One of the most dramatic events which has taken place in American life is the rapid decline of agriculture. This Nation began its existence as an agrarian society in which farm or rural people dominated its life and determined its national policies. It is true that small tradesmen, large merchants, and professional groups exerted considerable influence on national affairs, but, by and large, the country was farm minded.
This condition lasted for more than 100 years after the United States became a “free and independent Nation.” During these 100 years the Nation was engaged in the creation, through purchase, exploration and conquest, of a vast and magnificent public domain, the like of which has never before existed. This public domain had mostly disappeared by 1890. It had been transferred to private individuals and there was established a nation of small land-owning farmers. From about the turn of the Twentieth Century the relative importance of agriculture began to decline rapidly and urban forces began to gain the ascendancy.
The Battle for PopulationThe ascendance of urban forces is nowhere more clearly shown than in the shifts of population. “Up to 1820,” says one authority, “more than 90 percent of the working population was engaged in agriculture.” This percentage has declined steadily. In 1900, about 42 percent of the gainfully employed were engaged in farm production. Forty years later, only 21 percent of our gainfully employed persons were working in agriculture. Thus in a period of 120 years (1820 to 1940) that part of our gainfully employed people used in agriculture declined 77 percent. Since 1940 a further decline has occurred. Today (1944) probably no more than 18 percent of our gainfully employed are engaged in agricultural pursuits.
From the beginning of the Colonial period to about the beginning of the Twentieth Century the output of our farms exceeded that of urban industries. From this period on agricultural output, although increasing, declined relative to the output of urban industries. For example, from 1899 to 1919, the production of urban industries increased 95.3 percent, whereas the output of our farms increased only 37 percent. From 1919 to 1943 the disparity between industrial and agricultural output has become even more pronounced.