Ariel RonFollow

Publication Date



A vast agricultural reform movement emerged in the northeastern countryside during the antebellum era. The massive popularity of state and county agricultural fairs, starting in the late 1840s, formed the most visible manifestation of this phenomenon, while the earlier rise of an independent agricultural press formed its essential precondition. Surprisingly, historians have paid relatively little attention either to the social determinants or to the political consequences of the agricultural reform movement. Socially, the movement was rooted in a set of economic conditions and the thick print and associational networks characteristic of what I call the “Greater Northeast.” This article thus offers a friendly corrective to the recent historiography’s overemphasis on the connections between agricultural reform and modernizing southern slaveholders. Politically, the movement had complicated effects. On the one hand, agricultural reformers pioneered a mode of nonpartisan lobbying that led directly to the creation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and to passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act, two landmarks in nineteenth-century American state formation. The story thus runs counter to the long-standing “party period” framework, which cannot account for these important policy innovations. On the other hand, and despite nonpartisanship, the movement’s dissemination of the discourse of “scientific agriculture” and natural-science education tilted the political playing field in favor of the Republican Party, thus contributing to the sectional crisis of the 1850s on the basis of rural development policy, not just free labor. This article therefore argues (1) that agricultural reform was a major social movement in mid-century America which deserves scholarly attention; (2) that it pioneered an incipient restructuring of the American state and political structure along the lines of administrative bureaucracy and interest-group politics; (3) that it nevertheless interacted in decisive ways with the party system; (4) and, finally, that it points the way toward broadening our category of social movements to include not only oppositional and moral reform movements, but what might be called state-allied or state-constructive movements.

Document Type



US history, Civil War history, agricultural history, economic history, political history, political economy, antebellum history


Political History | United States History



Journal of American History