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Pioneering American Wine

Writings of Nicholas Herbemont, Master Viticulturist

Nicholas Herbemont Edited by David S. Shields

Publication Year: 2009

This volume collects the most important writings on viticulture by Nicholas Herbemont (1771-1839), who is widely considered the finest practicing winemaker of the early United States. Included are his two major treatises on viticulture, thirty-one other published pieces on vine growing and wine making, and essays that outline his agrarian philosophy. Over the course of his career, Herbemont cultivated more than three hundred varieties of grapes in a garden the size of a city block in Columbia, South Carolina, and in a vineyard at his plantation, Palmyra, just outside the city.

Born in France, Herbemont carefully tested the most widely held methods of growing, pruning, processing, and fermentation in use in Europe to see which proved effective in the southern environment. His treatise "Wine Making," first published in the American Farmer in 1833, became for a generation the most widely read and reliable American guide to the art of producing potable vintage.

David S. Shields, in his introductory essay, positions Herbemont not only as important to the history of viticulture in America but also as a notable proponent of agricultural reform in the South. Herbemont advocated such practices as crop rotation and soil replenishment and was an outspoken critic of slave-based cotton culture.

Published by: University of Georgia Press

Series: The Publications of the Southern Texts Society


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix

The idea of collecting the writings of Nicholas Herbemont arose after a conversation with Dan Longone, emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of Michigan and a wine savant with a penchant for history. When he and his wife, Janice Longone, the culinary archivist, attended "The Cuisines of the Lowcountry and the Caribbean" conference held by the College of Charleston in 2003, we got to talking about early southern viticulture. Dan Longone wished to know where ...

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pp. 1-29

Nicholas Michel Laurent Herbemont (1771-1839) styled himself a "visionary," an "enthusiast of the vine." He prophesied a day when American wine making would equal that of his native France. In the late 1820s he won recognition as the finest practicing vigneron--winemaker--of the early United States. Gideon B. Smith, editor of the country's foremost agricultural journal, the American Farmer, and a Maryland connoisseur who had sampled wine from all the reputable vintners of ...

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Part One. Maxims

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pp. 31-36

The Vine has been given to man that it may enliven his spirits, gladden his heart, produce cheerfulness and good fellowship in society, and enable him to support unavoidable afflictions, under which he would frequently sink in despair. 1828 ...

Part Two. Treatises

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An Essay on the Culture of the Grape Vine, and Making of Wine; Suited for the United States, and More Particularly for the Southern States (January-July 1828)

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pp. 39-85

Composed during the autumn of 1827, Herbemont's summary treatment of vine culture and wine making drew upon eighteen years of experiment in cultivating wine and table grapes in the southern hill country of the United States. These experiments had concentrated his attention on six varieties of grape--all of them natives or native-French hybrids: Herbemont's Madeira, Lenoir, Red Muscat (Bland's Madeira), Isabella, Arena, and Muscadine. In ...

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Wine Making (January 23, 1833)

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pp. 86-105

When Gideon B. Smith, editor of the American Farmer, tasted Nicholas Herbemont's wine in the summer of 1831, it proved a revelation. He shared his bottles with members of the Maryland Society for Promoting the Culture of the Vine, a group of planters and wine connoisseurs organized in 1829 to advance grape cultivation in the region beyond where John Adlum had taken it. While the group cultivated the clubby epicureanism that became ...

Part Three. Published Letters on Grape Growing and Wine Making

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Requisites for Success in Grape Cultivation (January 22, 1820)

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pp. 109-112

When John Stuart Skinner began publication of the American Farmer in April 1819, the United States for the first time possessed a periodical exclusively devoted to the arts of agriculture and horticulture. Herbemont, as director of the board of the Agriculture Society of South Carolina, reckoned himself one of the persons for whom the journal was intended as a forum. One topic taken up during the weekly's first year of publication was the problem ...

