Antebellum Richmond, Fall 1995, College of William and Mary

Evaluating Edmund Ruffin as an Organic Intellectual

Liz Speck

December 1995

Professor Scott Nelson

"The great evils which serve to prevent agriculture from being prosperous in Virginia, may be summed up in one word, ignorance."
Edmund Ruffin

Edmund Ruffin witnessed the continual depletion of soils and the lands of Virginia in the early nineteenth century. Ruffin once commented to the citizens of Prince George's County that, "the grade of society has been and still continues to be on decline." Virginia and its people had worn out their once valuable land. The realization was also sinking in to Virginians that their previous advantages of cheap labor, good manures, and accessibility to local seaports would no longer enable them to compete with their Northern neighbors.

The growing necessity for a change in farming methods was quite clear. Ruffin felt that there was a calling for someone who was creative and intelligent to help Virginia and the South. Convinced that he could completely reform agriculture in the South, he used all of his intellectual gifts in order to develop new ways to rejuvinate its soil. Ruffin was not content to merely reform farming methods, he also wanted to, "rejuvinate," the way Southernern politicians treated agricultural interests. This desire made him an intensely political figure. Because he wanted to be both a poltical reformer and an intellectual, he can be compared to Gramsci's organic intellectual. The ideal leader, according to Gramsci, was one who could unite his class and who could help them to understand their economic, social, and political roles in society. He was intended this intellectual to be an elitist figure, but it was his duty as a politician to connect the elite classes of society with the producing classes. Once the intellectual could connect with the lower classes, he could assume that he had obtained their consent, and he could create a government shaped around their interests. Consent and connectedness would be maintained through the participation of the lower classes in societies and through the publication of newspapers in order to inform their leaders of their opinions. Intellectuals from the lower classes would eventually evolve from these sources to further help him sustain relations with the lower classes. Ruffin had enthusiasm and a plan that he believed would allow him to make this kind of society a reality. He intended to use agricultural reform to allow Southern farmers to become productive and self-sufficient, and therefore it is possible to determine the success of Southern agricultural reform. by evaluating Ruffin as an organic intellectual.

For Ruffin to succeed as an organic intellectual he had to have a program or a necessary course of action. He experimented with various methods of improving the soil before he brought his message to the public. In 1813 he started this work on the plantation of his birth, Evergreen Farm, in Prince Gerorge's County, Virginia. Noting the poor condition of the soils Ruffin sought to improve them. He read, The Arator, by John Taylor, and he attempted to follow his methods by using animal and vegetable manures . After he found both of these manures to be unproductive, he then discovered Sir Humphrey Davy's book, Elements of Agricultural Chemistry. From this book, he dermined that, in order to be rejuvenated, the soils in Eastern Virginia needed carbonate lime manures. This process of manuring with layer upon layer of fossil shells was termed "marling." It was effective because it replenisheded the soil with nutrients and allowed it to retain its fertility. By 1832, Ruffin had discovered that calcerous earth could indeed enrich and rejuvenate the depleted soils of his farm. His first book, An Essay on Calcerous Manures, presented his program to readers and allowed them to find out for themselves what agricultural reform could do for them. He hoped that, through his newspapers and by other means, he could secure public support for his methods and then create a consensus in the government

In order to create his government of farmers, Ruffin had to reach two very different classes. In Virginia and throughout the South there were often poor, illiterate, yeoman farmers whose labor force consisted of themselves or only a few slaves, and he had to reach the planter aristocracy. Planter often had twenty or more slaves, and they were the intellectuals who read and considered various methods of farming.

The publication of his essays was the first way in which Ruffin attempted to educate farmers about his revolutionary agricultural discoveries. However, if Ruffin hoped the book would reach every farmer, he was greatly mistaken. The volume contains scientific language such as:

If any compounds of lime and vegetable acids
are present, some portion of them may be dissolved,
and appear as a carbonate lime, though not an atom
of that substance may exist and be compounded
with muriatic acid and potash of some frequency.

It would have been exceedingly difficult for a small farmer or a farmer who was not well-educated to have applied Ruffin's techniques. His book invited the cooperation of fellow intellectuals and ignored the common yeoman that the organic intellectual should have been trying to reach. Furthermore, while Ruffin took into consideration the fact that his experiments were completed on a large-scale plantation, he never attempted or examined any other methods of applying the manures.

