The soil and the soul : religion and agriculture in colonial New England, 1650-1800.
This dissertation explores published literature of the New England colonies relating to agriculture from the point of English settlement to 1800. While many works have sought to recover the realities of agriculture during the colonial period, this work asks about the intellectual ideal of American farming instead. How was farming and the work of agriculture portrayed during the colonial period? How did religion and gender factor into the ideal of the American farmer? What were the implications of these streams of rhetoric for the rise of republican political ideology? How did the ideal of the American farmer help to create a cohesive national identity amid political conflict with the British Empire? This dissertation argues that from the beginning of colonization, Americans have articulated elements of an “agrarian myth” that has encapsulated concepts of religion, gender, and politics and has been essential in creating a core element of American identity. Though many scholars have recognized the role of the agrarian myth in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this common timeline ignores the manifestations of this rhetoric that were present prior to the American Revolution. While forms of agrarian rhetoric changed many times over the course of the colonial period, the framework of meaning articulated by Puritan sermons and literature in terms of farming and the land persisted up through the American Revolution, where it merged with the doctrines of republicanism to form a distinctly American understanding of the land and the people who worked it. This agrarian myth has emerged most dominantly at times of crisis or change in American history. As social, political, or religious pressures mounted, there was a noticeable uptick in the use of the agrarian myth to hearken back to an age of greater fortitude in the moral and social order. This agrarian myth has rarely, if ever, captured the true reality of American farmers, but rather has proved a useful tool of rhetoric. In times of economic change and growth, or political and social instability, the use of the agrarian myth has sought to demarcate what is, or what should be, the “true” American experience.