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Chapter 26: summer people and county people

In that very interesting book The English Peasant, by Richard Heath, the author chooses as his starting-point the fourteenth century, and calls his second chapter “In worse than Egyptian bondage.” He selects, as the crowning instance of the social extremes of that period, the account given by the old historian Holinshed of the Earl of Leicester's expenses in 1313. This earl, it seems, spent on “his family and people” an amount equal to the wages of 1825 laborers. But in a newspaper statement about an American multimillionaire, lately dead, it is said that he spent on “his family and people” about $2000 a day, which is more than would be earned in many branches of industry by 1825 laborers. If this be an illustration, it would appear that all the science and art of five centuries have not essentially diminished the disproportion which [178] Mr. Heath calls Egyptian bondage. Yet there has been a period between the two dates when no such extreme disproportion existed. In the American colonial period, for instance, or during the early days of the republic, there was nothing like this vast remoteness between poverty and wealth. It all illustrates what has often been pointed out — the human life does not move in a straight line, nor yet in a circle, but in a spiral, which reproduces the old position, but on a higher plane.

In another form we find a seeming reversion, as our society advances, towards the earlier social structure from which we thought ourselves freed forever. If there was anything which seemed distinctively American, it was the local ownership which almost universally prevailed in our farming regions. So marked was this, that the old manor system, which prevailed along the banks of the Hudson, collapsed almost of itself at last, giving way to the general demand for personal proprietorship. But recent statistics furnished by the Census Bureau to the Springfield Republican show the gradual change going on in all parts of the country, by which the holdings of land are increasing, and with them the proportion of tenant occupation. In Maine, where the alteration [179] is comparatively small, the number of tenant cultivators has increased in a decade from 2780 to 4731, while the freehold families have declined from 61,528 to 57,081. In Massachusetts the tenant families have increased from 3100 to 5206, while the freehold farmers have declined from 35,266 to 29,370. Iowa, in the same time, has gained 3521 “owning cultivators,” but has also gained more than 16,500 tenant cultivators. Georgia reaches the climax with a loss of 3844 “owning cultivators,” and an increase of 39,906 tenant families. In short, everything points towards that landlord system which we thought we had escaped, and away from that system of personal proprietorship which we thought our stronghold. The present writer well remembers to have heard precisely this change predicted, more than forty years ago, by that very able man Orestes A. Brownson, but the remark was received almost with derision. No one could deride it now, however we may explain it.

In many cases, no doubt, the advent of the gentleman farmer is a positive gain to all the agriculture of the neighborhood. He has travelled and studied more, even if he has worked less; he tries experiments for others, and runs [180] risks which they would not attempt. They laugh at him openly, and imitate him on the sly. They profit by his failures, and they usually have to admit that his milk and butter bring higher prices than theirs, and are worth it. But in one respect the gentleman farmer is an insecure possession to a community; there is never any guarantee for his permanence. He who has to make a living off his farm is anchored to it, but he to whom it is an amusement may quit it next year, and leave his land untilled. Again, the presence of the summer visitor emphasizes social differences to a degree far beyond what before existed in the rural regions. The ladies of the summer families do not meet the villagers and the farmers' households on a basis quite so frank as that on which the men meet. They contribute unconsciously many suggestions as to new bonnets, and they may be wholly friendly and public-spirited; but, after all, the social difference is more emphasized. The very fact that it is intangible makes it more difficult to suspend it occasionally, as is done in England at certain harvest balls and the like, or as used to be done in our Southern States sometimes at the marriage of some privileged slave. The “summer families” are coming more and more [181] to take in our country towns a position not unlike that of the “county families” or “county people” in England; and a novel like Hope's A Change of Air, which acutely analyzes this classification in England, suggests curious analogies for the American reader, to whom the varying social currents of his own land have an interest beyond what any English novelist can imagine.


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