An agrarian republic : how conflict over land use shaped the Civil War and Reconstruction

Dean, Adam Wesley, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Gallagher, Gary, Department of History, University of Virginia
Holt, Michael, Department of History, University of Virginia
McMillen, Christian, Department of History, University of Virginia
Russell, Edmund P., Department of History, University of Virginia

From 1848 to the end of Reconstruction, ideas about the influence of land use on social structure shaped politics in the United States. Widespread concern over Union, proper cultivation, and civilization showcase the agrarian outlook of northern society in the mid-19th-century.

Chapters one and two focus on how the Free Soil & Republican parties defined the slave South as different from the rest of America despite sharing a common religion, history, and language. Beginning in the 1850s, many Americans defined civilization as a society allowing for material abundance and intellectual growth. Anti-slavery activists labeled slavery as an impediment to civilization because the institution restricted land ownership, denied access to education, and allowed barbaric habits to thrive. Slavery also threatened the perpetual Union. Republicans worried that slavery extension would prevent distant territories from joining the United States and allow aristocrats worldwide to mock American democracy. Finally, while a few historians have thought of the Civil War as a clash between the "agrarian" South and the "industrial" North, the majority of people living in free states resided on farms. Northern farmers believed that slave plantations exhausted the soil, creating an insatiable thirst for new land to exploit. Republicans promised them that the government would not allow slavery's wasteful hands to touch new territories in the West. This information allows historians to better understand why people in the 1850s opposed slavery's extension.

Chapter three shows how these ideas led to the formation of Union nationalism during the Civil War. With the exception of works by Melinda Lawson and T. Michael Parrish, wartime northern nationalism has received little attention from Civil War scholars. Belief in a perpetual Union prompted aggressive efforts to bind the pacific West to America. A desire to promote agricultural permanence and civilization led Republican politicians to pass the Land Grant College Act, the Homestead Act, the Pacific Railroad Act, and create the United States Department of Agriculture. Finally, northerners who joined the U.S. Army in 1861 carried their antebellum impressions of the South with them, writing that the region appeared uncivilized and its lands poorly cultivated.
Chapter four examines the role of ideas about civilization and Union in the creation of Yosemite State Park in 1864 and Yellowstone National Park in 1872. Making areas of scenic beauty accessible to everyone highlighted the value of republican government. Everyone, not just the wealthy and powerful, needed to experience "sublime" scenery. Park supporters also argued that nature advanced the mind-making visitors more civilized. This chapter provides a new explanation of why the United States government created public nature parks.

Chapter five argues that during Reconstruction, ideas about civilization, Union, and land use influenced Republican plans to change the South and American West. This section incorporates the history of the American West into Reconstruction. Republican perceptions of the South and West as deficient in civilization, proper land use, and commitment to the Union formed the basis of Reconstruction policy for both regions.  

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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