Edmund Ruffin

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Edmund Ruffin (1794-1865), was a leading farmer and secessionist from Virginia. His studies and essays on scientific farming led to reclaiming of impoverished land in state that had been damaged by growing tobacco. A fire-eater, he stumped across the South in the 1850s to promote secession. At Charleston in 1861 he watched with joy as the first shot was fired against Fort Sumter (he did not fire it himself, contrary to legend.) Convinced the South was invincible, he committed suicide after Lee surrendered.

Farm reform

In 1813, when 19-year old Ruffin inherited Coggin's Point Farm in Prince George County, Virginia, the novice farmer faced barren land and fatalist neighbors already defeated by an ecological crisis: population was up, but crop production was declining precipitously. Ruffin tried without success traditional fertilization methods, but in 1817 he found the solution to his troubles: "marling," or introducing lime-rich calcified shells into the soil. Ruffin's treatise on the practice, An Essay on Calcareous Manures, earned him national fame. Development of his theories was assisted by skeptical dialogues with Ruffin's long-time friend, Thomas Cooke, whose final acceptance of the theories in 1840 confirms Ruffin's impact on antebellum tidewater cultivation. Nevertheless, Ruffin feared his methods were too costly, especially in terms of slave power, to be employed by all classes of farmer. His essays were widely read but seldom heeded by a planter class that solved the crisis of declining soil fertility by expanding west to new lands.

Further reading

  • Allmendinger, David F. Ruffin: Family and Reform in the Old South (1990)
  • Mathew, William M. Edmund Ruffin and the Crisis of Slavery in the Old South: The Failure of Agricultural Reform (1988).
  • Mitchell, Betty L. Edmund Ruffin: A Biography. (1981). 306 pp.

Primary sources

  • Ruffin, Edmund. Agriculture, Geology, and Society in Antebellum South Carolina: The Private Diary of Edmund Ruffin, 1843. ed. by William M. Mathew, (1992). 368 pp.
  • Ruffin, Edmund. Incidents in My Life: Edmund Ruffin's Autobiographical Essays. ed. by David F. Allmendinger, Jr. (1990). 274 pp.

See also