American Legal History
-- ZebulunJohnson - 12 Jan 2017


As far back as Revolution, Americans have been concerned about labor displacement. This concern often manifests as fear directed against the “other”, as evidenced by the antebellum fear about competition from slaves on the frontier, the Chinese exclusion act of the early 20th century, and the anti-immigrant and anti-globalism rhetoric of the early 2000s. Beginning in postbellum America, however, a new fear developed which paralleled the fear of the other: the fear of the machine.

In 1914, the Department of Agriculture (DoA? ) released a report entitled “Mechanization of Agriculture as a Factor in Labor Displacement.” In this report, the DoA? reviews the innovations in farming techniques which occurred the American Agro-Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century, examines these techniques’ impact on labor, and offers a foreboding conclusion: “Unless the nonagricultural industries can be expanded sufficiently to provide for [these] workers…[they] will become competitors for the jobs now held by nonagricultural workers, or will be added to the ranks of the unemployed.” With the benefit of a hundred years of hindsight, we now recognize that the “nonagricultural industries” did sufficiently expand and that America successfully birthed an industrial society from an agrarian society. However, this transition did occur painlessly.

This paper will examine the consequences of laws which encourage rapid automation in a short period of time. By examining the rise and fall of the horse in America, I hope to paint a picture of a staple of American life, and outline the consequences of removing that staple within the span of a few years.

The horse, from pre-revolution times, exemplified the American. (1) I have picked the horse as an illustration of the dangers of automation because it serves a dual purpose: it shows what happens to the tools when they are no longer needed, and it shows what happens to the workers when they are no longer needed to work the tools. Although it is obvious that, given the mechanical innovations which occurred in the 20th century, the horse would have been replaced eventually, the rapidity with which the horse disappeared from American life is due in large part to government intervention. The fall of the horse in America and the immediate and massive labor displacement which followed, did not occur due to "natural" (2) economic or technological change over time.

Today, there is some ambiguity as to how to apply this tale to ourselves. Are we the horse? Are we the workers? Only time will tell. But in an age of teachable robot laborers, we need to ensure that if our current legal framework incentivizes automation, then our society should have strategies for relocating displaced workers.

In the first section, I briefly explain how the horse came to be seen as a symbol of American Agriculture, I outline the huge increases in efficiency that occurred during the American agro-industrial revolution, and I then explain the effects this increase in efficiency had on the labor force in the North and the South. I also explain that the resulting displaced labor in the North was absorbed by either westward expansion or increased industrial jobs, and that the South experienced very little displacement during this time, as their tenant farming system prevented were content with their tenant farming system. This section is important because it shows that the Horse was not just another easily replaceable tool, it was literally one of the foundations of American life.

In the second section, I examine the introduction of mechanical power into American Agriculture. In the North, the farms were relatively small, and the displaced labor had been absorbed by either migration into new territories, or into industrialized cities. In the South, although the most educated individuals had left the black belt, there was still a large concentration of unskilled black workers due to the plantation-based tenant-farming system. In response to government subsidies, these workers were replaced with tractors. This replacement of workers was one of the largest contributors to the start of the great migration. By tracing this response, and outlining the factors that which led to this response, I hope to show the concerns posed by government subsidized automation.

In the final section, I compare this historic lesson of automation to the current challenges of automation we face today and the primary way in which we currently subsidize automation – through capital asset taxation. I then look at one industry which is expected to become primarily automated in the next two decades--the transportation industry(3)--and examine the lack of available markets which could potentially absorb these ~3million individuals due the limitations on global movement.