In the developmental stages of his theories, this oversight can possibly excused. However, his next endeavor a newspaper entitled, The Farmer's Register, made the same mistakes again. This newspaper was obviously directed at those like Ruffin. His writing style in the Farmer's Register is the same as in the Essays of Calcareous Manures. Ruffin could not possibly hope to come down to the level of the uneducated farmer. The magazine was popular, but its popularity was limited to a certain class of agriculturalists which greatly limited the scope of his multi-class revolution. To be fair, Ruffin could also have intended for the planter-class to educate the small farmer in order to connect his class of planters to the yeoman to increase homogenity. He suggested those who had read and tested his methods could educate others in his newspaper by writing, "Fortunately for those have led the way in this improvement, their early progress was so slow, that they had full opportunity to observe the damage produced by marling to heavily." Ruffin further indicated his desire for the illietrate yeoman to become educated by saying, "the progress of education throughout this country furnishes the hope that we shall have more reading people."

It could be presumed that Ruffin thought it was the responsibility of others to preach the agricultural gospel on the level of the yeoman. This idea would explain the existence of, the Southern Planter the other major agricultural journal of the time. Indeed the Planter did succeed in presenting Ruffin's theories in a more understandable way. Farmers periodically wrote in to express success with marling and liming, which shows signs of Ruffin's approval from the less-educated classes. Interestingly enough, articles in the Planter encouraged the application of the same methods of farming that Ruffin himself used. One such article stated that the ideal farmer would read agricultural journals and books in order to improve their farming methods. The article also suggested that the ideal farmer would keep a diary of his findings. These may demonstrate Ruffin's status as a role model or a leader of other farmers. But there is no direct evidence that the more educated small farmers who were reading this paper actually benefitted from Ruffin's findings.

Ruffin envisioned agricultural improvement as something that would both unite farmers and that would help the yeoman and the small farmer. He envisioned an agricultural society as a place where, "Hundreds of farmers would in this name fully and freely tell of their experiences and opinions of whom possibly not one would be compelled to write them." By saying this he was probably expressing his hope that the societies would reach out to the farmers that could not read or write. Papers like the Southern Planter made every attempt to support the improvement and expansion of these societies, but again, Ruffin's societies more often than not, only included men who were exactly like him.

Though Ruffin made some mention of the yeoman, it is possible that he only meant to educate the planters, or those like him. Thus he would have exhibited the charecteristics of a truly organic intellectual, appealing only to his class. Indeed he never attempted to change his methods to accommodate the smaller farmer and he failed to effectively communicate with them or to organize them. Ruffin was never connected to the yeoman class. This separation between himself and the lower classes made it impossible for him to obtain the consent of anyone outside of the planter class.

Though Ruffin had also designed his revolution to accommodate the planter, he failed them as well when he ignored a large group that might be implementing the reforms, the laborers. If marling required slave labor, it would appear that Ruffin should have sought to have reformed the slave, or laborer, as well as the actual farmer and overseer in order to make the entire agricultural process more efficient. This was especially important since his research indicated that the process of marling required a large labor force with twenty or more slaves. It required this large labor force in order to transport the manures, to dig to put them into the soil, and to effectively maintain them. Marling also required exact measurement and assumptions about the pH of the soil in order to determine how much was needed to nourish it. Therefore, the overseers needed to be educated as to how to best manage their slaves.

In order to help planters to improve their marling, Ruffin made several attempts to gather evidence of the successful use of marl through questionnaires among his neighbors in Prince George, but statistical evidence across large regions was lacking. It appears that the public had not flooded the offices of the Register with stories of their successes, so Ruffin had to ask for them himself, "If any person in each county will take the trouble of asking for or obtaining information from a dozen individuals..." Ruffin had to visit sites in the state of Virginia to determine the success of agriculture rather than be informed of it by enthusiastic "revolutionaries."

In 1841, further statistical proof of Ruffin's failure was provided. Ten years after he had published his findings about calcerous manures he found that the use of marl was not particularly wide-spread. In a survey of Prince George's County, James City County, and Charles City County, areas where marl usage was determined to be the most abundant, his data showed that only one-third of one-eighth of the arable land had been marled. Obviously he needed more time before his methods of marling would become widely accepted and practiced.

Ruffin also had difficulty reaching the planters through agricultural journals. Despite their wide circulation, they never enjoyed the popularity of their Northern counterparts. Most of the Southern journals relied on articles from Northern and European farmers. Rarely did Southern planters write in to express their success with marl. This would indicate that Ruffin was not connected with the planters, nor did he have their consent to be a spokesperson for them or their cause.

