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The Mortgage Worked the Hardest

The Mortgage Worked the Hardest

The Fate of Landed Independence in Nineteenth-Century America

(p.39) 2 The Mortgage Worked the Hardest
Capitalism Takes Command
Jonathan Levy
University of Chicago Press

In early nineteenth-century America, “landed independence”—a way of life characterized by freehold ownership, command over household labor, and control over agricultural resources—helped farmers to become proprietors rather than members of the expanding class of dependent wage laborers. Freeholders resorted to “mixed farming” to meet their families’ baseline subsistence needs and sell their “marketable surplus” for a profit. At mid-century, American farming evolved into a commercially oriented endeavor with built-in hedges against the vicissitudes of an expanding market system. The ideal of landed independence was filled out by old-age security provided to farmers by their accumulation of landed wealth. Land ownership offered a uniquely autonomous form of commercial life. After 1870, “mortgage-backed securities” emerged in the American market. Capital flowed westward while staples such as corn and wheat flowed eastward. Western farmers turned to the mortgage market both by choice and out of necessity. This chapter explores the transformation of American farming, and its significance not only for its participants, but also for the history of American capitalism.

Keywords:   landed independence, farmers, farming, old-age security, landed wealth, mortgage, capitalism, America, mortgage-backed securities, land ownership

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