Edmund Ruffin and the Crisis of Slavery in the Old South
The Failure of Agricultural Reform

William M. Mathew


“A brilliant analysis of the relationship between soil conservation and the system of agricultural slavery . . . Indispensable for understanding the agricultural history of the southeastern states during the antebellum period.”
—John Hebron Moore, Agricultural History

“You may have thought that nothing more could possibly be said about the agricultural performance of the antebellum slave South, but Mathew has proved the contrary. . . . The study amounts to an extended critique of the geographical-determinist interpretation of southern agricultural backwardness.”
—Gavin Wright, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

“What Mathew does, in a word, is unpack Ruffin’s activities as agricultural reformer, emphasize his failures, and suggest a commitment to secession as following from these frustrations. Given his ambitions, Mathew’s erudition provides rich and necessary context for his argument. . . . [A] remarkable volume.”
—Craig Simpson, Canadian Review of American Studies

“Mathew takes on the leading scholars working in the field . . . [adding] greatly to our understanding of issues that still fascinate students of the Old South, not least those wishing to understand the workings of the southern mind.”
—Larry E. Hudson, South Carolina Historical Magazine

“Mathew has written an excellent book. It is a significant contribution to the historiography of both slavery and agricultural economics in the antebellum South.”
—Randolph B. Campbell, Social Science Quarterly

“Mathew’s clearly written book represents a major and refreshing contribution to southern agricultural history.”
—Peter A. Coclanis, Economic History Review

“Mathew has changed much. . . . His evidence about the limited extent of reform is important, both because it will prompt new research and because it is very convincing.”
—David Allmendinger, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

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In 1818, Edmund Ruffin, then a young Virginia planter, began conducting chemical and rotational experiments on his Coggin’s Point plantation on the James River. His findings became the basis for the most progressive and sophisticated reform proposals to be formulated in the slaveholding South. Tracing Ruffin’s passionate advocacy of both agricultural reform and slavery, William M. Mathew pinpoints in this book many of the contradictions that underlay the economic and social structures of the antebellum South.

Page count: 302 pp.
Trim size: 6 x 9


List price: $29.95

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William M. Mathew is a senior fellow in history at the University of East Anglia. He is the editor of a subsequent book on Ruffin, Agriculture, Geology, and Society in Antebellum South Carolina: The Private Diary of Edmund Ruffin, 1843 (Georgia). His other books include The House of Gibbs and the Peruvian Guano Monopoly.