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Redmoor Farewell: the Life and Death of Edmund Ruffin

ISSUE:  Summer 1991
Ruffin: Family and Reform in the Old South. By David F. Allmendinger, Jr. Oxford. $34.50.
The Diary of Edmund Ruffin, Vol. 3, A Dream Shattered: June, 1863—June, 1865. Edited by William Kauffman Scarborough. Louisiana. $65.

If Ken Burns’ rightly acclaimed PBS series The Civil War succeeds at nothing else, it reminds us that large events summon worthy actors. Among the cast supporting Lincoln and Douglass, Grant, Lee, and the rest was Edmund Ruffin of Virginia, whose career encircled the dominating issues of mid-19th-century Virginia—agricultural reform, sectionalism, and war. A slaveholder, self-taught scientific farmer, editor, lecturer, minor writer, and finally outspoken secessionist, Ruffin set off one of the opening guns in Charleston harbor and then, in June 1865, fired a kind of last shot of the war—he wrapped the Confederate flag about his shoulders and committed suicide at his son’s Redmoor plantation. Had Burns wished to give the Confederate cause more play, he might well have ended his film at Redmoor, where, just before Ruffin killed himself (the first try failed, so he had to replace the percussion cap and again put his toe on the trigger), he closed his diary by declaring his “unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule—to all political, social, & business connection with Yankees, & to the perfidious, malignant, & vile Yankee race.” Imagine a mournful violin playing “The Bonnie Blue Flag” to these words, the sound track closing with the blast of Ruffin’s musket.

Ruffin and his rich papers became objects of serious attention nearly 60 years ago, when historians began to treat the Civil War as something besides a foregone conclusion. In 1932 Avery Craven published a Ruffin biography that fit neatly into the “needless war” school of revisionism. This remarkable old Virginia gentleman led the state to measurable agricultural improvement in Craven’s account, but the campaign to save worn-out Tidewater lands fell by the wayside after 1850 when Ruffin, responding angrily to abolitionist attacks, joined the debate over slavery. Craven wrote that Ruffin deserved study more “as a type than as an individual,” and in taking that tack Edmund Ruffin, Southerner ultimately slighted the very subject Craven wished to reconsider. One need not care about the development of a fire-eater’s personality—the sources of his passion—if he merely represents a character type. Nor need we concern ourselves much with the roots of his ideas, their place in the large intellectual patterns of the time, or the nature of the intellectual life Ruffin led.

Historians began to move beyond Craven’s approach as the civil-rights struggle of the 1960’s and 70’s refocused attention on the fire-eaters’ archenemies, the abolitionists. Students of the antislavery movement treated it not as lunatic-fringe agitation but as serious social and moral criticism and searched for the reasons why some people were sensitive enough to embrace it. In so doing, oddly enough, they lent new force to the study of persons of unusual sensitivity in the South, as well. Ruffin somewhat benefited from this development, though not as much as one would have hoped, in Betty Mitchell’s Edmund Ruffin: A Biography (Indiana, 1981). Mitchell gave her readers far larger doses of Ruffin’s opinions than did Craven and wrote fully of Ruffin’s excitements and depressions during the late 1850’s and 1860’s. She gave us a sense of Ruffin’s appetite for newspapers. Yet her book contributed nothing to scholarly discourse except details; avoiding a conceptual framework, Mitchell composed a simple narrative and left her readers “to draw their own conclusions.”

Her circumspection may have owed something to the looming presence of Eugene D. Genovese, the Marxist disciple of Antonio Gramsci whose work—he did not hesitate to employ a conceptual framework—Mitchell acknowledged without confronting. For Genovese antebellum Southern slaveholders, in the manner of ruling classes everywhere, exercised hegemonic control in society and politics—so that the expressed thoughts of Ruffin and other proslavery apologists formed part of the determined efforts of the elite to maintain power. Genovese taught a generation of historians to employ the knowing phrase “slaveholder class,” as if it carried explanatory power. Yet he also offered a fresh explanation for the way ideology, soil exhaustion, slaveholding, and secession knitted themselves together. Genovese argued that wasteful slave agriculture called constantly for fresh lands and that because planters were “precapitalists”— patriarchs not yet enmeshed in the market economy or accepting of the money-making ethic—they failed to invest in undertakings more profitable than slavery and land. They could not imagine living without slaves.

