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Slavery and American Agricultural History

Gavin Wright
Agricultural History
Vol. 77, No. 4 (Autumn, 2003), pp. 527-552
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3744933
Page Count: 27
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Slavery and American Agricultural History
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Abstract

This essay considers the role of slavery in American agricultural history by examining the impact of political decisions during the period when the boundary between free and slave states was not yet settled. This boundary was not dictated by geographic imperatives. In Kentucky, an early "beach-head" in the bluegrass district allowed slavery to become firmly entrenched, even in a state where the majority of farmers held no slaves. On the other hand, slavery was vigorously debated in all of the Northwest Territories--losing a close vote in Illinois as late as 1824. The essay argues that American agricultural history would have been very different had these votes tipped the other way. Evidence from three outlying slave regions--the Kentucky bluegrass, Missouri's "Little Dixie," and the wheat belt of Virginia--shows that slavery could adapt readily to crops and regions commonly considered ideal for family farms, so long as land values were sufficiently high. Drawing on census samples collected by James Irwin, the essay argues that the peculiar affinity between slavery and wheat-growing in Virginia can best be explained by property rights. Specifically, control over a captive labor force allowed slaveowners to expand wheat acreage without fear of the harvest peak.

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