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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Best Holding of the Land

By Francis Amasa Walker (1840–1897)

[Born in Boston, Mass., 1840. Died there, 1897. Land and Its Rent. 1883.]

A WIDE difference in the degree of advantage which may be expected to result from the application of the subdivision of labor and the aggregation of capitals in agriculture, as compared with manufactures, enters to justify a very different view of the two cases.

It would be wholly reasonable to admit that the enormous gain in productive power which results from the modern organization of mechanical labor must be accepted as outweighing all the evils incidental to that system, while denying emphatically that the productive power of land in large estates under a single management shows any such excess over the productive power of land when cut up into small farms cultivated by their respective owners, as to compensate for the disadvantages that might be held to result from a less equable distribution of wealth, through the discouragement of frugality, through a more wanton increase of population, or through the merely political loss resulting to the State from the destruction of an independent and self-reliant yeomanry.

That the excess of advantages, productively considered, upon the side of large estates, as compared with what are usually called peasant properties, cannot be very great, is shown by the fact that the existence of such an excess in any degree has been disputed by writers so intelligent and candid as Messrs. Mill, Thornton, and Hippolyte Passy….

The reason why the division of labor and the concentration of capital accomplish so much less, relatively, in agriculture than in manufactures, is twofold.

On the one hand, the nature of agricultural operations, the extent of the field over which they are carried on, the varying necessities of the seasons in their order, and the limited applicability of machinery and elemental power, preclude the possibility of achieving a gain in this department of activity which shall be at all comparable to that which is attained where hundreds and thousands of workmen are gathered upon a few acres of ground, where machinery the most delicate and the most powerful may be applied successively to every minute operation, and where the force of steam or gravity may be invoked to multiply many fold the efficiency of the unaided man.

On the other hand, there is a virtue in the mere ownership of land by the actual laborer, which goes far, very far, to outweigh the advantages which great capitals bring to the cultivation of the soil. The “magic of property” in transmuting the bleak rock into the blooming garden, the barren sand of the seashore into the richest mould, has been told by a hundred travellers and economists since Arthur Young’s day. In his tireless activity, “from the rising of the lark to the lodging of the lamb”; in his unceasing vigilance against every form of waste; in his sympathetic care of the drooping vine, the broken bough, the tender young of the flock and the herd; in his intimate knowledge of the character and capabilities of every field, and of every corner of every field, within his narrow domain; in his passionate devotion to the land which is all his own, which was his father’s before him, which will be his son’s after him, the peasant, the small proprietor, hold the secret of an economic virtue which even the power of machinery can scarcely overcome.

Americans are perhaps likely to overrate the degree in which operations on a vast scale, under a single management, may be advantageously carried on. The stories of the great farms of Illinois and California, and, even more prodigious, of the Dalrymple farms along the line of the Northern Pacific Railroad, are likely to create the impression on the mind of the reader that there is almost no limit to the success of great, even of gigantic, agriculture.

Such cases are, however, highly exceptional, even in the cultivation of the staple cereal crops and of cotton; while, as we reach the numberless minor crops, which in their aggregate constitute a large part of the agriculture of the world, the advantages of aggregated capitals diminish rapidly or disappear altogether….

In addition to the question of gross production, we have considerations relating to the distribution of the produce, which may properly enter to affect the mind of the economist or the statesman when dealing with the tenure of the soil.

That the industrial position of the individual agent,—as, for instance, whether producing in his own right and name, by permission of no one, a merchantable product, regarding which he has only to take the risks of a fortunate or unfortunate exchange, or, in the opposite case, as a candidate for employment at the hands of another, through whose consent only can be obtained the opportunity to take a part in production, and with whom, consequently, he has to make terms in advance of production and as a condition precedent to production,—that the industrial position of the individual agent may powerfully affect the distribution of the produce among those who take part in production; that the injuries suffered in that distribution by the economically weak should result, more or less extensively, in permanent industrial disability, through loss of health and strength, through loss of constitutional energy or corruption of the blood, through loss of self-respect and social ambition, such disability being as real and as lasting as the disabilities incurred in a railway accident, the laborer, in consequence thereof, sinking to a lower industrial grade, beyond the reach of any reparative or restorative forces of a purely economical origin; and, lastly, that in the reaction of the distribution upon production, the whole community and all classes should suffer, both economically and socially;—how any one can deny these things, I cannot conceive, although it has mysteriously pleased the economists almost wholly to omit consideration of causes of this nature.

