The Impact of Agriculture in Early and Contemporary American History

In the study of history we ask the question, what are the catalysts? In other words, the motivators that make events happen? Depending on the topic and the framing one puts it in, many times the question is not what made something occur, but what prohibited it from doing so.

Agriculture has typically been a fundamental factor in world history in answering both those questions — events that came about and those that had the potential, but failed. Despite America’s unprecedented urbanization in the 20th century, the move from rural to urbanized areas has never diminished the need for agrarian industries in any society.

Throughout most of our world’s history, agriculture in some form or another, is at the center of societal development.

Let’s make a generic comparison, cowboys vs. Indians. I would venture a guess we have all watched at least one western in our lives. Although, typically these historical dramas are heavy on the drama and light on the historical accuracy, it lends itself well to form the right question.

Why did indigenous populations use primitive weapons, prior to obtaining advanced tools from their oppressors, the “cowboys”? In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond makes the argument it is through agriculture.

If I am a hunter gather, the lack of a consistent food supply is the society’s main focus. The majority of the everyday effort is put into sustaining the population’s food supply, through hunting, gathering, or small scale farming. Leaving no, if little, discretionary time available for individuals or subgroups to develop complex governments, furthering culture/education, and most importantly invention.

With the exploitation of large scale agriculture, made possible by available “beasts of burden” (cow, pigs, and horses of the Old World), masses of individuals are able to divert their attention to societal developments other than obtaining food. Developments such as weapons, blacksmithing (metal work), written word, and complex societies with a broad range of skills and trades. Hence if you watch any historically accurate movies of colonizers in relation to indigenous peoples, there is a huge discrepancy in the weapons and tools being used.

Now, there are historians who suggest this theory is oversimplified and other factors contributed — factors we should not rule out. However, prior to trade and assimilation in many instances, the advantages and disadvantages among the two vastly differing societies have been argued are a result of harnessing large-scale agriculture.

Moving right along through history, one cannot discuss agriculture in the New World without putting a focus on slavery. We do a disservice to those who endured this horrifying institution if we do not mention it.

However, here is a perfect example where agriculture was a hindrance to society. Not just in terms of so many human lives, cultures, and families being decimated, a fact that is of huge significance, but also in regards to the lack of industrial growth as a result of the “tunnel vision” of the South. The focus of tobacco, rice, and cotton growth diverted attention away from education, industry, and human rights in a relatively modern society.

Today, individuals have a misconception that the majority of the South’s population were slave holders. This is a fallacy as most white farmers could not afford to be so. This, of course, does not let them off the hook, as most aspired to invest in slaves.

Despite that fact, following the Civil War and leading up into the middle 20th century, the agrarian culture was so deeply ingrained in the South that the lack of industrialization and education stunted their ability to catch up to the rest of modernized society in the U.S. Of course, we cannot discount the effects the war itself had on the South.

However to have a society whose sole culture, in terms of economy as well as ideology, was so deeply embedded in the reliance of slaves and agriculture, the inability to re-focus both of those aspects should not be surprising. Yet, the length of time taken to modernize the South continues to astound many.

As students of history, what I tell my classes is that relatively early in human history, we became an agrarian people, in one context or another. Agriculture has been at the heart of every culture and has dictated events in varying degrees — beginning with small scale farming as a supplement to hunting and gathering, aquaculture in geographic locations that supported it, the cultivation of wood for fuel, and finally the large complex modernized farming that we see today.

For those who wonder why this is relevant to modern America, let us forget the grocery store for a moment — a given. I would challenge you to take a look at what you’re putting into your gas tank next time you fill up. You might be surprised to see how significant agriculture is in your everyday commute and in what despair we would be in without it.

Dale Schlundt holds a Master’s Degree in Adult Education with a concentration in American History from the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is currently an Adjunct Professor for Palo Alto College and Northwest Vista College. Dale has written two books, Tracking Life’s Lessons: Through Experiences, History, and a Little Interpretation and Education Decoded (A Collection of My Writings).

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