Genovese’s interpretation gave figures like Ruffin an important function in Southern society and underscored the self-defeating nature of their crusade. Ruffin wished to reclaim Virginia land to prevent the disappearance of a way of life. And yet, given labor inefficiency, ruinous farming practices, low land prices, and poor crop yields (all in Genovese’s analysis byproducts of the slave order), Virginians could only pay for the improvements Ruffin recommended by selling off their slaves to the booming cotton- and sugar-growing regions of the Deep South—that is, by slowly letting go of slaveholding. William M. Mathew’s recent monograph, Edmund Ruffin and the Crisis of Slavery in the Old South: The Failure of Agricultural Reform (Georgia, 1988), buttresses Genovese’s large view that slavery and reform were mutually exclusive: slaveholders had scant interest in agricultural education, Mathew concludes; they preferred to divert income into display rather than invest it. Or, as someone said of young Southerners at the time, they tended to be “idle, dissipated, vicious, with pistols in their pockets and the fumes of liquor in their brains.”

David F. Allmendinger’s new work, coinciding with completion of the admirable Ruffin-diary project at the University of Southern Mississippi, marks an important and promising historiographical turn, for Allmendinger reexamines Ruffin’s work, life, and death in terms of the imperatives of kinship and one’s construction of identity in society. He begins, we can say, not with a theory about how the world works but with an idea about how people see and make their way in the world.

A social historian and student of antebellum intellectual life (his first book a study of college life in 19th-century New England), Allmendinger begins with the simple premise that Ruffin, to paraphrase Lincoln, could not escape family history. His father, paternal grandfather, and paternal great-grandfather had been only surviving sons. His grandfather Ruffin and father died within three years of one another while Edmund attended William and Mary. In 1813, at age 19, an orphan with no living kin save stepmother and half siblings, Ruffin assumed control of his grandfather’s farm and its 50 slaves at Coggin’s Point in Prince George County. He came to adulthood deeply conscious of his responsibility to preserve and nurture the family’s legacy in land and slaves, especially given the apparent uncertainty of life. His aloneness and experience in losing relatives left him, Allmendinger writes, “with that quality of solitariness he always remembered about himself.” At the same time that he and his young wife, another orphan, began to have children, the soil he inherited “was judged at last to be wasted and barren.”

The orphans might reasonably have departed for the West, as so many Tidewater families did in these years, or fallen into the romantic gloom that exercised a spell on many of those who remained behind. Instead, the young farmer for several years followed John Taylor of Caroline’s regimen of applying animal and vegetable manure to lands, fencing in livestock, and plowing deeply. Nothing changed. Then in 1815 he came across a copy of Sir Humphrey David’s Elements of Agricultural Chemistry, which had appeared in London three years earlier. Humphrey’s discussion of soil chemistry and diagram of a pneumatic soil-testing device led Ruffin to his own crude experiments and the Archimedean discovery that worn out Tidewater soils needed only calcareous manure (lime) to reduce acidity and restore their richness. As luck would have it, Lower Virginia abounded with the marl or fossil-shell deposits that one could cart—or order carted—to exhausted fields. Ruffin proved that marl doubled his corn crop, and he rushed to tell others of this simple expedient, which became part of his very being. “Henceforth,” Allmendinger notes, “Ruffin’s life course was determined not so much by material conditions of rural life in Virginia, or by forces of class, race, and economics, as by the ideas in a book.”

Disclaiming any attempt to write a biography, Allmendinger skillfully pulls apart the threads that made up Ruffin’s career and disaggregates the changes Ruffin and his writing underwent as his life progressed. In his early essays he deliberately stressed the affordability of marling, so as to ensure that reform lifted even small planters out of the depths of poverty and despair. Eventually he realized that marling required close attention to detail that not everyone had the time or inclination to pay and that large work forces helped considerably both to apply the 250—300 bushels of lime he recommended per acre and to handle the increased yields. His own operations expanded, making him increasingly the absentee landholder he detested in principle. He was forced to enlarge his slave force, yet he thought himself a bad master and “hated supervising slaves, particularly under a system that demanded bureaucratic, almost industrial methods.” The agricultural reformer did not like farming, did not train his sons to be planters, and moved out of the country to Petersburg in 1835. As editor of the Farmer’s Register, Ruffin accepted the fact that it was mostly the literate elite who could avail themselves of his magazine and theories. His trips through Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina left him vague, perhaps defensively so, about the extent of reform and increasingly angry at the apathy, the “ecological fatalism” of Tidewater farmers. When in 1842 he returned to country living—purchasing Marlbourne northeast of Richmond—he did so to create an institution that he had failed to establish with the Register. He organized his family financially so that plantation proceeds supported his children equally and himself in the comfort necessary to reflection, writing, and speaking.

