Senior Fellow, Fox Leadership Program, University of Pennsylvania
Mary Summers teaches academically based community service seminars and directs an associated speakers’ series for the Fox Leadership Program. She is the principal investigator for a research grant from the USDA to the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger investigating the use of students and community volunteers in developing a food stamp enrollment campaign. She also seeks to develop effective models for the use of service learning students in inner city schools. Her areas of interest are American politics and political thought, interest groups, social movements, and the politics of food and agriculture. She has a B.A. from Radcliff College and a M.A. from Yale University and has published numerous articles on the politics of food and agriculture.
I began to appreciate the role of gentleman’s clubs in agriculture while researching the question of how it is that we got the extraordinary growth of federal institutions in agriculture fairly early in our nation’s history. By 1900 the federal government in the U.S. was heavily involved in agriculture at a time when, in many other aspects of American life, the federal government wasn’t much involved. Of course, a large proportion of our nation was involved in agriculture in those days so in a way it makes sense that the government would be involved in agriculture. When we look at the history of the country, we see that George Washington proposed that we have a national agriculture board in 1796 in his final message to Congress. Congress considered it but we didn’t actually get a national agriculture bureau until the South left the union in 1862.
So there is this 60-year gap during which various people had been saying we need this national organization to promote agriculture but we didn’t get it. I was puzzled by this and began looking at the early history of the promotion of agriculture and what forms it took. I found that the historians give a lot of credit for the nation’s continuing interest in and development of agriculture science to the gentlemen’s organizations that arose throughout the country, with the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture (PSPA) being the first.
These organizations were founded, starting in the 1780s and 1790s, more or less on the European model of aristocratic societies. In looking at these societies, we find that no matter the political views or professions of these founding fathers of our agriculture system, the one uniting interest that brings them together is agriculture. In fact, you could say their passion for agriculture is extraordinary. When the members of these societies correspond with each other, they send seeds and cuttings as well as ideas for improving productivity and their views on the political issues of the day. Of course, there were conflicts and disagreements. That is not something historians write much about but it was there and whether or not there should be a national bureau of agriculture was one issue about which there was much discussion.
Studying the dialogue that took place within the PSPA and other organizations provides a window into the soul of the country for researchers like me who study the development of political institutions. In the case of whether a national bureau of agriculture should be formed, we see reflected in the discourse of the PSPA members both the federalist and Jeffersonian views — the former favoring more federal government and the latter not wanting much of a federal government. Of course, the federalists wanted to see a federal government more like European governments and they wanted it to support things like agriculture science and education and to give out prizes for the best advancements. But in general there was widespread opposition to the federalist view – even among members of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture who were the most avid pursuers of the latest seeds and methods and were involved in experimenting on their own farms. This is because there was a widespread feeling that spending taxpayers’ money on these activities was in essence subsidizing the leisure activities of the aristocrats. There was a very strong ideological and class resistance to the idea that the government should get involved.
After George Washington proposed a federal agriculture bureau, John Adams supported the idea and tried to get Congress to go along but they resisted Adams’s entreaties and, as previously mentioned, it took six decades before it would happen. What I came to conclude from my studies was that, side-by-side with the scientists who were pursuing their research, there was a range of entrepreneurs, journalists, politicians and reformers who were thinking about how they could get working farmers to go along with the idea of the government supporting agriculture science and education. One of these reformers was George Logan, one of the two working farmers who helped found the PSPA. He was a homespun-wearing Quaker who was known for his opposition to war. The other was Elkanah Watson who is known as the founder of the county fair.
Logan’s fight with the early Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture about what an organization for working farmers should look like helps us understand how these conflicts over whether government should get involved helped shape agriculture institutions when they did come into being. These early discussions in the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture and other gentlemen’s clubs helped “pre-figure” the way in which government agricultural bureaus would serve farmers. It molded, for instance, how they would appeal to women and households as opposed to focusing only on the science of agriculture.
With the exception of Logan and another member, most of the PSPA members were merchants and other professionals but also had farms or farming interests. Most were federalists. The PSPA raised money privately to give out premiums or awards for farm experimentation on issues like ground cover and irrigation. Logan submitted a paper that reflected seven years of work on his farm and when he did not receive a premium for his work, he attacked the PSPA for being just like the French state before the French revolution and not having the interests of working farmers in mind. Logan then leaves PSPA and founds a society that is only for working farmers. Unlike the PSPA, the new society does not meet in taverns but at each others’ houses where they have supper parties where all the food is grown by the members. These gatherings were essentially celebrations of farm life and its accomplishments. Over time, Logan finds it difficult to sustain the new organization and rejoins PSPA — but he has made his point.
In Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Elkanah Watson takes the next step in creating an entity that would appeal to working farmers and their households. Watson was a very successful merchant and banker who made a lot of money. By the age of 50 he was bored and went into merino sheep farming which was a new trend at the time. On one particular occasion, Watson had his sheep tied to a tree in the town square. This attracted a lot of attention as the local farmers gathered around to look at them and it was then that Watson said “This is it. This is how we get farmers interested in new trends in agriculture. You show them animals and you have a big exposition.” It is Watson who is credited with founding the county fair. This caught on and attracted government support. Within ten years of Watson’s chartering of a society for holding a county fair, the movement had spread throughout the Northeast and soon every county was chartering an organization for the purpose of holding a county fair. What made these fairs so successful was not only the exhibition of animals and crops but also the focus on the households as prizes were awarded for cakes, cookies, preserves, quilts and the like. Eventually, committees are established to go out to the farms and tour them with an eye toward awarding prizes based on the entire functionality and productivity of the farm. This “whole farm” approach wherein farmers visit other farms to inform their own farming methods becomes the precursor of what later would become cooperative extension.
Over time, this movement toward agricultural science and education among the ranks of common every day working farmers becomes the alternative to slave labor and the plantation system and all that implies as regards human rights and values. Over time, agriculture science and education fueled the free soil and free labor movements and it was these movements that were instrumental during the run-up to the Civil War. In that respect, I think it entirely fitting that the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture holds its monthly meetings at the Union League. It has, after all, played an important role in the history of our nation.
In an effort to provide wide-ranging views and perspectives regarding the practice of and issues surrounding agriculture, the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture (PSPA) seeks speakers representing a variety of perspectives. The statements and opinions they present are strictly their own and do not necessarily represent the views of PSPA.