Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Civil War and the End of Agrarian America

Yankee Farmers in Enoch Wood Perry's Talking it over. A glimpse of the old northern agrarian culture that once was.  (Original at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) . 

READER NOTE: Sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good (or at least the mediocre!). I wrote this back in July, and never published it for lack of editing. My blog is full of these essays in draft, so I am going to try to dust some off. 

“During the Civil War, the upheaval of American society resulted in much ugliness and some deterioration of taste. Before that time, agriculture and the preservation of tradition were a cherished part of the good life, but from then on the philosophy of ‘change for the sake of change’ became the dominant force in American thinking.”

Eric Sloane

The Southern Agrarian writers tend to focus the Civil War as a battle between an industrial north and an agrarian south.  Modernist historians frame the war in moralistic tones- “a new birth of freedom”.   

We forget that before 1860, the Old Republic was made up of a myriad of local cultures, many of which were in conflict with each other:

  • The Southeastern planter class, who imitated the English aristocracy and hid their monoculture commercial agriculture behind an agrarian façade
  • The North’s urban commercial classes (precursor to modern urban America),who fought for cheap labor through open borders, government public works projects,  and to preserve tariffs against free trade southerners. 
  • The schoolmarm moralists of Greater New England (Precursor to modernist nanny state types), This culture settled a band from Northern Ohio to the upper Midwest and for whom the real evil of Slavery was also mixed with a number of other reforms, including eradicating "demon rum."    
  • The old hardscrabble Yankee farmers, the cultural descendents of the men who fought on Lexington Green.
  • Appalachian subsistence farmers who detested the lowland planters and were sometimes  staunch unionists in places like East Tennessee.
  • The greater Pennsylvania German culture area, which stretched from Eastern Pennsylvania, down through the Shenandoah Valley into North Carolina, and westward into the Ohio Valley. This culture was built on a three legged stool of Christianity,  Family Farming, and the "Dutch" Language.   
  • One of the big sectional divides before the Civil war was west versus east, with an emerging Midwest grain belt.
 When most American s read about the war today, they read through a nationalistic, modernistic eye (and also with more romanticism than they should).  Our movies tend to make cartoon characters out of historical figures as well. We want bad and good, forgetting we are all a mix of both. 

While the “North” ostensibly won, the old rural Jeffersonian North was as great a loser as the South. Many small communities lost so many men that they could no longer maintain their pre-war agrarian economy. Community cohesion was destroyed. Men who did survive were too changed to return to the life they knew in 1859. The urban commercial elites amassed more power  and wealth through wartime government contracts, and the power of the old rural Jeffersonian Democratic Yankees was forever broken.  Pennsylvania German culture survived until A pietistic schoolmarm president named Woodrow Wilson entered World War I. He demonized families including some of mine as un-American, despite the fact they had been farming, drinking hard cider, and praying in German in Pennsylvania since the 1730's.

War is a  great enemy of agrarian society.


Herrick Kimball said...

This is an excellent, insightful, thought-provoking, blog post!

Anonymous said...

regarding the picture:, it looks like the fella on the left is sitting on a cross-buck turned on it's side. And is that rakes in the barrel?


The Midland Agrarian said...


Looks like two hay rakes and an old time wooden hay fork in the barrel.

Res Ipsa said...

Regarding the South, something often missed about the decline of Agrarianism after the Civil War is that post Civil War the large planter class worked to deprive the Yeomanry of use of the common woods, which the Yeoman didn't own, but used and needed for grazing livestock and for hunting. In some parts of the South the struggle over the commons nearly became violent. So, while Southerners rarely think of it in that way, the yeomanry was hurt the most by their fellow Southerns, which should give us a classic example of entitled wealth impelling small business really.