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Acculturation of French Vines (December 6, 1822)

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pp. 113-116

In autumn 1822 Nicholas Herbemont sent John S. Skinner, editor of the American Farmer, a copy of his tract Observations on the Late Occurrences in Charleston by a Member of the Board of Public Works, which Skinner reprinted in American Farmer 4, no. 35 (November 22, 1822), 274-76. A portion of the tract recommended silk production as a means of developing the Carolina midlands. Skinner replied on November 19, 1822, by shipping a ...

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On the Culture of the Grape (August 20, 1826)

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pp. 117-123

Nicholas Herbemont's experiences with grapes in Pennsylvania and South Carolina convinced him that the traditions of cultivation practiced in France had to be altered in North America if viticulture would succeed. The growing conditions--the soil, the climate, the insect and animal predators, the diseases--differed so markedly in the United States from those in most of the French wine regions that a different way of growing things had to be ...

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On the Use of Sugar in Making Wine (August 27, 1826)

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pp. 124-129

In the American Farmer 6, no. 47 (February 11, 1823), Thomas McCall of Dublin, Georgia, published a letter detailing his method of making wine addressed to John Adlum of Maryland, the pioneer vintner and Revolutionary War veteran. McCall began experimenting with wine in 1816; he "pressed the juice, and made no additions of sugar or brandy; the wine was vapid, and tart, like Rhenish wine." The letter chronicled experiments over several years ...

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Speech to the Agricultural Society of S.C. on the Benefits of Publicly-Sponsored Grape Cultivation (February 17, 1827)

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pp. 130-134

Herbemont's 1826 oration before the Agricultural Society of South Carolina elaborated an argument made in the final section of his 1822 tract, Observations on the Late Occurrences in Charleston, contending that grape culture would revalue the waste lands of middle Carolina. The intervening four years had convinced Herbemont that the dollar drove the thinking of many of his contemporaries, and so the speech projected value gain in dollar amounts. ...

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Memorial to the Senate of South Carolina (December 1826)

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pp. 135-138

Formation of a standing committee on agriculture in the U.S. Senate in 1825 and in state legislatures inspired a brief moment of hope that the national and state governments might fund agricultural projects. In December 1825 James C. W. McDonnald and Antonio Della Torre petitioned the South Carolina Senate for funds to underwrite five years of labor (the time from planting to fruiting) establishing vineyards, olive groves, and silk production ...

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Domestic Wine (December 23, 1826)

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pp. 139-140

Production from the eight acres of vines Herbemont had planted at his farm, Palmyra, were sufficiently great from 1823 onward to permit the commercial production of wine. By 1826 he had mastered the craft of wine making, leading to a series of excellent-tasting vintages. This report whetted the taste of a group of planter connoisseurs in Maryland who wished to ...

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American Wine (January 18, 1828)

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pp. 141-143

Nicholas Herbemont's donation of three bottles of wine to John S. Skinner inaugurated a growing engagement between him and the circle of Maryland and northern Virginian planters. In 1828, when Skinner handed the editorship of the American Farmer to Gideon B. Smith, one of the Maryland group most interested in wine, the relationship would grow even stronger. The cover letter for the gift of wine reveals one of the great difficulties facing ...

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Pruning Grape Vines (April 20, 1828)

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pp. 144-148

By spring of 1828 Nicholas Herbemont's writings on wine in manuscript and print were circulating widely. The first three installments of "An Essay on the Culture of the Grape Vine and Making of Wine" (January-July 1828) had appeared in the Southern Agriculturist. J. S. Skinner, editor of the American Farmer, printed a rumor from a correspondent from Alabama in volume 10, no. 4 (April 11, 1828), 31, that Herbemont's method of pruning ...

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Letter to Nicholas Longworth on the Grape Vine (March 19, 1829)

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pp. 149-156

Nicholas Longworth (1783-1863) was the first winemaker to build a national clientele and secure a fortune from the sale of his vintages. Born in New Jersey, he had lived in South Carolina from ages eighteen to twenty-one, moved to Cincinnati in 1804, and read law for half a year with Judge Jacob Burnet before setting himself up as a lawyer and land agent. Recognizing the unique potential of the city, Longworth invested heavily in real estate. By ...

