Stewards of the Land, Sons of the Soil

Their forebears in the British Isles, and in France and Germany, had been yeomen and peasant farmers since before the dawn of recorded history.

Frank L. Owsley

Our history, like all histories, is almost always told from the perspectives of two extremes, those of the wealthy and the poor; much to the detriment of the majority who live somewhere in the middle.  Hopefully, this short essay will illuminate the history and importance of that oft forgotten middle class of Southrons, especially that of the rural yeomanry. Now what is a yeoman?

Their name has changed throughout the ages, but this class of people has existed since time immemorial. The yeoman was a free man, who owned his land, and was able to provide (sometimes only barely) beyond a subsistence level existence for his family. Historically, his land or freeholdings would be between 50 and 200 acres, commonly around 100 acres.  His standing in the community gave him rights and privileges beyond that of a simple peasant.  In a time when trades and tradesmen were fewer and farther between, and urban vocations such as merchants were rare, the yeoman made up the majority of what can be called the middle classes.

The earliest descriptions of a group of North West Europeans that would meet our definition of Yeoman come from the Romans and their interactions with the Celts in what is now France and Britain. These common men provided for their families, lived in regional groupings based on kinship, and in times of war they would serve their chieftains and kings making up the bulk of the Celtic armies.

In the Saxon era, this class of men is usually divided into two groups, the thegns/thanes and the ceorls/churls. Thanes were predominantly a military class serving the king and his aeldormen, by the Viking Age they were required to fight or man and maintain the forts for one month per season.  The ceorls were made up of farmers and tradesmen, while they owned their own land, they had the right to serve in the fyrd (militia) and participate in the folkmoots (local meetings and courts); they also had to pay a rent (in goods or gold) to the local lord in exchange for protection, and sometimes the use of his draft animals and facilities (such as grist mills). 

After the Norman Invasion, the rights and responsibilities of the freemen remained the same, although more importance was placed on having a standing class of warriors; this resulted in the militia being called out less and the thanes becoming true knights. By the 1300s we see the class of freemen expand into 3 sub-classes, the gentry, the yeomanry and the husbandmen. The gentry were the wealthiest and largest landholders, members of the nobility in all but name. The husbandmen (husband meaning head of household) were the bottom of the classes of freemen, they held very little land and were only just barely above the peasants and laborers in terms of their rights.

This brings us to the yeoman. During the Middle Ages, the minimum qualification for being a yeoman was holding around 100 acres, having a tax value of 40 shillings (this is where the term 40 shilling freeholder comes from).  While this may not sound like much, it was rewarded by society at large with increased rights as compared to the peasantry. Yeomen were allowed to hold many local offices such as constables, wardens, bailiffs and land surveyors. They were enfranchised to vote for a Knight of the Shire, who would represent them in Parliament in the newly created House of Commons, as well as serve on juries.

In 1604, Parliament passed the Inclosure Acts, which took grazing and farming land that had been previously held in common and allowed the local lords and gentry to enclose the land from public use.  The expanding yeomanry population coupled with the enclosure of lands resulted in a land shortage and, as a result, many were forced to abandon their way of life and move to the cities, while others decided to seek their fortunes in the Americas. They would form the backbone of Colonial American society. As their population grew, the second and third sons, who wouldn’t inherit the familial lands, moved further into the interior transforming the American frontier wilderness into civilized lands of farms and villages.

In 1763, Parliament passed a proclamation forbidding settlement beyond the mountains, in an attempt to appease the Indians’ fears of an ever encroaching English population. The English colonists remembering how the enclosure had affected their ancestors, many would defy Parliament and settle West of the mountains, others would clamour that Parliament had overstepped their bounds sowing seeds of dissent, revolution and independence.  A group of yeomen would even challenge Colonial authority in western North Carolina. Dubbing themselves the Regulators, these men  had settled the backcountry seeking more opportunity than the coastal cities and counties provided.

By the early 1760s, more merchants, lawyers, and othered monied men arrived upsetting the economic balance of the backcountry, and a decade of bad weather and crop yields had driven many of the farmers and planters into debt.  As these men lost their homes and livelihoods, they grew resentful of the Colonial government and the newly arrived merchants and lawyers, viewing them as a corrupt ring rigging the system in their favor; unscrupulous sheriffs and tax collectors further exacerbated this feeling of distrust.  Upon the arrival of the new Governor, William Tryon, the Regulators rebelled, hoping to reform the government into one they could view as honest and to reduce the tax burden of the common man and yeoman farmer.  Over 3/4ths of the backwoodsmen supported the regulator movement, but the inland and coastal elites called out the militia and put it down, hanging those viewed as ring leaders; this rebellion in North Carolina lasted from 1765-1771.  Some 300 of those Regulators would form a core of the North Carolina patriots in the War of Independence. Despite being defeated, their example would serve as a beacon to the growing Patriot movement in the colonies, who viewed the Colonial governments as heavy handed and oppressive. 

