James Huston is Associate Professor of History at Oklahoma State University. This interview is based on his new book, The British Gentry, the Southern Planter, and the Northern Family Farmer: Agricultural and Sectional Antagonism in North America (LSU Press, May 2015).
JH: My motivation was twofold: first, a belief that the agricultural North had been underappreciated in the works investigating sectional conflict for the last sixty years, and, secondly, a conviction that for decades now the “free labor ideology” had been weighted more and more to industrial wage labor instead of agricultural labor. It was the attempt to understand northern agricultural labor that led me into British agricultural history, to reevaluate northern free labor ideals, to come to grips with the pervasiveness of the northern family farmer, and to confront the obvious polarity between the plantation economy and the northern family farm economy.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The British Gentry, the Southern Planter, and the Northern Family Farmer?
JH: By using British agricultural history as a standard for evaluating farm dimensions, treatment of labor, and the ideology of superiority (i.e., Burkean conservatism), I came to find the plantation of the South a fledgling duplicate of the British estate agricultural system, while the northern family farm came to be its opposite in nearly every aspect. Because the northern family farm dominated northern life–far more vital than industrialization–the sectional collision came over whose system of land use, small family farms or gigantic plantations, would extend into the West, and this question was the economic joint of conflict so obvious in northern congressional party victories after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, culminating in the creation of the Republican party.
JF: Why do we need to read The British Gentry, the Southern Planter, and the Northern Family Farmer?
JH: The book attempts a sharp correction of much that has been written about the antebellum economy and its influence on politics. To be specific: first, the plantation was squeezing out the southern yeoman farmer, and northerners realized the plantation had this effect. Second, the plantation, not an agrarian ideology, resulted in the lack of southern urban life; in the North, the small family farm made town life indispensable. Third, northern life centered about the farm and its attendant villages and small towns; nearly three-fourths of the northern states were distinctly rural. Fourth, the demands of the family farm created the free labor ideology, and social mobility was a reality for farm hands in the rural North (otherwise known as climbing the agricultural ladder). Moreover, the belief that laborers should have high wages, be able to save, and accumulate property can be seen with remarkable clarity when northern farm laborers are compared to British farm laborers. Sixth, the prevalence of the small family farm was the backbone of egalitarianism and democracy in the North; the plantation and slavery gave rise to the ideals of inequality, aristocracy, and mastery. Seventh, congressional districts can be divided into categories of farming, industrial, and those falling inbetween; when this is done, the reaction of the northern farm community to expansion of slavery outside of its settled borders due to the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, becomes unmistakable and awe-inspiring. Thus, the sectional confrontation in the late 1850s had as its basis a stark and dramatic division of the nation into small northern farmers and great southern planters; industrialization was irrelevant.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JH: History has always been one of my stronger subjects in high school and college. At Denison University, I had superior teachers who sparked my interest further and brought alive the matter of controversy over interpretations. Upon graduation in 1969, I determined to follow my instincts and attend graduate school. Since then, I have evolved my own rationale as to the importance of history: to enable people to understand the trends in which they live and why those trends existed in the first place.
JF: What is your next book project?
JH: I am finishing a work on the British-American argument about inequality and equality as the proper basis for a society. This was an outgrowth of the work I did on British and northern agriculture, partially because of the number of British travelers to the United States who investigated not only democracy, climate, flora and fauna, but who also tried to assess how well a people could live without an aristocracy, an established church, and class customs. The time frame is 1776 to 1930, and the book will continue into today’s current debates over equality and inequality (especially those of conservative economists.) Although the trend among current historians is to stress the obvious inequalities in American life, slavery and relations with Native Americans being among the most obvious, the nineteenth-century argument has distinct relevance for debates today among political philosophers, economists, and historians.
JF: Good stuff, thanks James!
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner