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The New International, January 1946


Jim Black

The Farmers’ Last Frontiers


From New International, Vol.12 No.1, January 1946, p.24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


by Fred A. Shannon
Farrar & Rinehart, $5

This book is the fifth volume of a nine volume series entitled The Economic History of the United States. It covers the Homestead period of 1860-1897.

This is not the type of book one takes to bed (unless you want to encourage nightmares) or reads at one’s leisure. In the preface of the book Shannon states: “I have not written a history of the technical advances in agriculture ...” This is a direct sign of guilt, for what Shannon denies doing he accomplishes with eloquence. He goes into an elaborate description of soil types and characteristics and other natural forces in his section on Nature and the Farmer. This section, as all the others, is embellished with charts and graphs, and statistical data galore.

Shannon runs the gauntlet with a section on Land and Labor in the New South, discussing the Civil War and its effects, changes in land ownership, rise of sharecropping, crop lien system, white and Negro farm labor, and Southern class structure. He devotes another section to Southern Crops and Special Problems, discussing primarily the staples, cotton and tobacco.

The Progress of Farm Mechanization is also included in Shannon’s study and everything from the new seed planter and cultivator to the economic and social effects of mechanization is discussed.

The section on The Expansion of Prairie Agriculture deals with bonanza (large) farms, the movement of cereal-crop production, corn-hog cycle, and care of the soil. Other sections dealt with in great detail are Special Problems of Prairie Farmers, The Livestock Frontier and the Great Plains Farmer, Finance and Marketing Problems of the Range Country, Specialized Agriculture and Eastern Adjustments, Government Activity in Agriculture, The Agrarian Uprising and the Farmers’ Cooperative Movements.

The Author’s Theory

The above listing of topics offers sufficient reason why it is essential that the main thesis of the book be dealt with rather than just a segmented analysis of each section. In the section entitled Agriculture Settlement in New Areas, Shannon states his thesis. It is as follows:

“The movement of population to new lands after 1860 was largely along lines drawn before that time, and to a great degree was merely a further spreading out over already partially settled areas.”

It is true one has to dip deeply and push aside a conglomeration of details to find his main trend of thought. Although it is clouded, it is worthy of examination. Shannon’s thesis of gradual settlement, of slow extension of frontiers, is offered in lieu of the hypothesis presented by Walter Prescott Webb in The Great Plains: Study in Institutions and Environment. Webb discusses the 100th Meridian as a major dividing line, creating the so-called “institutional fault.” Webb contends that the environmental factors caused a major break in the settlement of this country in that the Great Plains were settled last, i.e., settlers moved from the North Central States to the West Coast before the Great Plains were settled.

The environmental factors that Webb stresses are such things as lack of water for grazing or homestead farming, absence of woodlands or forests – resulting in scarcity of lumber for building and wood for fuel – and adverse climatic conditions, such as strong winds and dust storms.

Shannon counters with statistical data showing that a frontier was established first in Ohio, then settlers moved to the Midwest and then on to the Plains. He sees the process as one of gradual adjustment rather than one of sharp breaks and cleavages.

This type of academic shadow boxing is interesting, but adds little to our understanding of the problematical situation and the adjustments of the people.

On the Public Domain

Shannon does make a contribution in the section entitled Disposing of the Public Domain. The myth of homesteading is exploded by proving conclusively that of the eighty million acres of homesteads settled under sixty thousand patents, less than one-sixth of the acreage went to homesteaders who lived and kept their holdings. He proves that the homesteaders were pawns of the monopolists and the land speculators, with

the bona fide homesteaders receiving the least desirable tracts, in poorer lands and far from transportation facilities.

In the last section of the book Shannon invalidates the old “safety-valve” hypothesis. His data shows that from 1860 to 1900 the flow was from the farm to the city and not vice versa, as is usually thought. He contends that it is time that a new hypothesis were advanced: that the rise of the city was a safety valve for rural discontent. In this section on The Farmer and the Nation, Shannon depicts agriculture as declining in importance. He shows that from 1860 to 1900 agriculture’s share in the national income and national wealth was steadily decreasing.

The book contains some very important factual material and also some major ideological contributions, but it falls short in analyzing the problems involved in the farmer’s last frontier.

Shannon fails to grasp the problems involved in a maturing agriculture. He did not gear his analysis toward an examination of a problematical situation, and the shifts in the process which arc brought about by institutional changes. The instability of agriculture, the increasing rate of farm tenancy, and the loss of the owner-operator ideal, are all dealt with as fixtures.

Not daring to suggest a new institutional setting to cope with the closing of the frontier, Shannon must manipulate his charts and graphs and elaborate in a matchbox. For if he were to poke his nose into the outer environs, things might be combustible.

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