05 January 2013

Economic life in colonial America

An extended excerpt from Stephen E. Ambrose's Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West:

“Such constant expansion was critical, because the Virginia plantation of the day was incredibly wasteful. The low ground or inferior bottomland was planted to corn, to provide food for slaves and animals. Fertile land identified by hardwood growth was saved for tobacco. The planters had their slaves gird large trees and leave the trees to die while plowing lightly around them. Slaves created hills for tobacco with a hoe, without bothering to remove the trees. After three annual crops of tobacco, these "fields" grew wheat for a year or so before being abandoned and allowed to revert to pine forest. The planters let their stock roam wild, made no use of animal manure, and practiced onLy the most rudimentary crop rotation. Meanwhile, the planters moved their slaves to virgin lands and repeated the process. The system allowed the planters to use to the maximum the two things in which they were really rich, land and slaves. Tobacco, their only cash crop, was dependent on an all-but- unlimited quantity of each...

Tobacco wore out land so fast there could never be enough, but tobacco never broughr in enough money to allow planters to get ahead. Their speculation in land was done on credit and promises and warrants, not cash, so they were always land rich and cash-poor. Small wonder Jefferson was obsessed with securing an empire for the United States.

Tobacco culture represented an all-out assault on the environment for the sake of a crop that did no good and much harm to people's health as well as to the land, not to mention the political and moral effects of relying on slavery for a labor force. But to Virginia's planters, even to so inventive a man as Jefferson, there appeared to be no alterative. In fact, an alternative existed right under their noses.

German immigrants, farming in the Shenandoah Valley, had a much different relationship with the land from that of the planters of English stock. The Germans had not received huge grants of land from the English king or the royal governor; they had bought their land, in relatively small holdings. Coming from a country with a tradition of keeping the farm in the same family for generations, even centuries, they were in it for the long haul, not for quick profit. They cleared their fields of all trees and stumps, plowed deep to arrest erosion, housed their cattle in great barns, used manure as fertilizer, and practiced a precise scheme of crop rotation. They worked with their own hands, and their help came trom their sons and relatives. No overseer, indentured servant, or slave -- men with little interest in the precious undertaking of making a family farm -- was allowed near their fields.” (pp. 32-33)


  1. I think that still, today, there's a general feeling in the North of efficiency, and a certain laissez faire, slightly more wasteful way of doing things in the South. (Which is not to say I dislike the South! Sometimes it's nice to relax a bit.)

  2. We've seen it time and time again through history -- soil mismanagement through poor agricultural practices spells problems for a civilization.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...