In Pursuit of Conservative Reform: Social Darwinism, the Agricultural Ladder, and the Lessons of European Tenancyby Joshua M. Nygren

Agricultural History


Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous) / History


In Pursuit of Conservative Reform: Social

Darwinism, the Agricultural Ladder, and the

Lessons of European Tenancy


This article explores the intellectual foundations o f the “agricultural ladder” metaphor by examining the ideologies and experiences o f the two econo­ mists—Henry C. Taylor and Richard T. Ely—who inserted the concept into academic discourse. It argues that the agricultural ladder was a product o f

Taylor and Ely's mutual pursuit o f conservative reform, an attempt to achieve the common good o f widespread landownership without revolutionary dis­ ruptions to the status quo. Acting on their social Darwinist beliefs that soci­ eties evolved through successive stages o f social and economic development, the economists crossed the Atlantic to study European land tenancy. These studies reinforced Taylor and E ly’s demand fo r slow, measured tenure re­ form—an essential characteristic o f the agricultural ladder. This resistance to rapid change ultimately naturalized the agricultural capitalism and racialized tenancy that prevented poorer farmers from owning their own farms.

The agricultural ladder recast the prototypical farmer as well capitalized, highly efficient, and white.

The agricultural ladder is among the most familiar concepts in American agricultural history. The metaphor generally refers to the idea that through hard work a hired farm laborer would gradually accumulate sufficient expe­ rience and capital to climb from tenant farmer to mortgaged farm owner and eventually to an unencumbered owner or even landlord (see Figure 1). In its embodiment of the ideals of upward mobility and the landowning Jeffersonian yeoman farmer, the ladder concept evokes some of the most powerful and enJOSHUA NYGREN is the 2013 winner of the Everett E. Edwards Award for this article.

He successfully defended his dissertation, a history of soil and water conservation in the twentieth-century United States, at the University of Kansas in the fall of 2014. © the Agricultural History Society, 2015

DOI: 10.3098/ah.2015.089.1.75 75

Agricultural History Winter during myths that distinguish American agriculture. Indeed, historians—as well as the agricultural experts who helped establish the ladder in broader con­ sciousness during the first half of the twentieth century—have justifiably stud­ ied land tenure in the light of these distinctly American ideals. Although some scholars have pointed out that the ladder resulted in immobility or downward mobility as easily as an upward climb, its association with American principles continues to obscure other aspects of its history. The seemingly unique Amer­ ican concept of the agricultural ladder metaphor represented an ideological cocktail comprised of social Darwinism, conservative reformism, and a pro­ tection of capitalism—an idea that crystallized not in the colleges and coun­ tryside of the United States, but in the fields and universities of Europe. 1

Figure 1. The Agricultural Ladder.

Taylor commissioned this cartoon of the agricultural ladder, seven months after he and Ely intro­ duced the term. From its inception, the ladder held out the vision of upward mobility for all, but

Taylor’s and Ely’s descriptions of it implicitly and explicitly ruled out the chances for poor whites and blacks to climb successfully toward ownership.

Source: Taylor and Taylor, Story o f Agricultural Economics, 820—21. 76 2015 In Pursuit of Conservative Reform

In December 1916 two American economists, Henry C. Taylor and Richard

T. Ely, unveiled the concept of the agricultural ladder in separate papers pre­ sented at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association. Within a few short years, the concept dispersed throughout economics circles, estab­ lishing a new research paradigm in land tenure. The ladder metaphor proved so popular and powerful largely because it redefined the place of land ten­ ancy—the condition in which farmers cultivated land they did not own—in

American society. Around the turn of the century, a number of observers no­ ticed rising rates of tenancy and deemed it a national scourge, a threat to Amer­ ican identity. With their new metaphor, the economists recast tenancy into, in

Ely’s words, “a good thing when it represents a rung in the agricultural ladder” leading to a farm purchase. The best way to assure upward mobility, according to Taylor, was efficiency of production. “Every man possessing efficiency su­ perior to that of the marginal farmer,” he charged, “may save from the surplus and rise to a higher rung on the agricultural ladder.” Whereas tenancy had pre­ viously represented a national problem, the ladder reinvented it into a natural stage on the path to landownership. Tenancy had become normalized.2

Although the agricultural ladder transformed perceptions of land tenure, much remains unknown about how Taylor and Ely conceived of the idea. Why did the two economists come to see tenancy as natural? How did the agricul­ tural ladder reflect their personal convictions and experiences? How did their construction of the ladder determine who was eligible to make the climb? Ul­ timately, the economists’ formulation of the agricultural ladder was a product of their desire for reform coupled with their fear that radical measures would unduly disrupt the social order. In 1890 Ely labeled this philosophy “Progres­ sive Conservatism.” Ely’s approach to private property and land tenure was, by his admission, “conservative. The spirit is progressive, but the conclusions reached are far from radical.” Taylor never articulated his personal philosophy, but his writings fit the mold of progressive conservatism. Both he and Ely pursued a “middle way” between laissez-faire capitalism and revolutionary socialism, noting that although laissez-faire policies had produced many social ills, radical economic proposals threatened to tear society asunder. The econ­ omists agreed that society needed improvement but maintained that reform was most successful when channeled through the slow, steady process of so­ cial evolution.3