"Whether to the haven or the maelstrom?": The rise and development of agrarian reform doctrine in antebellum America

John Charles Savagian, Marquette University


The antebellum agrarian reform movement (1815-1860) was a pro-active adjustment by farmers to the emerging capitalist market system. Hundreds of agricultural societies were organized along the Eastern seaboard in the first decade following the War of 1812. The scope of reform was far-reaching and systematic, as agrarian leaders sought to refashion all aspects of American society. This dissertation examines three critical aspects of the reform movement: one, the ideology of agrarian fundamentalism which gave intellectual tenor to the movement; two, the emphasis on harmony with nature that sought to reestablished an agrarian respect for and commitment to the land; and three, the restoration of the rural community through agricultural societies and their sponsorship of agricultural fairs and other events. The majority of evidence used to construct this dissertation comes from agricultural journals, agricultural addresses, society minutes, and correspondence between agrarian reformers. This dissertation's contribution to history is twofold. First, it amends the historiographical record to include agrarian reform as part of the antebellum reform era. The movement was as much a social phenomenon of lasting national impact as it was a technical and scientific one, and should be included in analysis of traditional reform movements such as abolition, women's suffrage, and temperance. Second, the study reveals an agrarian land ethic, described here as conservationist in nature and at odds with the prevailing attitudes toward the land, that was articulated by a geographically diverse cadre of agrarian leaders. By examining the emerging conservationist tendencies of the agrarian reform movement, our understanding of the era's intellectual critique of the marketplace's appropriation of nature, heretofore almost the exclusive domain of the transcendentalists, is enhanced.

Recommended Citation

Savagian, John Charles, ""Whether to the haven or the maelstrom?": The rise and development of agrarian reform doctrine in antebellum America" (1998). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9901737.