It is hard to imagine that any historian would teach or write about the United States during the Civil War era as comprised of a simple dichotomy of two regions: industrial North versus agrarian South. This, despite our understanding that the 1860 census shows that most Americans overall were involved in agriculture. As both a long-time college textbook consultant and Civil War era scholar (with a specialization in agricultural history), I can say this reflects an older, widely superseded interpretation; yet, this is the corrective that Adam Wesley Dean’s An Agrarian Republic: Farming, Antislavery Politics, and Nature Parks in the Civil War Era seeks to make.
Dean’s leading argument is that the political ideology of the Republican Party of the Civil War era (beginning with the Free Soilers), aside from being antislavery, was at heart agrarian. As such, it aggressively promoted the interests of small family farmers and led ultimately to the passage of the Homestead Act, Pacific Railway Act, and the Morrill Land Grant College Act following the secession of the southern states. Dean extends this analysis of what he repeatedly categorizes as a Republican fixation on comparative land-use practices (and what they represented) to legislation creating Yosemite State Park [End Page 84] (1864) and Yellowstone National Park (1872). Dean’s problematic premise is that northerners and Republicans were more concerned over the expansion of slavery because of slave owners’ use and abuse of the land through plantation and monocrop agriculture than they were the immorality of slavery or the existence of slavery in a free republic. In contrast to northern family farms, which resulted in the wise use of the land and soil, he asserts, plantation agriculture generated land monopolies, aristocrats, and a lack of progress and civilization (although we know that the Homestead Act combined with subsequent land acts arguably led to similar scenarios in western lands, in some ranching and agricultural enterprises).
An Agrarian Republic suffers from conceptual and interpretive errors, perhaps derived from a limited understanding of agricultural history, despite an indication from the subtitle that this is about farming. One would expect to see more than one farm paper and more of the relevant historiography than what is consulted here. From the outset and throughout, Dean overstates the evidence, often employing more modern environmentalist and subjective verbiage, in assertions like, “As the Republicans grew in popularity and power, they became convinced that the future of the country depended on the wise use of the soil” (p. 40). This minimizes, if not ignores, Republicans’ and northerners’ greater impetus to oppose the expansion of slavery—that is, a sense of urgency that the peculiar institution itself was a threat to the nation, not simply a threat to wise land use.
Dean makes interesting use of published observations and warnings about the soil-depleting effects of slave agriculture, although he couches it in political ideology. This is actually reflective of the literature of agrarian reform impulses, North and South, some of which were clearly co-opted by sectional politicians as yet another valid reason to either oppose slavery or reform agricultural practices. Rather than being part and parcel of Republican ideology, Dean fails to appreciate that these are broader expressions of agrarian reform and the rise of agricultural science, hence the drive behind the Morrill Land Grant College Act. A stronger argument would be that reformers [End Page 85] asserted that not only was southern slavery on the wrong side of history, but increasingly on the wrong side of agricultural science. Nevertheless, halting the spread of slavery was the overriding issue of antislavery politics, not land use.
GINETTE ALEY teaches history at Washburn University and is a Carey Fellow in the History Department at Kansas State University. She is the co-editor of Union Heartland: The Midwestern Home Front during the Civil War (2013) and the author of several articles and book chapters on nineteenth-century agrarianism and the Civil War era.