Part 1: The Rise of the Horse in America

The Antebellum Horse and Mule

Unlike the vast herds of wild horses descended from Spanish stock which freely roamed the Laramie plains of the West,(4) the vast majority of horses and mules in the original thirteen colonies traced their ancestors back to Great Britain. That many of the animals survived the journey across the Atlantic is itself something of a miracle, as the European ocean-vessels of the time were not designed for the shipment of livestock, and horses in particular found the voyage deadly. Severe rationing of food and water, storms, infection, panic made the journey itself perilous, but the disembarking process was often lethal as well.(5) Until 1750, all livestock shipped between Europe and the Americas’ during this time were disembarked via the “jump and swim for it” method. (6) This method consistent of pushing and kicking livestock overboard, and hoping that the bruised animals would make it safely to shore. Everything told, the survival rate of horses during the transatlantic crossing was roughly 50-75%. (7)

These dismal survival rates make the future importance of these animals to the American way of life all the more impressive, because very few horses were shipped from Britain in the first place. For example, by 1640 the Massachusetts Bay Colony had only shipped two hundred horses from Great Britain, despite a migration of nearly 16,000 individuals as well as their thousands of other livestock.(8) This dearth of horse importation in the colonies arose primarily from the traditions the colonists brought with them to America. The feudal environment from which they had fled had instilled in the colonists the conviction that horses “belong to the gentry.”(9) Further, contrary to other animals the colonists might raise, there was no purpose for which the common man might raise horses, as the English tradition declared the horse unsuitable for food, and there was no market for horse leathers at the time.(10)

The Northern Colonies

Pragmatism won the day in the Northern colonies within only a few decades. By 1653, there had been such a large increase in the horse population in the New England colonies that the Dutch West India Company advised prospective immigrants that “[horses] can be got at reasonable expense from the English who have plenty of them.”(11) This initial rapid increase in the population of horses was due to the terrain and winters of New England. (12) As compared to the customary pack animal of oxen, horses proved much speedier on the narrow forest trails of the area, and more aptly dealt with the snowdrifts and frozen waterways during the severe winters. In this way horses became much more accepted and utilized by the Northern commoner.

A secondary incentive for horse breeding in the Northern colonies arose through the demand for horses in the sugar plantations of the West Indies, Work horses were wanted to power the sugar mills, and saddle horses were wanted to carry plantation overseers on inspection trips. (13) This export trade became so important that ships were designed specifically for the transportation of horses, and it led to the establishment of stud farms across Rhode Island and Connecticut. Because the West Indies horse trade increased each year, more farmers began raising horses to sell, hoping to earn a large profit and in the process making horses more affordable. (14) For the first time, the thievery of horses became a great concern to lawmakers, and extensive regulations were put in place to prevent it. (15)

Although horses were becoming more affordable, they were still of limited use for on the Northern farm. Once characteristic of Northern agriculture from colonial times to the antebellum period was the farm’s self-sufficiency, meaning that most of the farm’s production was for home consumption, and only the excess was sold commercially.(16) One oft-repeated caricature of the Northern farm from this time period is that “[f]rom his feet to his head the farmer stood in vestment produced on his own arm… How little he bought, and how much he contrived to supply his wants by home manufacture would astonish…” (17) This self-sufficient nature of the Northern Farmer meant that the average farmer had little use for a horse when an oxen could be obtained at a lesser cost. While a relatively prosperous farmer held ‘four negro servants, 50 heads of cattle, 800 sheep and 30 to 40 horses,’ a less prosperous farmer would have but one or two oxen in lieu of horses. (18) Until the mid-19th century, horses were primarily used for travel or trade rather than as power on the farm, yet even so, their use was slowly becoming more ubiquitous. (19)

The Southern Colonies

While the Northern colonies were quick to adopt the horse to their needs, English traditions prevailed for much longer in the South. Horses remained the privilege of the “genteel,” and it was rare to see anyone other than plantation owners, overseers, or jockeys riding them. The law reinforced these traditions, both overtly by outlawing the riding of horses by slaves and indirectly by passing laws imputing liability on slave-owners if a horse were to damage another man’s slave. (20)

Although popular imagination holds that the Southern agriculture had been dominated since colonial times by extravagant mansions covering large plantations with numerous slaves, in fact the slight majority of Southern farmers lived similarly to their northern brethren: on self-sufficient smaller farms.(21)

