Burke on Dean, 'An Agrarian Republic: Farming, Antislavery Politics, and Nature Parks in the Civil War Era' | H-War | H-Net
Reviewer: Eric Burke
Adam Wesley Dean. An Agrarian Republic: Farming, Antislavery Politics, and Nature Parks in the Civil War Era. Civil War America Series. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. 256 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-1991-0.
Reviewed by Eric Burke (UNC Chapel Hill)
Published on H-War (July, 2015)
Historians have long attributed the ascendance of the Republican Party during the late 1850s to its broad appeal with Northern farmers, especially in the Midwest. The political ideology of the party was weighted heavily toward lauding the benefits of the proliferation of small-plot family farming throughout the nation. Indeed, as Eric Foner has pointed out, though Republicans are often connected in historical memory to their efforts to champion industrialization during the Gilded Age, antebellum and wartime Republicans emphatically insisted that America could (and should) remain "a society of family farms and small towns, while still experiencing the benefits of industrialization," and constructed their platform and policies accordingly. Adam Wesley Dean's An Agrarian Republic: Farming, Antislavery Politics, and Nature Parks in the Civil War Era returns readers to the "fundamentally agrarian" character of antebellum and wartime Republican political ideology. Building on the work of historians like Foner, William Gienapp, and Mark Lause, Dean analyzes the rhetoric of key Republican figures in order to reconstruct the system of "beliefs, fears, values, and commitments" that comprised the party's predominant ideology, and that subsequently "spurred action" (p. 4).
Dean maintains that historians "cannot understand the complexity and nuance of the Civil War era without understanding the agrarian world that the participants lived in." The historiography of the era, he argues, slips far too often into what he senses as the prevailing "leitmotif" of nineteenth-century American history—namely, that of ever-increasing industrialization. While he admits that there is "nothing inherently wrong with such a story," he notes that it does threaten to distort our understanding of the ideas and concerns of the rural majorities of mid-nineteenth-century Americans by tempting us to "look at the industrial economy of the late 1800s and early 1900s and find past 'causes.'" By instead examining the ways in which "the physical environment—farms—in which ordinary people lived" shaped their political views, Dean suggests, historians stand a far better chance at accurately uncovering their convictions and hopes for the future (p. 186).
With this in mind, Dean argues that what troubled the agrarian Republican majorities of the North about Southern slavery at mid-century was not so much the immorality of the institution, but rather its supposed detrimental effect on otherwise bountiful Southern soil. Destructive mono-crop farming practices that rapidly exhausted soil fertility and necessitated constant westward expansion contrasted with the multigenerational diversified family farms on small plots of improved land in the North. It was bad enough that such "barbarism" was allowed to prevail throughout the South, Republicans cried, but by 1854 it threatened to spread its disease of profligate land monopolies and antidemocratic slaveholder oligarchies, degraded white labor, and precipitately exhausted soil into the "virgin" lands of the West.