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Cultivation of the Grape (August 12, 1829)

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pp. 157-160

This letter on the challenges facing cultivators of the vine could have been written to any one of the persons who had recently organized the Maryland Society for Promoting the Culture of the Vine. Herbemont's closest friend in Baltimore was George Fitzhugh Jr., the future sociologist of the South. Usually Herbemont addressed him by name in correspondence. This writing has more the tenor of an informational discussion than a familiar letter. ...

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Letter to Edward Stabler on Wine-Making (September 9, 1829)

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pp. 161-166

Edward Stabler (1794--1883), the recipient of this letter, was a Quaker agriculturalist and postmaster at Sandy Spring, Maryland. Inventor of a seed drill and a corn-husking mechanism, he stood at the forefront of the movement to apply scientific technology to agriculture. Later he would become the most skilled seal-maker in the mid-Atlantic states, creating ...

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On the Proper Distance for Planting a Vineyard (December 7, 1829)

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pp. 167-171

At every annual meeting of the Agricultural Society of South Carolina from 1819 to 1829, Nicholas Herbemont presented a report on the progress of his experiments in viticulture. His report in 1826 and the one below possessed sufficient formal shape and topicality to merit publication. The subject of vine spacing in American vineyards had occupied grape cultivators since they realized that the vigor of growth in American vines made Old World ...

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Pruning Frost-Nipped Vines (March 22, 1830)

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pp. 172-175

Herbemont was not above dissembling to increase the reading interest of his letters. In this elaboration of his April 20, 1828, epistle on pruning, he begins in the apologetic mode, confessing fallibilities and inaccuracies, while confirming and strengthening the point of his earlier letter--that pruning vines in spring when they are prone to sap bleeding has no injurious effect on them. In a sly coda, the end of the letter reveals the height of his ...

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On the Culture of the Grape Vine, with Observations on the Practice Recommended by Various Writers (March 30, 1830)

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pp. 176-182

The author who provoked Herbemont's "Observations," George J. F. Clarke, was one of the larger-than-life creatures who peopled the early South. Born in St. Augustine in 1774 when Florida was an English colony, he prospered after its reversion to Spanish rule, eventually rising to the post of surveyor general of east Florida, a post whose powers he amplified well beyond the bounds of custom and law. Old Spanish grants would shift their bounds with ...

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Letter to an Alabama Planter (July 9, 1830)

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pp. 183-188

By 1830 Nicholas Herbemont's reputation as a vintner advanced because of three causes: the clarity with which he argued a scheme of vineyard management suited to American conditions, the generosity with which he supplied interested persons with grape varieties proven to flourish in the difficult growing conditions found in the United States, and his skill as a winemaker. In the later years of his life, the last reason predominated. As bottles ...

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On the Formation of Vine-Yards of Native Vines, and the Ingrafting of Grape-Vines (September 4, 1830)

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pp. 189-194

In 1830 the idea that French grape varieties might thrive in America if grafted to native rootstocks spread through the agricultural community like wildfire. Herbemont had practiced grafting since 1819 at Palmyra and detailed his method to members of the Maryland Society for Promoting the Culture of the Vine in his letter of August 1829. Pomologist William Coxe of Burlington had published on the subject in 1828. Then the New England Farmer jumped ...

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Table Grapes (October 26, 1830)

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pp. 195-200

Nineteenth-century America was smitten by fruit. Gardeners and pomologists strove to find the most flavorful new varieties and perfect their cultivation. Nicholas Herbemont participated in this quest, cultivating apples, plums, mulberries, and strawberries besides his multitude of grapes. While Herbemont generally dismissed the notion of a hard and fast distinction between wine grapes and table grapes, he recognized that for an increasingly ...

