Thursday, January 15, 2015

Agriculture and society in the Civil War era

Every once in a while you see some cross-publisher synergy over topics that don't arise all that often in the literature. For this catalog season, agriculture seems more intellectually popular than usual.

In The British Gentry, the Southern Planter, and the Northern Family Farmer: Agriculture and Sectional Antagonism in North America (LSU) author James Huston "argues that the ideological chasm between plantation owners in the South and family farmers in the North led to the political eruption of 1854–56 and the birth of a sectionalized party system. Huston shows that over 70 percent of the northern population—by far the dominant economic and social element—had close ties to agriculture. More invested in egalitarianism and personal competency than in capitalism, small farmers in the North operated under a free labor ideology that emphasized the ideals of independence and mastery over oneself. The ideology of the plantation, by contrast, reflected the conservative ethos of the British aristocracy, which was the product of immense landed inequality and the assertion of mastery over others. By examining the dominant populations in northern and southern congressional districts, Huston reveals that economic interests pitted the plantation South against the small-farm North. The northern shift toward Republicanism depended on farmers, not industrialists ..."

R. Douglas Hurt's Agriculture and the Confederacy: Policy, Productivity, and Power in the Civil War South (UNC) "traces the decline and fall of agriculture in the Confederate States of America. The backbone of the southern economy, agriculture was a source of power that southerners believed would ensure their independence. But, season by season and year by year, Hurt convincingly shows how the disintegration of southern agriculture led to the decline of the Confederacy's military, economic, and political power. He examines regional variations in the Eastern and Western Confederacy, linking the fates of individual crops and different modes of farming and planting to the wider story. After a dismal harvest in late 1864, southerners--faced with hunger and privation throughout the region--ransacked farms in the Shenandoah Valley and pillaged plantations in the Carolinas and the Mississippi Delta, they finally realized that their agricultural power, and their government itself, had failed."

An Agrarian Republic: Farming, Antislavery Politics, and Nature Parks in the Civil War Era (UNC) by Adam Wesley Dean seems to agree with Huston that Republicanism's ascendancy had its essential roots in the North's small farmers. Dean "argues that the Republican Party's political ideology was fundamentally agrarian. Believing that small farms owned by families for generations led to a model society, Republicans supported a northern agricultural ideal in opposition to southern plantation agriculture, which destroyed the land's productivity, required constant western expansion, and produced an elite landed gentry hostile to the Union. Dean shows how agrarian republicanism shaped the debate over slavery's expansion, spurred the creation of the Department of Agriculture and the passage of the Homestead Act, and laid the foundation for the development of the earliest nature parks."

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