Forty acres plus a mule was the promise made to the slaves who were freed during General Sherman’s Civil War march to the sea. Most of the delivered acreage was abandoned rice plantations around Charleston, South Carolina. In case you’re not familiar with what many in the South still call “The War of Northern Aggression,” Charleston was the birthplace of the secessionism that led to the war. It was also a major seaport, one of the largest and wealthiest cities on America’s Atlantic coast line. Sherman destroyed large parts of it and recovery took over 100 years.
If you’ve followed the history of the constant tussle between the U.S. government and American agriculture, what happened next won’t surprise you. After the cessation of hostilities in 1865 and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson revoked the order and returned the land to its previous owners. Because of the change in policy, the phrase "40 acres and a mule" became a catchphrase for the failure of Reconstruction policies in restoring to African Americans the fruits of two and a half centuries of their labor.
It was a federal decision in keeping with their longstanding attitude of “Yeah, we’re going to do this for the long term good” followed soon thereafter by “OK, maybe not.”
But there are plenty of twenty-first century activists who would take modern day farming and ranching back to the days of 40 acres and a mule, ignoring agricultural history and shunning the technological advances that have made the American farm the stunning success it became during the twentieth century.
I’m annoyed by people who want to draw hearts and flowers around an imaginary life in an idealized, Disneyesque rural America. They have in mind a white-washed two story farm house surrounded by a white picket fence, a few chickens pecking around the front yard, a cow in the pasture and a some hogs out by the old red barn. Ma tends the chickens; Pa raises some corn and beans and a few tomatoes. The only thing that might be missing is Lassie and little Timmie.
Those idealized farmers are able to feed the family, of course, and have some produce left over to sell in town for city folks. But that extra production only happens in good years. Modern advances like motorized plows (commonly called tractors) to replace that stubborn mule, regular irrigation (instead of relying on the vagaries of Mother Nature and when she wishes to make it rain), and improvements like better seed corn, a grain that has gone through many genetic modifications during the thousands of years it has been a human food crop.