|Martin Van Buren c.1855 (Mathew Brady)|
|Lindenwald, Van Buren's post-Presidential home|
|Artist's rendering of Van Buren's farm c. 1850|
In a nutshell, it was possible to do this at Martin Van Buren NHS because of the still-essentially-agricultural society in which Van Buren lived and the always-essentially-political nature of debates about food, farming, health, and land use. You don't have to think very deeply about food in the 21st century before you find yourself engaging with political questions. And because the economy of Van Buren's America was still largely built around agriculture, those farm-related questions connected with nearly everything else. Here are some of the big links that seemed most salient as I was gathering data for my study:
- Questions about the place of farming within a market-oriented society. Farming was becoming much more a matter of commercial exchange in the early 19th century, with supply chains lengthening, crops becoming commodities, and prices determined more by distant market conditions than local costs and circumstances. Martin Van Buren and his neighbors farmed for their own household sustenance but also increasingly sold commercial crops like potatoes, apples, and hay for New York City and more distant places, entering into the kinds of volatile, market-driven relationships that farmers have been trying to navigate ever since. The present-day food movement is attempting to rethink these kinds of markets and relationships and to shorten our food chains again.
- Questions about the relationship of agriculture and industry. Industrial manufacturing was surging to the forefront of the 19th century American economy, particularly in the older northeastern states. Industrialization brought new tools that made farms more productive but also created new expectations that they should be as efficient and mechanized as factories. It's another vicious cycle that farmers have been caught in ever since: greater efficiency means lower prices, which means the need for greater mechanization and higher yields just to stay economically viable. And again, the contemporary new/small-scale/local/sustainable food movement is trying to find ways out of the cycle, back to a scale of production and marketing closer to what existed in Van Buren's time.
- Questions about labor and land. Van Buren took up farming at a time when young, landless farmers were already struggling to find and afford productive land in the old northeast (that's why so many of them headed west) and when the country was sharply divided over the use of non-free agricultural labor. As with debates over land protection and access today, these 19th century arguments were all about morality, market forces, and the relative political power of regions and kinds of people.
- Questions about the role of government. As with industrialization and commercialization of farming, Van Buren lived and farmed--and was involved with politics--at a sort of hinge-point in U.S. history. Particularly after the Civil War, the federal government became much more involved in agricultural policy, methods, and markets (Abraham Lincoln signed the U.S. Department of Agriculture into existence as a Cabinet-level position in May 1862, just two months before Van Buren died). It's another ongoing set of issues, which have been clearly felt in the recent months of negotiation over the 2012 Farm Bill. Do some kinds of farms and products need or deserve public support and subsidy? How (and how much) should food production and marketing be monitored and regulated? How have farmers made their voices heard politically as their numbers have dwindled, and what does that mean for the steadily-increasing numbers of new/young/locally-oriented farmers who are choosing a different path from the dominant one that's been mapped out over the past 150 years?