As the sesquicentennial of the Civil War approaches, I find myself revisiting great American historians, most recently Avery Odelle Craven. The Organization of American Historians annually awards a prize in his name to the best original work on the Civil War and Reconstruction: the Avery O. Craven Prize.
Yet Craven is perhaps best known for his short but landmark study “Soil Exhaustion as a Factor in the Agricultural History of Virginia and Maryland, 1606-1860.” Originally published in 1926, the book has been recently reissued as part of the University of South Carolina’s “Southern Classics Series.”
Soil exhaustion in the once fertile lands of the Virginia Tidewater and Piedmont was a familiar story: the nutrient-depleting nature of single crops; plowing methods leading to the formation of shallow hard pan; heavy rains washing away unprotected soil. And the farmers couldn’t plead ignorance; they often knew exactly what they were doing.
“The American planters and farmers . . . are the greatest sloven in Christendom,” Craven quotes from one 1775 account, “Their eyes are fixed upon the present gain . . . blind to futurity.”
The question is why, if people were clearly aware of the abusive character of their relationship with nature, did their ruinous decision-making continue? Even the “best and the brightest” of their day, including American presidents, neglected the long-term consequences of their farming methods.
To answer this question, Craven turned on its head the “frontier thesis” of his Harvard mentor Frederick Jackson Turner. The uniquely America national character, Turner famously posited, was forged by the always beckoning western frontier: ingenuity, rugged individualism, entrepreneurial dreams.
All true, said Craven, but also frontiersmen, “like those who come to sudden wealth, are inclined to be spendthrifts.” Seemingly unlimited resources, in short, encourage people to leverage what they have into short-term profit at the expense of long-term waste and indebtedness.
To borrow the signature rhetorical flourish of perhaps today’s most popular talk show host, I’m not saying that any of this history lesson bears any relevance to today’s issues like the exhaustion of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, overfishing in the oceans or ever-rising sea levels in those same oceans. I’m just saying . . . .