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Developing the Country: "Scientific Agriculture" and the Roots of the Republican Party

  • Author(s): Ron, Ariel
  • Advisor(s): Einhorn, Robin L.
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation examines the emergence and political significance of the antebellum agricultural reform movement in order to investigate how economic change structured party realignment in the decade before the Civil War. It focuses attention on a critical yet almost ignored constituency of the period, northeastern farmers, showing why they would steadfastly support a Republican Party typically associated with manufacturers. Second, it uncovers the roots of one of our most powerful and enduring special interest groups--the agricultural lobby--demonstrating its powerful impact on federal policy as early as the antebellum period. It thus sheds new light on the causes of sectional conflict and on the course of American state development in the 1800s.

At midcentury the rural Northeast faced a four-fold challenge: (1) depleted soils resulting from over-cropping; (2) western competition in grains; (3) steady out-migration; and (4) increasingly virulent pest infestations. Agricultural reformers responded by arguing for a modernized "scientific agriculture" that would reinvigorate the northeastern countryside. The new farming would be intensive, sustainable, and profitable, its practitioners both market and technology savvy. In order to offset western advantage in grains, reformers urged northeastern farmers to specialize in hay, wool and perishables for nearby urban centers. In order to increase production, they urged the adoption of commercial fertilizers, rational bookkeeping practices, and other innovations.

I argue that as northeastern farmers shifted toward more capital intensive crop production for domestic markets, they forged an alliance with nascent American manufactures. Ideologically, this alliance was sustained by a vision of mutual reciprocity between town and country that promised rural modernization within a rubric of overall national growth. Practically, its substance was state aid for domestic economic development. Agricultural reformers lobbied vigorously for federal institutions such as land grant colleges and the Department of Agriculture while manufacturers demanded a protective tariff. Such claims on the federal government brought both groups into increasing conflict with southern slaveholders, who feared that any expansion in federal domestic functions portended danger for slavery. Consequently, agricultural reformers and manufacturers were drawn into the Republican Party's antislavery cause as a way to break southern power in Washington.

Based on print and manuscript sources from across the Northeast, the dissertation integrates histories of party politics, commercial agriculture, education, the environment, and science and technology, to show how rural northeasterners organized themselves in order to demand that state and national governments help them prosper in a rapidly changing economy. These demands not only influenced the immediate course of American politics toward the Civil War, but helped define long-term processes of state formation by initiating a matrix of state and federal agencies that by the early twentieth century reached into virtually every rural county in the country.

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