allan Kulikoff, Aubrey Land, Russell Menard, Lorena Walsh, and others have used quantifiable evidence such as censuses, wills, probate inventories, plantation accounts, land records, and tax lists, rather than relying on the word of agrarians, to demonstrate that if there was an "era of the yeoman farmer" in that region it ended in the late seventeenth century. Until then, former indentured servants had a fair expectation, with hard work and a little luck, of obtaining land. From the 1660s, however, as slavery gave larger planters the opportunity to exploit more land more cheaply, and as available realty thus got scarcer and more expensive, landownership fell from encompassing 70 percent of free people to 50 percent by the time of the American Revolution.2

There is also growing evidence that the American Revolution did nothing to reverse this century-old trend. Notwithstanding the findings of historians such as Ronald Hoffman, Woody Holton, and Michael McDonnell concerning the radical anti-elitist ideology and actions of the "lower sorts" in the revolutionary Chesapeake, others such as Jackson Turner Main, Bayly Marks, Elizabeth Perkins, Lee Soltow, and Fredrika Teute have shown that after independence economic inequality continued to grow and, in particular, nonlandownership continued to increase, in both the older tobacco-growing regions of the Chesapeake and in the newly opening tobacco West.3

This article explores the nature and extent of these kinds of inequalities in the level of detail made possible by a local prosopographical study, and further extends our knowledge of yeomen by examining their economic conditions and their social relations with others, especially wealthy planters. Whether the inequalities and the kinds of social relations found in Prince George's County, Maryland, existed in other regions in the early republic will require further research, but since the idea of the yeoman republic emerged in large part from the Chesapeake tobacco-slave-plantation region and the model does not even work there, further research in other regions is certainly worth undertaking.4

Prince George's County is located in the southwest corner of Maryland that retained tobacco planting as its primary economic pursuit and was apparently a fairly typical tobacco plantation county, according to scholarship based on census, tax, land, and probate records, and planter correspondence on which this article also draws. Prince George's has an almost complete set of local tax assessment and other public records of private property holdings from the late 1790s to at least the 1820s. Maryland's county levy courts kept accounts of taxable personal and real estate: slaves, divided by age and sex; gold and silver plate; "other" property (livestock, stills, ready cash, riding carriages, vessels over 20 tons, and, from 1813, some furniture and farm equipment); as well as land, with town lots and built improvements assessed separately. …

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