We welcome to the blog today a guest post by Adam Wesley Dean, author of An Agrarian Republic: Farming, Antislavery Politics, and Nature Parks in the Civil War Era. The familiar story of the Civil War tells of a predominately agricultural South pitted against a rapidly industrializing North. However, 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.
In today’s post, Dean challenges the common historical misconception that the pre-Civil War North was comprised mainly of industrialized and urban populations, while the South was primarily an agricultural society. Dean argues that an accurate view of history will bring clarity to some of the motivations behind the Civil War.
Americans often feel comforted in the stories they hear about the past. A former professor of mine used to joke that some passionate visitors to Gettysburg Battlefield Park had memorized the familiar tales of action in the Peach Orchard and Little Round Top given by the park’s historians. One of these favorite stories is the old account of the coming of the Civil War. The narrative goes something like this: an agrarian South of farmers and planters sought to resist the coming of a modern industrial economy by seceding. Even as late as 2008, the Virginia Standards of Learning listed that one of the “cultural” reasons for why the war happened was that “the North was mainly an urban society in which people held jobs,” while the South “was primarily an agricultural society.”
The truth, of course, is much different. Of the North’s population, over 14.5 million lived in rural areas with a population of less than 2,500, while only 5 million lived in what any reasonable person could call an “urban society.” Roughly 60% of northerners worked on farms. Most farms were small, with the average varying between 113 and 169 acres in the states that stayed loyal to the union. The vast majority of historians and museums have long known these figures and their implications for understanding the war. Why, then, does the state board of education cling to the old story? Perhaps the public feels at ease in labeling the slave-holding Confederacy as something distant, something foreign, a relic of a bygone era, rather than a society in many ways just as capitalist and worldly as our own.
Even more critical, as my book An Agrarian Republic shows, if the public continues to understand the war as a conflict between an industrial North and an agricultural South, they cannot possibly understand the world that nineteenth-century Americans inhabited. Since most northerners were farmers, they carried the values and norms cultivated by this lifestyle into politics.
Such a phenomenon could be seen in one of the quintessential events that helped produce the Civil War—the Wilmot Proviso. After the flare-up over slavery’s expansion into Missouri in 1819 and 1820, the two major political parties in America tried hard not to talk about slavery anymore. It is doubtful that war would have happened without attempts at further expansion. But, under the administrations of John Tyler and James Polk, the United States did just that, annexing Texas and launching war of imperial acquisition against the Republic of Mexico. keep reading →