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Herbemont's Madeira (May 27, 1831)

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pp. 201-202

Of all the grapes that Herbemont grew, he cherished most one that he discovered growing on the plantation of Daniel Huger in Columbia, South Carolina, shortly after his arrival in the city. He invariably called this grape "the Madeira" throughout his writings and never claimed it as his patrimony. A globular, round, brownish grape, it most resembles Verdelho of the classic Madeira quartet of Sercial, Bual, Malvasia, and Verdelho. But it would not be ...

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Observations on the Rot of the Grape, and Grafting of Foreign Vines on Native Stocks (September 4, 1831)

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pp. 203-205

Weather has always been the bane of grape growers. No matter how experienced, how scientific, how fortunate the cultivator, sooner or later a season of excessive rain will come and ruin the crop. The problems that afflicted Herbemont in the 1831 growing season rivaled those of 1828. In the wake of this trouble, the normally positive Herbemont fell victim to a bout of depression, but his sense of responsibility to the cause of science and the spread of ...

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Afflictions (September 24, 1831)

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pp. 206-209

Herbemont in this letter collects most of the horrors that face grape cultivators--wet weather, rot, birds, and insects. The terrible weather of the 1831 growing season opens the account, a letter on two of the insect pests troubling vineyards closes it. Yet the depression that characterized his "Observations" of September 4 has given way to a sardonic jocularity. The letter extract introduced to the reader two of the more lurid insects preying on the vine. ...

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Letter to George Fitzhugh, Jr. (September 2, 1832)

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pp. 210-212

Publication of this letter to George Fitzhugh Jr. marked Herbemont's anointment as the premier vintner in the country. Gideon B. Smith, editor of the American Farmer, prefaced the text with a testimony asserting the medical utility of Herbemont's wine for gastric complaints and proclaiming the supremacy of its flavor over all other American wines of his experience. Smith, besides being an active promoter of grape culture in the pages of his ...

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Observations on the Planting of the Vine and Rot in Grapes (May 28, 1833)

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pp. 213-218

Herbemont used a disagreement with neighbor and vintner Abraham Geiger as a pretext to discuss how the root system of the grapevine could be sculpted by the cultivator to maximize the vigor of the plant and its resistance to disease. In a letter to the Southern Agriculturist titled "On the Cultivation of the Grape Vine,"1 Geiger had doubted the efficacy of deep trenching in planting vineyards and also ...

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Letter to Edmund Ruffin (November 18, 1833)

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pp. 219-223

Publication of An Essay on Calcareous Manures, a landmark tract of American agronomy, launched its author, Edmund Ruffin of Virginia, into international celebrity. An agricultural reformer and cultural campaigner with the will of a rottweiler, Ruffin used his celebrity to publish an organ that could serve as a platform for his views, the Farmers' Register. Ruffin ...

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On the Causes of Failure in Vine Culture and Wine Making (November 15, 1834)

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pp. 224-229

In his second letter to Edmund Ruffin, Herbemont made a statement of faith about the efficacy of large-scale systematic experimentation in overcoming the problems that hinder grape cultivation. He indicated that the regions encompassed by the United States are so various and their climatic conditions so variable that much work remained to be done to determine which vine types were suited to which place. He chided persons who hastily ...

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Origin of "Herbemont's Madeira" Grape (February 1835)

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pp. 230-231

By 1833 Herbemont had allowed himself to become persuaded by the "grape lore" of Thomas McCall that the Herbemont grape had its origins in Europe. His observations told him that the American form of the grape had departed greatly from the European progenitor-- whether through mutation, sporting, or the chance adaptation of a seed to the New World environment. But McCall was trading in hearsay. One ancestor of the American hybrid ...

