The Exceptional Plantation: Slavery, Agricultural Reform, and the Creation of an American Landscape

Herrington, Philip Mills, Department of History, University of Virginia
Hale, Grace, Department of History, University of Virginia
Ayers, Ed, Department of History, University of Virginia
Russell, Edmund, Department of History, University of Virginia

The Exceptional Plantation: Slavery, Agricultural Reform, and the Creation of an American Landscape By Philip Mills Herrington From the 1820s through the 1850s, the American agricultural reform movement promised solutions to the economic, environmental, and demographic problems of the United States, its popularity attributable to its emphasis on the most valued American resource: soil. Agricultural reformers promoted the bonds of national unity by emphasizing a shared sense of American agricultural heritage and purpose. But the critical eye used by reformers to evaluate agricultural landscapes, once focused on the plantation, fueled notions of the North and South as distinct, competing, and antagonistic societies. The following chapters trace growing tensions in the antebellum United States over the place of the plantation in American society. As the precepts of agricultural reform spread through the United States, Americans disagreed about whether the plantation and slavery could adapt to the self-consciously modern improvements recommended by land-use reformers. Disseminated through both agricultural and mainstream publications, the words, symbols, and images of agricultural reform provided a language that Americans used to discuss and evaluate the merits of agricultural landscapes and their broader significance in a rapidly expanding nation. Antislavery forces appropriated the language of agricultural reform to paint slave-labor plantations as barren, ugly, and unproductive. These descriptions shaped northern perceptions of southern agriculture. Meanwhile planter-reformers' emphasis on the distinctiveness of southern agriculture likewise promoted the idea that the plantation stood apart from northern farming. This dissertation argues that these forces iv marginalized the plantation in American discourse, effectively defining northern or nonslave-based production as mainstream American agriculture. This project asserts that soil, and what people did with it, mattered, physically and conceptually, in the history of the antebellum United States. "Free soil" and "slave soil" were not terms used simply as synonyms for North and South but were metaphors that grew out of Americans' understandings of working the land. Sectional conflict did not result simply from abstract ideas about free and enslaved labor but from Americans' intimate connections with real places and processes. Daily interactions with agricultural landscapes made possible the power of land-use rhetoric that reinforced notions of sectional difference and ultimately undermined efforts throughout the antebellum period to reaffirm the bonds of union.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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