This article explores the intellectual foundations of the “agricultural ladder” metaphor by examining the ideologies and experiences of the two economists—Henry C. Taylor and Richard T. Ely—who inserted the concept into academic discourse. It argues that the agricultural ladder was a product of Taylor and Ely's mutual pursuit of conservative reform, an attempt to achieve the common good of widespread landownership without revolutionary disruptions to the status quo. Acting on their social Darwinist beliefs that societies evolved through successive stages of social and economic development, the economists crossed the Atlantic to study European land tenancy. These studies reinforced Taylor and Ely's demand for slow, measured tenure reform—an essential characteristic of the agricultural ladder. This resistance to rapid change ultimately naturalized the agricultural capitalism and racialized tenancy that prevented poorer farmers from owning their own farms. The agricultural ladder recast the prototypical farmer as well capitalized, highly efficient, and white.

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