Most historians agree that the emergence of free-labor principles in the 1850s and regional divisions along economic lines fueled sectional antagonism leading to the Civil War. Narratives crafted by historians Eugene D. Genovese, Eric Foner, and others have described how an urban, industrial North outpaced an antiquated, agrarian South. Historian James L. Huston takes this interpretation to task in The British Gentry, the Southern Planter, and the Northern Family Farmer: Agriculture and Sectional Antagonism in North America, by arguing that the sectional crisis was actually rooted in rural America, where concepts of land use and ownership created very different societies in the North and South. Southern planters emulated the landed, leisured British aristocracy, seeking large holdings that relied on a subjugated (enslaved) labor force. Northern family farms, on the other hand, required small parcels of land, a family workforce, and the services [End Page 250] of independent, small-town merchants and artisans. These systems created vastly different societies that each hoped to replicate in the West, giving rise to tensions over slavery and landownership.
Huston’s highly readable narrative opens by explaining the evolution of the British landholding system and the eventual triumph of the landed estate in the wake of the English Civil War. The gentry created a social system that eschewed manual labor and upheld leisure as an ideal. As leaders, they believed their time was best spent on education, politics, the arts, and the “mastery” of commanding subordinates (p.11). Their hunger for land compromised a dwindling yeomanry and middle class that adhered to Puritan doctrines of achieving moderate, sustainable livelihoods. Huston’s transnational approach takes a much longer view of landownership and explains how British colonizers transferred this conflict to North America. In the colonies, however, an abundance of land and resources, as well as the introduction of African slavery, allowed for family farms and plantations to flourish simultaneously in different regions.
In constructing his argument, Huston pays careful attention to settlement patterns, geography, and climate, taking into consideration the suitability of the North to grains and livestock and the South to commercial crops such as cotton and tobacco. Ultimately, though, Huston argues that landholding patterns are a “man-made determination,” and here is where readers will want to focus their attention (p. 131). Recounting decades of historiography, he argues that southern planters “ruined the chances of the small farmers to obtain land,” and he provides persuasive evidence through a quantitative comparison of land use within congressional districts (p. 131). He takes this argument a step further by adamantly asserting that the sectional crisis was purely a dispute over landownership and that the growth of industry should be removed from the equation entirely. After all, the politicians who crafted the endless compromises related to slavery and westward expansion, including David Wilmot and Stephen A. Douglas, represented rural districts. Huston goes so far as to say: “the obsession of historians with urbanization and industrialization has [End Page 251] had a warping influence on the understanding of American history prior to 1880” (pp. 212–13).
Huston neglected to take into account the growing literature on yeoman farmers in the South, as well as the growth of commercial agriculture, mining, cattle, and timber industries in rural areas that fueled the growth of urban industrialization. This complicates the story because, in many ways, the lines between industry and agriculture are not as distinctive as Huston portrays them. Nonetheless, The British Gentry, the Southern Planter, and the Northern Family Farmer demonstrates that the causes of the American Civil War are far from resolved. Huston’s call to reconsider the rural nature of the sectional crisis introduces new life into an old debate and his conclusions warrant further investigation at the federal, state, and local levels.
JENNY BARKER DEVINE teaches history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois. She is the author of On Behalf of the Family Farm: Iowa Farm Women’s Activism since 1945 (2013) and...