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Difference of the Growth, Culture, and Product of Grape Vines, in the United States and in Europe (April 29, 1836)

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pp. 232-237

Herbemont's fundamental observation about vine culture was that it differed in the United States from that of France. An encounter with James Busby's Journal of a Recent Visit to the Principal Vineyards of Spain and France reminded him of the extent of that difference. In the first letter of this pair of communications to Edmund Ruffin, Herbemont puzzled over the extraordinary vitality of the Herbemont Madeira vine contrasted with certain ...

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On the Suitableness of Warm Climates for Wine Making (February 15, 1837)

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pp. 238-240

Climate and soil have ever been the two environmental conditions that determine most materially the character of wine. Too much cold, too much rain, or too much heat diminish the possibility of producing a vintage. Having grown up in the north of France, Herbemont knew about the limitations that cold and frost impose on viticulture. Living in the American South, he learned that humidity, not heat, was the great bane of wine making. ...

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Grape Culture in South Carolina (September 9, 1837)

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pp. 241-244

This last of Herbemont's reports to the agricultural press on the status of his vintages conveyed the essential message of his wine-making experience--that despite the usual obstacles (rot and predation), his wines produced with such abundance that good wine was made despite the losses. In this letter, too, Herbemont supplied evidence which suggests that the illness from which he suffered during his final years was malaria. Published in ...

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Letter to Sidney Weller on Grape and Silk Culture (March 8, 1838)

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pp. 245-247

Herbemont's correspondent in this last of his published writings, Sidney Weller (1791-1854) of Halifax, North Carolina, exemplified the generation of younger men, such as George Fitzhugh, James McDonnald, and Dr. John Davis, who embraced the vision of viticulture that Nicholas Herbemont had proclaimed. In Halifax, North Carolina, Weller planted his vineyard in 1828 and began commercial production in 1835, first selling as ...

Part Four. Agrarian Essays

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Observations Suggested by the Late Occurrences in Charleston, by a Member of the Board of Public Works, of the State of South-Carolina (1822)

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pp. 251-260

In 1820 Nicholas Herbemont was appointed to the South Carolina Board of Public Works. In 1821 he presided over the body in a period when it actively engaged in a host of projects: road building, the creation of a state map, the construction of a canal that would permit waterborne commerce from the coast to Columbia, and the erection of a water system for the capital. In the spirit of this activism, Herbemont, speaking in the persona of a public official, advanced ...

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Address to the President and Members of the United Agricultural Society of South-Carolina, at Their Sitting in Columbia (December 1, 1828)

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pp. 261-267

The highlight of Nicholas Herbemont's life was the award of the gold medal of the United Agricultural Society of South-Carolina at its 1828 annual December convocation. This special award recognized Herbemont's contributions to the improvement of agriculture in the state. The legislators of South Carolina may have revealed their lack of imagination in turning down his 1826 scheme to vitalize the Midlands of the state. The society would not evince ...

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Honesty Is the Best Policy (March 1832)

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pp. 268-274

The American Farmer attracted a great many letters, reports, and notices. Few of its many contributors composed cogently argued essays about the art and theory of agriculture. In order to stimulate such writings, editor Gideon B. Smith instituted an essay contest that would be reinstated intermittently throughout the 1830s. Herbemont, having puzzled over the inability of his state's politicians to engage seriously in the reform of the agricultural ...

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On the Moral Discipline and Treatment of Slaves (February 1836)

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pp. 275-279

In 1829 Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (not the Revolutionary founder, but the planter and lieutenant governor of South Carolina from 1832 to 1834) requested that missionaries of the Methodist Church evangelize his slaves. Under the leadership of William Capers, the Methodists began a slave mission that spread from South Carolina to neighboring states.1 A component of this mission was the dispatching of African American preachers to witness ...

Bibliographical Essay

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pp. 281-287

Bibliography of Primary Sources on Wine Making in America, 1810-1840

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pp. 289-292


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pp. 293-299

E-ISBN-13: 9780820336404
E-ISBN-10: 0820336408
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820332338
Print-ISBN-10: 082033233X

Page Count: 312
Illustrations: 4 figures
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: The Publications of the Southern Texts Society