Over the course of 200 years, the South’s economy would focus primarily on the production of cash crops of the world market,(22) and it was not until after the revolution that Southern farmers found themselves needing power other than slave labor. This need was driven by the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, as hundreds of thousands of acres unsuitable for tobacco were suddenly valuable as “prime cotton land.”(23) However, clearance of the land, as well as the strenuous tasks of hauling cotton bales, required disease-resistant and durable animals. For this task, the mule, and not the horse, was chosen as the perfect source of power.(24)

Although horses and oxen were used for a short period, the “callous indifference of most ‘cotton operators’ toward the welfare of their slaves and their livestock made horse power and ox power too expensive.”(25) Not only could mules endure the harsh conditions of the cotton fields, but they could also subsist on the leavings of seeds and lint left over from the cotton ginning process.(26) President George Washington also personally endorsed the mule as the animal of choice, and went to great efforts to introduce the mule into Southern agriculture. (27) Although the mule had been introduced for its hardiness, it was soon lauded for its other qualities,(28) and by the time of the Civil War the mule had become a staple of Southern Agriculture.

The Transition from Human Power to Horse Power

In 1825, Senator William Findlay of Pennsylvania submitted a resolution for the establishment of a Senate Committee on Agriculture.(29) Senator Findlay argued that, as the Senate had already approved the creation of committees for Commerce and Manufacturers, it was only appropriate that Agriculture receive equal attention as one of the “three great branches of domestic industry.”(30) Senator Findlay was persuasive, and the Resolution was adopted, beginning the official recognition of the importance of agriculture in the American tradition and economy.

At the time of Senator Findlay’s proposal, farming had changed remarkably little from colonial times, or even from the times of the ancient Romans. Until 1833, practically all farm work, excepting plowing and harrowing, was done manually.(31) Although some farm implements were of better quality than others—the Dutch were noted for having “superior” tools over the English(32)—with the exception of the quality of livestock and crops, the actual tools of farming had seen only minor changes over the course of nearly 4000 years.(33) Until the 19th century, grain was planted, harvested, threshed, and winnowed manually, either by hand, with hand tools, or with minimal help from farm animals. Similarly, row crops were planted by hand, cultivated by hoe, and harvested by hand.

However, beginning in 1833, there was an explosion of new farm technology in America, particularly in the Northern and Western states. This disparity of development between New England and the South occurred because of a variety of factors, the largest of which were the quality of the land, the demand for labor, and the crops produced. Compared with the cheap, arable land of the Southern states, New England agriculture, as well as the agriculture of the Great Plains, was relatively labor intensive.(34) In the Western states, frontier development required a constant demand for efficiency whereas in slavery, the South had a labor supply which required a heavy initial investment but nominal upkeep.(35) Further, Southern crops did not easily lend themselves towards automation: Apart from the cotton gin, the cotton and tobacco industry did not realize the full benefits of mechanization until the early 20th century. In contrast, the wheat fields and row crops of the Northern and Western States lent themselves nicely to automation.

The environment of the North and later the West proved ideal for the invention and adoption of horse-powered machinery. Over the course of the 19th century, horse-powered machinery would disrupt millennia-old forms of farming by providing far more efficient methods of farming than had before been possible. This machinery would become widely adopted in the North and spread quickly westward towards the plains, and by the turn of the 20th century, nearly every task associated with grain cultivation, many tasks associated with row crop cultivation, and some tasks associated with cash crop cultivation would be performed primarily by horse-powered machinery.(36) This widespread adoption of horse-power in the Northern and Western states resulted in a steady increase in the amount of horses on farms which persisted until the introduction of the tractor in 1918. Even then, horses remained the primary source of power on farms until WWII.(37)

In 1898, the Commissioner of Labor concluded that “one man with the improved machinery…can cultivate and harvest nearly twice as large a crop” of any type of crop, as had been previously possible.(38) The work of the American farmer in 1900 was drastically different from the work of the American farmer in 1800, due primarily to the transformation of agriculture from man-power to horse-power. It is this remarkable transformation that this section will focus on, though an examination of the most important horse-powered machinery at work in the 19th century. The following subsections are divided by the principal tasks of a farmer: the preparation of the soil, the planting of seeds, the harvest, and (in the case of grains) threshing and winnowing. Each of these subsections will deal briefly with the historical method of performing the task, and then examine the 19th century technological changes which resulted in a horse-powered method replacing the historical method.

