An Agrarian Republic: Farming, Antislavery Politics, and Nature Parks in the Civil War Era

An Agrarian Republic: Farming, Antislavery Politics, and Nature Parks in the Civil War Era

An Agrarian Republic: Farming, Antislavery Politics, and Nature Parks in the Civil War Era

An Agrarian Republic: Farming, Antislavery Politics, and Nature Parks in the Civil War Era

Synopsis

The familiar story of the Civil War tells of a predominately agricultural South pitted against a rapidly industrializing North. However, Adam Wesley 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.

Spanning the long nineteenth century, Dean's study analyzes the changing debate over land development as it transitioned from focusing on the creation of a virtuous and orderly citizenry to being seen primarily as a "civilizing" mission. By showing Republicans as men and women with backgrounds in small farming, Dean unveils new connections between seemingly separate historical events, linking this era's views of natural and manmade environments with interpretations of slavery and land policy.

Excerpt

In the spring of 2013, I made my first trip to Charleston, South Carolina. Despite years of living in the South, first as a history graduate student and then as a professor specializing in the Civil War era, I had never visited Charleston and perhaps its most famous landmark: Fort Sumter. Upon arrival at the fort on a rainy and humid day, the friendly National Park Service ranger gave a presentation. The first five minutes of the talk focused on the causes of the Civil War. Why, the ranger sought to explain, did South Carolinians fire on Fort Sumter on that fateful day in April 1861? First touching on the controversy over slavery in the West, the ranger concluded with a statement that many Americans have long believed. “The North had an industrial economy in conflict with the agricultural people of the South,” he asserted. Despite admonitions by several scholars since the 1950s, who point out that most northerners were farmers as well, such views continue to percolate among the historically interested public. Part of the reason is that though historians know that most northerners lived in rural communities in 1860, they continue to present the industrial revolution as the leitmotif for nineteenth-century America.

There is nothing inherently wrong with such a story. The United States did become the world’s preeminent industrial power. By 1900, the former Confederacy lagged far behind New England in manufacturing. Even in 1861, the eleven Confederate states had about as many manufacturing workers as the North had manufacturing facilities. The origins of these differences can also be seen in hindsight. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, an economy of small farms and artisans gave way to a system in which farmers and producers created goods for a distant marketplace. The transportation networks critical to industrial capitalism started to dot the North prior to the Civil War. Yet, the standard narrative presented about the 1800s can prevent historians—both public and . . .

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