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Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America

by Steven Stoll

Pub Date: July 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-8090-6431-6
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

An engaging examination of the early proponents of restorative husbandry—their origins, motivations, and how their ideas played out—from Yale historian Stoll.

By the 1820s, agricultural soil in the US was showing signs of desperate wear, even exhaustion. To counter this situation, a movement grew, most noticeably in the northern states, to return health to the soil, headed by a group who came to be known as “improvers.” Proto-environmentalists, they called for a restorative husbandry with manure anchoring the nutrient cycle in a delicate system of return that held the promise of a steady state for farming. Stoll explains, in a pleasingly conversational style, that the improvers had politics and money on their minds more than an environmental ethic; renewed soil meant a stable population, which was important for representation in Washington: it spoke of economic independence with commercial opportunity and was seen as a rearguard process to slow the process of state formation. While it worked for the yeoman farmer of the Northeast—where small holdings and a varied farming agenda were at work—it held little prospect for the plantation owner in the South, whose scale was too large for such intensive treatment, while the frontier provided a rationale for wasteful farming practices. But improvers also possessed an important notion (if less ballyhooed than Manifest Destiny) that small is beautiful (“a stake in state and neighborhood, a sentiment for land well established and passed down”). Stoll provides examples in Pennsylvania farms and South Carolina plantations, and he also looks at the moment when conservation began to turn as much on ethics as economics.

An inviting and edifying introduction to the improvers, who “offered an opposite kind of change from the blaze and shift of nineteenth-century America.”