That the system of small holdings reduces to a minimum the difficulties and the economic dangers attending the distribution of wealth, is implied in the very statement of the case. The great majority of those who work upon the land being self-employed, and the produce being their own, without deduction, the question what they shall receive as the fruit of their labor becomes a question of their own industry and prudence, subject alone to the kindness or unkindness of nature in giving the sunshine and the rain in their due season and measure, or the reverse.

The reduction of the mass of those who work upon the land to the condition of hired laborers brings upon each the necessity of finding a master with whom he must make terms precedent to production; of entering into a competition at once with his fellows as to priority of employment, and with the members of the employing class as to rates of wages and forms of payment, for which competition he may be more or less disqualified by poverty, ignorance, and mental inertia, by distrust of himself or by jealousy of others. The condition of the agricultural laborers of England during the past hundred years shows that the evils portrayed are not merely imaginary.

Even more important than the considerations relating to the production and the distribution of wealth, bearing upon the tenure of land, which have been indicated, are certain considerations connected with the Consumption of Wealth.

Under which system of holdings are the forces which determine the uses to be made of wealth likely to be most favorable to the strength and prosperity of the community?

That the ownership of land, in the main, by the cultivating class, promotes frugality and a wiser application of the existing body of wealth, is too manifest to require discussion. The true savings-bank, says Sismondi, is the soil. There is never a time when the owner of land is not painfully conscious of improvements which he desires to make upon his farm, of additions which he desires to make to his stock. For every shilling of money, as for every hour of time, he knows an immediate use. He has not to carry his earnings past a drinking-saloon to find an opportunity to invest them. The hungry land is, even at the moment, crying aloud for them….

Beyond the considerations which I have felt at liberty to adduce, is the interest of the community, in the development of the manhood of its citizens, through the individuality and independence of character which spring from working upon the soil that you own.

“I believe,” wrote Emerson, “in the spade and an acre of good ground. Whoso cuts a straight path to his own bread, by the help of God in the sun and rain and sprouting of the grain, seems to me an universal workman. He solves the problem of life, not for one, but for all men of sound body.”

Still, in addition to this, is the political interest which the State has, that as many as may be of its citizens shall be directly interested in the land. Especially with popular institutions is there a strong assurance of peace, order, purity, and liberty, where those who are to make the laws, to pay the taxes, to rally to the support of the Government against foreign invasion or domestic violence, are the proprietors of the soil.

I would by no means argue in favor of a dull uniformity of petty holdings. Probably Professor Roscher is right in saying that a mingling of large, medium, and small properties, in which those of medium size predominate, forms the most wholesome of national and economical organizations.

In such an organization each class of estates is a help and strength to every other. The great estates afford adequate field and ample capital for advanced experimental agriculture, by the results of which all will, in turn, profit. They set the standard of “the straight furrow, the well-built ricks, and the beautiful lines of drilled corn,” to use the enthusiastic phrase of Sir James Caird.

The multitude of small proprietors, on the other hand, as Professor Emile de Laveleye has well expressed it, serve as a kind of political rampart and safeguard for the holders of large estates; they offer the laborer a ready resort to the land, a sort of economical “escape,” in the failure of mechanical employment; and they provide the nation with a solid body of yeomen, not easily bought or bullied or cajoled by demagogues.

In the medium-sized farms, again, may be found united no small measure of the advantages of both the large estate and the petty holding, the three degrees together forming the ideal distribution of the soil of any country, where both economical and social considerations are taken into account.

What, if anything, should be done by the State to promote the right holding of land? Mr. Thornton’s reply to this question is the reply of Diogenes to Alexander: “Get out of my light!” And, indeed, in a country like our own, with vast unoccupied tracts still available for settlement, with a population active, alert, aggressive, both industrially and socially, and with no vicious traditions, no old abuses, perverting the natural operation of economic forces to ends injurious to the general interest, it is only needful that the State should keep off its hand, and allow the soil to be parted as the unhelped and unhindered course of sale and bequest may determine. But wherever there is a peasantry unfitted for competition, upon purely commercial principles, with a powerful and wealthy class, under a painful pressure of population, there the regulation of the holding of land becomes a proper matter of State concern.