[Truncated Version of Earlier Paper on Mechanical Innovations]

[“The generation span between 1830 and 1850 marked the American farmers’ transfer from wood and leather tools, usually homemade, to iron tools that were factory-made.” These new tools had to be purchased with either trade goods and either cash or credit. Grain-Reaping machines first appeared between 1832 and 1840, and the first patents for disk harrows, grain drills, grain binders, and threshing machines were granted between 1840 and 1850. A series of inventions between 1830 and 1850 also led to a transition from wooden beam plows to armor-steel moldboard plows. This increased technology led to farms doubling in size from the time of the Revolution. “Fifteen years ago…the writer required twenty men to cultivate properly a yard of thirty acres; now, by the use of a few judiciously chosen horse tools, he cultivates many times that area, with but eight farm-hands, four of whom are boys.”]

[The replacement of the ox by the draft horse - Robert 170]

Movement of Labor in the 19th Century

[Northern shift from subsistence to Industry & large-scale farming through Civil War & Trade]

[Southern Transformation into Tenant-Farming System]

[At the turn of the Century, 8/10 people were still employed in some way with farms.]

The Fall of the Horse in America


[Need to do a lot more research, but I believe that essentially WWI forced industrialization, there was cultural difficulty in returning to an urban environment (Now that they've seen Paris), and these together increased the average size of the farms in both the North and South. North had massive industry shift, South not so much.]

From Animal Power to Mechanical Power

[Brief outline of tractor's invention, the fear it represented for farmers, and the exorbitant cost]

[Tractors became available for purchase ~1910.]

[Rural Political Power in the 20s led to expansion of credit. Still too costly for most farmers.]

[New Deal Subsidies for Farmers led to widespread affordability; the real price of tractors did not decrease too much as compared to the average farmer income]

Effects of Mechanical Power on Workers; The Great Migration

[Mechanical power percentage of work done in agriculture-- 1915: ~3%; 1920: ~5%; 1925: ~10%; 1930: ~20%; 1935: ~20%; 1940: ~33%; 1945: ~51%; 1950: ~70%]

[Thanks to WWI, Northern Workers had already mostly transitioned to industry.]

[Summarize the factors that led to the Great Migration a la Transformation of Southern Agriculture - Southern workers were laid off at massive rates. The Tenant-Farming system essentially died because it became obsolete.] (39)



1 : Paul Revere’s midnight ride, etc

2 : change this language to represent political interference

3 : which is also the industry which employs the most individuals in the American Economy

4 : Insert a quick footnote about how the Western Plain Horses descended from Pope's Plot from Horse in America here

5 : Frederick Zeuner, A History of Domesticated Animals 310

6 , 7 : Frederick Zeuner, A History of Domesticated Animals 306-309

8 , 9 : Robert Howard, The Horse in America 31

10 : Cattle, sheep, oxen, and pigs were far more useful to the English and Dutch colonists, as they provided many necessary goods. Dairy, meat, tallow, glue, leather, and wool were but some of the products derived from these other livestock, none of which the horse could provide.

11 : Herbert Wendt, It began in Babel 113

12 : Robert Howard, The Horse in America 32

13 , 14 : France M. Caulkins, History of New London 340

15 : Horse owners were assigned horse-license numbers, and each township required horse owners to place descriptions of their horses in a toll book. The law required registration with the toll book for any sale or trade of a horse. In 1701, every seaport in the northern colonies established the Office of the Horse Inspector, which ensured the number, description, and destination of any horses loaded on a ship.

