Thursday, July 10, 2008

“Agricultural Improvement and the Gentleman Farmer… a Noble Failure?”

In the years following the American Revolution, the planter elite of Maryland and Virginia feverishly embarked on a program to revitalize the region’s declining agricultural economy. Successive generations of tobacco, corn and wheat planting had taken its toll on the landscape. The scene was littered with abandoned mansions standing in “silence and ruin.” According to noted agricultural historian Avery Craven, the once prospering Tidewater Counties were “growing poorer… its proprietors having no hope of improvement of their lands.” In 1791, George Washington invited the noted British agriculturalist Arthur Young to survey the farming methods and conditions in northern Virginia and Maryland. Young reported that in spite of efforts made by progressive planters such as Washington, the land under such methods of cultivation was steadily declining as the average yield of wheat stood at less than a third of their British cousins across the Atlantic. Washington himself questioned as to whether such ruinous methods of cultivation even deserved to be considered a “system of agriculture.”

As the lands in older communities were exhausted, countless landowners chose to head westward in search of fresh lands rather than reinvesting to improve existing farmland. In 1790, less than ten years after the birth of Thomas Emory, the population of Queen Anne’s County stood at 15,463. By 1840, just two years before his death, the county’s population had fallen by nearly 20% to a mere 12,633. Thomas Emory inherited an estate that had been under cultivation since the seventeenth century, and was undoubtedly producing yields of grain that were a mere fraction of its former days.

In the absence of detailed farm ledgers it is impossible to judge as to whether or not Thomas Emory was able to turn the tide. However, what is certain is that Thomas Emory was at the forefront of a movement “attempting” to bring hope and restored prosperity to his native region. He belonged to an elite class of major landowners throughout the Chesapeake hoping to emulate their cousins in the English landed gentry in leading a revival of agricultural production through the use of new scientific methods. After traveling to England to witness for himself, John Beale Bordley of Wye Island adopted the “Norfolk” system of four-field crop rotations. George Washington imported gypsum to be spread on his fields at Mount Vernon, while John Taylor touted the importance of enclosing livestock to collect vast amounts of animal manure. These gentlemen farmers experimented widely with new methods and techniques, and shared their experiences with their fellow planters at county and state agricultural societies. It is known that Thomas Emory himself was among the founders of the Maryland Agricultural Society.

However, the era’s most famous and arguably most successful is Edmund Ruffin of Prince George County, Virginia who would later gain a place in history as the ardent secessionist who fired the first and last shots of the Civil War. In the years following the War of 1812, he set out with zeal to improve his estate, gaining notoriety for his intensive research and trials in the application of marl to correct the acid imbalance in the soil. His experiments earned him a 40 to 50 percent increase of crop yields. He published his findings and others in his own newspaper the Farmer’s Register, which in time surpassed even the Maryland based American Farmer in popularity. In keeping with his era, he corresponded heavily with fellow planters in the Tidewater Region to publish the newest and latest experiments in the field of soil fertility and agricultural improvement.

In the course of our own findings we have indeed stumbled upon one of those letters from Ruffin, asking Thomas Emory for any ideas and lessons learned from his own trials at Poplar Grove. I am not sure as to whether Thomas Emory indeed sent back some personal experiences of success and or failure, but I hope to find that out in the next week or so. In the age before government cooperative extension agents and land grant universities, the only way of learning new agricultural methods was through your own trial and error, or through the lessons of your fellow planters.

Did the work completed by such progressive farmers as Ruffin or Emory really amount to a success in the end though? In more ways than not it can be argued that these gentlemen planters were largely a failure. George Washington was forced to sell of a great deal of his estate to compensate for declining profits, and a local landowner some twenty years later noted that Mount Vernon was in complete agricultural ruin with run down barns and overgrown hedges. Most planters with already exhausted soil found little success in applying animal manure as Taylor suggested; while one historian noted that the greatest tragedy indeed lay in the fact that the vast majority of the middling farmers failed to give his or others teachings any notice. Furthermore, most of the smaller farms especially lacked the initial financial capital to implement many of these reforms. Ruffin himself was forced to discontinue the Farmer’s Register in the 1840’s due to financial difficulties.

With that said though, this rather small clique of gentlemen farmers for the first time in at least a generation was able to bring a breath of fresh hope to the Tidewater Region of Maryland and Virginia. Edmund Ruffin perhaps said it best that the Tidewater “as well deserves as the rich west itself to be the object of speculators, treasure hunters, and builders of castles in the air.” More importantly, the gentry recognized that education was the key to ending decline and neglect on the farm. In Virginia, Ruffin was successful in creating a state agricultural board to report farming conditions to the legislature. In Maryland, the state agricultural society was able in 1848 to get the government to fund a state agriculture chemist. Furthermore, less than a decade later they succeeded in founding a state experimental station and the world’s third agricultural college. The list of petitioners and subscribers to the Maryland Agricultural College at its founding reads like a who’s who of the landed gentry and planter elite of Maryland. The long term success of large planters such as Emory, Taylor, Ruffin, Taylor or Washington lies less in actual research completed than in creating a framework for the systematic and professional study of agricultural methods through state-funded programs and institutions.


Adam Goodheart said...

This lovely and learned debut posting by my distinguished colleague, Jeremy J. Rothwell, Gent., neglects to mention a certain detail. The "last shot of the Civil War" that Mr. Ruffin fired was into his own brain. (The first had been, of course, at Fort Sumter.)

On June 17, 1865 - two months after the surrender at Appomattox - Ruffin had a pleasant lunch with some guests at his Virginia estate, after which he went upstairs to his study, took out his silver-mounted hunting gun, propped it in a forked stick, and pulled the trigger. The last entry in his diary read as follows:

"I here declare my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule - to all political, social and business connection with the Yankees and to the Yankee race. Would that I could impress these sentiments, in their full force, on every living Southerner and bequeath them to every one yet to be born! May such sentiments be held universally in the outraged and down-trodden South, though in silence and stillness, until the now far-distant day shall arrive for just retribution for Yankee usurpation, oppression and atrocious outrages, and for deliverance and vengeance for the now ruined, subjugated and enslaved Southern States!

"...And now with my latest writing and utterance, and with what will be near my latest breath, I here repeat and would willingly proclaim my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule--to all political, social and business connections with Yankees, and the perfidious, malignant and vile Yankee race."

Sore loser, anyone?

But seriously ... in light of Jeremy's thoughtful posting, it may be worth reflecting on whether members of the old Tidewater gentry may not have had the "lost cause" idea stamped deeply on their souls decades before the Confederate defeat. As Jeremy says, fine old Virginia plantations - even Mount Vernon itself! - lay in ruins not after but before the Civil War, in the 1850s, with no marauding Yankees to blame.

Was the old Tidewater aristocracy itself a "lost cause," due to the economic decline that doomed so many plantations? Could Ruffin's suicide (echoing the despair of many of his compatriots who did not go so far as to pull the trigger) have come as much from a sense of lifelong defeat as from the recent result at Appomattox?

A brilliant book published last year by Susan Dunn, "Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison, and the Decline of Virginia," explores some of these ideas. However, she mentions Ruffin barely in passing, while he seems to me to be a pivotal - or at least dramatically illustrative - figure in the story that she is trying to tell.

Adam Goodheart said...

In further support of my theory, another passage from Ruffin's suicide note:

"I do not think that any particular prayer of mine, even for the most laudable & unobjectionable objectives (so far as I could judge,) has ever been answered."

And as if God wanted to play one last cosmic joke on the poor man, when Ruffin sat down, just after writing these words, and tried to shoot himself, the gun misfired.

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