Watson on Ron, 'Grassroots Leviathan: Agricultural Reform and the Rural North in the Slaveholding Republic'

Ariel Ron
Andrew Watson

Ariel Ron. Grassroots Leviathan: Agricultural Reform and the Rural North in the Slaveholding Republic. Studies in Early American Economy and Society from the Library Company of Philadelphia Series. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020. Illustrations, maps. xiii + 308 pp. $59.95 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-4214-3933-4; $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4214-3932-7.

Reviewed by Andrew Watson (University of Saskatchewan) Published on H-Environment (January, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57193

Most people would agree that agriculture has been an important influence on American history. The self-reliant farmer whose individual rights and freedoms became synonymous with minimal state involvement in citizens’ lives occupies a prominent place in the national imagination. Yet, as Ariel Ron persuasively demonstrates in his award-winning book, Grassroots Leviathan: Agricultural Reform and the Rural North in the Slaveholding Republic, this image, and the ethos it reflects, has contributed to a false impression of the place of the government in the lives of the American people, a dismissal of the central role that farmers played in helping to construct defining features of modern government in the United States, and a significant misunderstanding of the most pivotal period of the country’s history. According to Ron, reform-minded farmers in the northern states embraced notions of economic growth and national progress based on scientific and technological development. Over time, the agricultural reform movement, which Ron terms a “grassroots leviathan,” recognized that only federal government support and institutions could ensure their aims. The result was the emergence of an increasingly prominent role for the federal government at the same time as southern states perceived a powerful centralized government as a threat to its slave-labor plantation economy. Southern land (and slave) owners hid behind the rhetoric of constitutional strict construction and states’ rights to resist the rise of a federal government that northern farmers insisted was essential for the future of the nation. The Civil War ensued when these sectional perspectives on the place of centralized government could not be reconciled.

This is a complex history, worked into a contested set of historiographical debates. Ron executes this by carefully building in layers of his argument to illustrate how the identity and ideology of northern farmers became embedded in a wider political economy, which insisted that the best interests of the nation relied on notions of scientifically improved and technologically modern agriculture. The book is split into four parts, each with two chapters. In the first part, Ron outlines the emergence of a reform movement in the journals, associations, and county fairs that brought farmers together and provided venues through which they communicated their reform ideas and agenda. The second part reveals how broader economic changes informed new arguments about the relationship between rural livelihoods, industrialization in urban places, and home markets. To accomplish the changes to farming required to satisfy home market ideology, as explained in part 3, agricultural reformers pushed for greater government support and became aligned with the Republican Party. In the final section, Ron connects the rise of the Republican Party and its support for federal institutions demanded by the agricultural reform movement together with the sectional strife that characterized southern animosity to any threat, perceived or real, to the slavey plantation economy.

Ron is equally comfortable with the details of agricultural science, rural society and culture, and antebellum national politics in the United States. The result is a deftness for recognizing why agricultural reformers shaped American politics and how scientific and technological knowledge informed reform ideas among farmers. Not only does Ron present a broad context within which to evaluate the role of northern agricultural reformers that supports a novel approach to studying the tensions of sectionalist politics during the mid-nineteenth century, but he also employs a firm grasp of the hard sciences, together with an array of evidence for how farmers used notions of modernity and scientific progress, to explain why these developments built on, and exacerbated, existing disagreements over the nature and future of the nation, particularly as it related to slavery.

What makes Ron’s ambitious argument possible is his exhaustive research of “agricultural journals and reports, individual farmers’ diaries and account books, and agricultural organizations’ internal records, often found in obscure archival collections at county historical societies and town libraries.” As Ron himself states, “One could spend a lifetime working through this record” (p. 14). Such painstaking analysis enabled Ron to uncover the discourse of the agricultural reformers, the social networks within which those reformers operated, and the wider constellations of economic and political debates that shaped mid-nineteenth-century American society in the northern states.

The strongest parts of the book are the first six chapters, which explain the emergence of the reform movement in the North, the political economy it negotiated to exercise political influence, and the eventual rise of government support and institutions that culminated in the 1862 Morrill Land-Grant Act, which established land grant colleges and the United States Department of Agriculture. But Ron then extends his argument to make the case that the Civil War was a consequence, in part, of the reform efforts of northern farmers, which southern plantation owners perceived as an existential threat to slavery, and, therefore, their economic well-being. Ron crafts a two-pronged argument to explain why the efforts of the agricultural reform movement inflamed sectional divisions between the North and the South, contributing to the Civil War. The first prong is the embrace of science, technology, and progress, which northern farmers understood would improve agriculture and their economic well-being, but which southern plantation owners rejected because it challenged the status quo of export-based, slave-labor planation agriculture. The second prong is the role of the federal government in pursuing a department of agriculture and land grant colleges, which northern farmers demanded because they lent legitimacy and consistency to the project of progress through science and technology, but which southern plantation owners opposed because they represented federal oversight that threatened slavery. Ron does an excellent job of demonstrating the connection between the two prongs from the perspective of the northern agricultural reform movement but is lighter on evidence that would help convince the reader why this issue in particular generated such animosity from southern plantation owners. The reader is left to largely accept that the reason the South adopted such an intense secessionist stance was, in large measure, because of the agricultural reform movement. Certainly it is clear that the South became upset with the Republican government of the North. And Ron shows that the Republican Party was influenced by the agricultural reform movement. But it is not clear that the reason the South became antagonistic toward the Republican government was because of the demands of, and changes brought about by, the agricultural reform movement. A bit more evidence would be useful to illustrate to the reader to what extent scientific methods, and a federal agency to advocate for them, were key factors in convincing the South that the North was intent on ending slavery.

Grassroots Leviathan makes an important historiographical intervention in our understanding of the antebellum and Civil War era. Slavery looms throughout the book. As Ron says, “What mattered was where slavery was,” because “it was the sectional divergence” (p. 191). Ron’s framework is not only that race is the most important lens through which to understand the history of the United States but also that it is the most important lens through which to understand why agriculture had such an important impact on antebellum politics. The most important political divisions among farmers in the US was between those whose livelihoods were dependent on slavery and those who sought to advance agriculture through science and technology. Ron wants the reader to understand that there was nothing inherently sectional about science, technology, and progress, or the federal institutions created to promote them. It was only when placed within the context of Republican politics and slavery that these forces can be understood as contributing to the Civil War.

Citation: Andrew Watson. Review of Ron, Ariel, Grassroots Leviathan: Agricultural Reform and the Rural North in the Slaveholding Republic. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. January, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57193

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