The Agrarian Gentleman: Elkanah Watson and the Birth of the Agricultural Society in Early National New England
Elkanah Watson is an overlooked figure in the early national period of the United States. A direct descendent of the Mayflower Pilgrims, Watson was a well-connected, well-traveled businessman who was receptive to any idea that he thought would benefit the new nation. This paper argues that Watson played an important role in forging a new American definition of progress, one that built on his experience in the American Revolution, borrowed heavily from Europe, and was inextricably tied to the American landscape. During the age of Enlightenment, he believed that one could improve oneself as well as society. That was evident in most of the work throughout his life including the creation of the Bank of Albany, cosmetic improvements in the cities he lived, advocating for free public schools, early work on the Erie Canal, and a town bearing his name in the Finger Lakes region of New York. His most notable contribution was the creation of the Berkshire Agricultural Society. Watson was able to successfully wed agriculture with industry in a time when the biggest debate was which direction the country was going. In his desire to create an agricultural society that transcended class differences and explicitly sought the inclusion of women, Watson’s society was very different from those already in existence in Europe and across the American South. Watson forged a new American definition of progress, one that championed scientific experimentation, embraced social equality, and was inextricably tied to improving the land.