16 : Bidwell & falconer, History of Agriculture in the Northern United States: 1620-1860, 441

17 : Judge Hedges, Bi-Centennial of Suffolk County 42

18 : France M. Caulkins, History of New London 341

19 : Expand here with Bidwell's explanation of the dual nature of the horse, and that even though the subsistence farming stayed the norm, the lowering cost of horses made it less of a tool of the gentry and more of a luxury good with some limited utility.

20 : Juan Perea, The Echoes of Slavery: Recognizing the Racist Origins of the Agricultural and Domestic Worker Exclusion from the National Labor Relations Act 101{{ While there were attempts to introduce the horse to the Southern economy, such efforts mostly ended in failure.{{Robert Howard, The Horse in America 57

21 : Chadwick, Causes of the Civil War 45; See also T.D. Wertenbaker, Planters of Colonial Virginia 182 {{ However, near the turn of the 18th century, due primarily to European demand for tobacco, there was a shift in the Southern economy as farmers turned from subsistence farming to cash crops.{{Neil Fligstein, The Transformation of Southern Agriculture and the Migration of Blacks and Whites, 1930-1940 270

22 : Neil Fligstein, The Transformation of Southern Agriculture and the Migration of Blacks and Whites, 1930-1940 271

23 , 24 : Robert Howard, The Horse in America 99

25 : Frederick Olmstead, A journey in the Seaboard Slave States 47; The most frank discussion appears on page 48, where he writes, “When I ask why mules are so universally substituted for horses on the farm, the first reason given and confessedly the most conclusive one, is that horses cannot bear the treatment they must always get…Horses are always soon foundered and crippled; mules will bear the cudgeling, and lose a meal or two now and then and not be materially injured, and they do not take cold or get sick if neglected or overworked.”

26 : Frederick Olmstead, A journey in the Seaboard Slave States 47

27 : Washington often criticized the agricultural methods of his age, and he did so most poignantly in his letter to Arthur Young, the editor of Annals of Husbandry: “The System of Agriculture (if the epithet can be applied to it), which is in use in this part of the United States, is as unproductive to the practitioners as it is ruinous to the landholders. Yet it is pertinaciously adhered to. To forsake it; to pursue a course of husbandry which is altogether different and new to the gazing multitude, even averse to novelty in matters of this sort, and much attached to their old customs, requires resolution: and without a good practical guide, may be dangerous.” J.T. Warder, Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture for the Year 1863 184-185

28 : J.T. Warder, Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture for the Year 1863 184-185

29 , 30 : Brief History of the Committee on Agriculture and Forestry and Landmark Agricultural Legislation, 1825-1970 10

31 : Thomas Nixon Carver, Principles of Rural Economics, 84

32 , 33 , 34 : U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Mechanization of Agriculture as a Factor in Labor Displacement 751

35 : Thomas Nixon Carver, Principles of Rural Economics 95

36 : Thomas Nixon Carver, Principles of Rural Economics 95

37 : Bruce L. Gardner, American Agriculture in the Twentieth Century 76

38 : U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Mechanization of Agriculture as a Factor in Labor Displacement 756

39 : Agricultural payments caused cotton acreage reductions and provided money for the purchases of tractors. Cotton acreage reductions implied more intensive cultivation of the land and this also stimulated tractor purchases. All three factors were responsible for a reduction in the demand for tenant labor. Agricultural payments caused a reduction in tenant labor, mainly through the mechanism of reducing the amount of cotton acreage planted. Tractors displaced tenants as machine cultivation replaced hand cultivation. Acreage reduction reduced opportunities for tenant farmers and hence, reduced the demand for tenant farmers. The agricultural payments, increase in tractor purchases, reduction in cotton acreage and reduction of tenants, all brought about migration as they implied lower demand for labor. Individuals in the rural South perceived these forces that undermined their ability to earn a living, and in the face of these conditions, migrated. - Transformation of Southern Agriculture 275-304


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r4 - 18 Apr 2017 - 22:32:52 - ZebulunJohnson
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