At the same time a group of men in South Carolina dubbed themselves the Regulators, they formed vigilante gangs to protect their property from vagrant hunters and bandits, and demanded greater representation and services from the Colonial government, most especially the founding of churches, courts, and schools.  By 1769, they were so successful in their efforts that the South Carolina legislature agreed to their demands and in 1771 granted pardons to members of the Regulator movement. After the War of Independence was won, these same men and their descendents would settle in Appalachia and beyond into the Deep South, bringing their self sufficient lifestyle across the mountains to hew a place for themselves out of the wilderness as their ancestors had done before them.

Due to the success of the militia in the Revolution, the new nation would agree to keep this system as the primary means of defending itself.  However, by the Mexican War, most of the state and local militias in other parts of the country would start to fade away, without Indians on the frontier and a hostile enemy in Canada, there didn’t seem to be a need for them. The South would remain the exception, as the constant threat of servile insurrection was at the back of everyone’s minds, especially after the American Abolition Society was founded and became increasingly militant, most notably in the Kansas Territory during the period of Bleeding Kansas. Following John Brown’s raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, the militia system would be reinvigorated across the South, and form the core of the Confederate military upon secession, their prewar training can be credited as a deciding factor in the numerous Confederate victories of 1861 and 1862.

Most historians define the antebellum planting class as owning a minimum of 10 to 20 slaves and property of at least 200 acres (as a note Owsley points out that there were men who owned substantial land holdings, even in excess of 1000 acres, who were not slave owners), this planting class is obviously outside the scope of the yeomanry, but I wouldn’t argue that slave owning in and of itself excluded one from being in that middle class of free farmers. About 17% of the Southern population owned between 1 and 9 slaves, and 76% owned no slaves, if we assume that even half of the slaveless population owned 50 acres or more, the yeomanry would be about 55% of the Southern populace before the war. I haven’t had the time to crunch the numbers myself, but Frank Owsley’s Plain Folk of the Old South (1949) and D. R. Hundley’s Social Relations in Our Southern States (1860) go into great detail of the numbers and lives of these antebellum freeholders. After emancipation, that percentage of small freeholding farmers would remain about the same until around the Great Depression and the second Industrial Revolution of the World War II and Post-War era drew many away from the farm in search of better pay and fewer working hours in the factories.

This ethos of plain, self reliant living would help form a national identity and character, especially in the South. It would inspire Thomas Jefferson’s view of the American character as well as his view on American politics. His view is typical of the anti-federalists, placing a priority on the rural Americans and opposing the urban elite of bankers, merchants, and manufacturers; opposing a strong central Federal government, and believing the nation’s best mode of defense lay in its people through local militias.  Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans viewed citizens as having a duty to resist corruption and be an well informed elector, and that all people had the right to work to directly provide for their own subsistence; they felt this was personified in the yeoman farmer, and that the government was a necessary evil that should act in his interest and benefit and not the corrupt interests of financiers and industrialists. To use his own words, he felt that “those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God,” while not a luddite, he was skeptical of industrialization, viewing it’s unlimited expansion as bringing about a class of wage laborers who relied on others for both income and subsistence.  He thought this would make them not only dependent voters, but also vulnerable to economic manipulation and political subjugation. 

By 1824 Jefferson’s view was being re-imagined by a new generation, the Jacksonians; and almost every generation of American politics since has had their version of Common man parties and platforms (although not always advocating for the rural yeoman that Jefferson and Jackson championed). By the early 20th Century, a new, uniquely Southern group would champion rural values, the Southern Agrarians; a group of 12 writers, poets, historians and professors from Vanderbilt University.  In 1930, they would write the work they’re probably best known for I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition; they described their world view as “the theory of agrarianism is that the culture of the soil is the best and most sensitive of vocations, and that therefore it should have the economic preference and enlist the maximum number of workers.”            

Our Dixie is still predominantly rural, as are our values, our people are predominantly neither very wealthy nor very poor. These values of self reliance, community and kin, distrust of urbanites and their elite, and taking care of the land so that its bounty can sustain us, are timeless and intertwined in the long and storied history of our people.  It is up to each and every one of us, as Sons of the Southland, to keep these fires alive and burning. With perseverance and dedication to the ways of our ancestors.

-By Ed Ruffin

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