The writing and speaking that Ruffin did over the next 15 years principally focused on slavery and Southern rights, and here again Allmendinger believes that the reason lay with Ruffin’s family situation. Nine of his 11 children survived to early adulthood, the family experiencing a sort of Malthusian revolution. In 1820 he had nine living relatives (counting siblings, nieces and nephews, and his own children); in 1850, counting grandchildren, that figure stood at 40. Planning for the future of the family became Ruffin’s ruling principle. The number of family members available to supervise the farms having climbed, Ruffin fell back on the belief that the best farm interposed no layer between owners and slaves. At Marlbourne he insisted on the direct oversight of the slave force and, significantly, he invested his income not in more land and slaves—as would a precapitalist seigneur—but in stocks and bonds. Meantime the family’s slave force (Ruffin had been unable to find a suitable buyer for his slaves when earlier he moved to town) served him surpassingly well in restoring the fertility of Marlbourne. Their discipline and long hours permitted the family to reclaim marsh lands and marl hundreds of acres. Never before wedded to slavery, argues Allmendinger, and never in these days sentimental about it, Ruffin in the 1850’s grew into a staunch defender of the peculiar institution because he could envision neither family security nor Southern reform without it. “It was not for the sake of mastering others or restoring a feudal world that Ruffin took up the cause of slavery, secession, and war,” Allmendinger writes. “A man of the nineteenth century, he did it for family and reform.”

Rising early in the morning, repairing to his study after breakfast for regular stints of reading, writing, revising; struggling for every page, working “as hard as any Yankee,” Ruffin in Allmendinger’s account led as respectable an intellectual life as anyone in America at the time. Most writers in fact had no choice but to work at home, often in the country, as the cases of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Grimké sisters, Thoreau, Emerson, and Hawthorne demonstrated in other settings. Ruffin’s family thus supplied him a sort of “institutional” support. His family library approached two thousand titles; family income provided him funds for travel. He wrote further essays on agricultural reform and rewrote others, started writing his memoirs, petitioned the Virginia General Assembly, and updated an attack on African colonization. In 1856, Ruffin began to keep the diary that became one of the illustrious personal records of the period from the Southern side.

Allmendinger has abundant evidence that without Ruffin’s family he could not have pursued the literary-reform career that consumed him. And yet the returns a family could not provide—an audience, a readership—finally befouled the countryman’s ambitions. The principal publishers were in the North and interested only in material that sold. Southern peridicals broke into the open and then withered for lack of subscribers. While some of Ruffin’s pamphlets circulated quite widely for the time, no regular or faithful readership emerged. Ten years after the fifth edition of his Essay on Calcareous Manures appeared in 1852, a total of twenty copies had sold. For the energy and bitterness Ruffin took to the secession crusade Allmendinger has an explanation that once more challenges old interpretations. Ruffin had reached the point where he spoke only to himself, and “as he grew less concerned about reaching beyond a few hundred men, he became reckless.” He preached secession because here, at last, he found an appreciative audience.

A solitary figure in Allmendinger’s view, a man who lived alone or alone with his family, Ruffin cultivated a sense of self-control and invested heavily in the belief that he could successfully control nature. Born elsewhere, he might have been a railroad builder. In fact, again unlike a precapitalist patriarch, he tried to fit his sons for engineering and business. The almost superhuman efforts he planned and supervised to reclaim farm land—hundreds of feet of drainage ditch and tons of marl each year at Marlbourne—testified to the strength of his faith that nature could and must be controlled. Imagine his anxiety about growing old and dependent. Between 1846 and 1862 seven of the eight women most closely related to Ruffin died—among them his wife, five daughters, and a favorite daughter-in-law—and all of them endured lengthy illnesses that left them helpless. “May God protect me, even if early death be the means, from my living through an old age of great infirmity of body & imbecility of mind!” Ruffin wrote in a telling passage. As his body grew old and the war he had urged upon Virginia proceeded to its disastrous end, Ruffin’s diary recorded what its editor, William Kaufman Scarborough, properly calls the shattering of a dream. Union soldiers came upon the Ruffin home and destroyed not only the books that were so precious to him but also his collection of fossil shells—the stuff of his intellectual life.

Ruffin was despondent after Lee’s surrender, but more importantly, in Allmendinger’s interpretation, his work had ended, and his family’s power had been broken. He fell back on the solution his godfather, Thomas Cocke, had taken to the problem of control over one’s own ultimate destiny. Allmendinger opens his book with the 1840 episode—Cocke’s admission, after an apoplectic attack, that he had grown tired of bodily feebleness and general suffering. “I cannot bear it—& will not bear it,” Cocke had declared. He had taken a gun, extra percussion caps, and even a razor into the woods and propped himself against a tree.

Historians will continue to debate the reasons why agricultural reform failed in 19th-century Virginia and the relationship between consciousness and class. Meanwhile David F. Allmendinger, capably examining the rise and fall of Cocke’s godson, has given us a model study of the family in the antebellum period, of attempts to lead the intellectual life in the Old South, and of the sense of selfhood, especially the meaning of independence, which developed among males in a slaveholding society.


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