Ruffin's lack of "connectedness" to the planter class foreshadowed his defeat as a political reformer for the planter. He helped to form the State Agricultural Board designed to help farmers and to collect data regarding the success or failure of agricultural improvements. Unfortunately, this association was continually plagued with low funding from the State Legislature. The indifference that Ruffin faced as he battled with the legislature indicates that he was far from leading any kind of political revoloution to help agriculturalists. His lack of strong support from farmers and politicians alike greatly weakened his efforts.

Ruffin and his agricultural associations also failed the planter class because they could not improve higher education for agriculturalists. Planters had long been frustrated because they saw the limited benefits of Ruffin's educational farming efforts and they felt that the only way farming in Virginia could be truly improved was through more educated farmers. The Virginia State Agricultural Society proposed the establishment and provided the funding for an agricultural professorship at the University of Virginia, yet the Virginia Legislature still voted against it. Ruffin's frustration with the assembly is ever-present in his writings. He lacked the ability to work within the system to achieve any kind of real reform that would benefit farmers.

Though Ruffin worked for the benefit of farmers, the farmers never seemed to respond to his efforts. His attack on the banks cost him his Farmer's Register and he could never rally the farmers to stand up for their political rights. Ruffin's failed to lead the South using agriculture, this failure caused him to examine other area that would increase his popularity as a political figure. He knew that all of his reforms required the use of large-scale slave labor, and obviously in the ante-bellum South any justifications for the continuance of slavery would be welcomed. It is in these stages, where Ruffin turned away from his initial goals of the organic intellectual, and attempted to popularize his own ideas that he most directly contrasted with the ideal, and compromised what little success he had achieved.

Ruffin became more organic with less intellectual substance as he began his quest for the continuation of slavery. Ruffin's scientific research had indicated to him that, to effectively marl his lands, a rather large labor force was required. Even with this knowledge he still pursued his reforms, and he never attempted to scientifically develop ways to improve the efficiency of his labor force. He instead chose to take up arguments that stated Negroes were ignorant and that they needed white masters in order to survive. By doing this he dismissed his own failure, that he could not adapt marling to farms without slaves. So all of Ruffin's arguments for slavery were neither intellectual nor scientific; rather, they were restatements of the prominent pro-slavery arguments of the times.

His lack of originality won him an audience mainly outside of Virginia, but it failed to win him respect. Papers and publishers that had requested information regarding the use of marl often required Ruffin to pay for his own slavery publications. His knowledge of the slow rate of improvement of his agricultural reforms should have led Ruffin to have shied away from joining the Confederacy. Yet he maintained that the South was growing increasingly self-sufficient. His violent anti-abolitionism may have been one of the reasons that farmers and politicians were wary of supporting his ideas in the General Asembly. The inital indifferance of Virginians to invitations to join the Confederacy showed Ruffin's renewed frustration with his own state. How could he possibly hope to lead a revolution in the South when the people who he intended to lead disagreed with him? Ruffin lost his connection with the very planters he meant to help by becoming more and more radical. His anti-intellectual defense of slavery caused him to lose respect, and it caused him to lose his stance as a leader. Though Ruffin desired to be the organic intellectual figure-head to the planters, they rejected him.

It is often said that genius is never fully appreciated until after his death, and Ruffin is no exception. His story is now added to the growing number of tragic Southerners who wanted to preserve their beloved Southern homeland. It genuinely hurt Ruffin to see the continual depletion of Virginia, and he used his intellectual gifts in an effort to develop a plan to save Southern agriculture and to protect it from its Northern competitors. His plan linked saving Southern agriculture with defining a new role for Southern agricultural interests in the government. Undoubtedly, Ruffin viewed his role in society much like Gramsci's organic intellectual. His passion for saving Southern agriculture would bind him to his fellow planters, and the practicality of his methods and ideas would allow him to obtain the admiration of the lowly yeoman farmer. He first had to proclaim his message to his followers; once they were educated, he believed that they would find such miraculous results that the word would spread. Ruffin believed that the "agricultural gospel" was proclaimed throughout the land, through newspaper and the newspapers of others, and he believed that it reached those who could not read through agricultural societies. Once they understood, he believed that their lives would be changed, and their continued success would maintain their allegiance to Ruffin. His followers would embrace his political views and he would become the great voice of the South. Ruffin had a dream, but he was also a dreamer. As an intellectual he was somewhat removed from society, and he failed to reach the planters, and he was not even able to motivate them to achieve any kind of political change. Similarly, he failed to see that his methods could never be connected with the yeoman because they could not even apply them. Ruffin had to adapt to all classes, and he did not want to. He adopted a new argument for slavery to protect his valuable research, and to hide his shortcomings, but ultimately he failed. There was no man who could save the South, and there was no saviour to the Southern cause, not even an organic intellectual.