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Fire-eating Farmer Of The Confederacy
At Sumter Edmund Ruffin unwittingly pushed toward ruin the region whose agricultural economy he had revived
December 1957 | Volume 9, Issue 1
As his profits increased, Ruffin turned his plantation into a show place. He wisely believed that others would be more receptive, to theories seen in successful application. Despite a poor speaking voice and a painful shyness, he took every opportunity to explain his work at meetings of farmers. He talked about soil bacteria, a subject that seemed wholly implausible in his day. He began writing articles for newspapers and magazines and chicled readers for not using marl. He admitted that lime had been used in Europe for centuries, but there had been no tangible theory behind its use. Ko one before him had mentioned the harmful vegetable acids that had to be neutralized.
It would be a gross error to say that Rtiffin’s propagandizing met with early success and that he was catapulted to fame. Some old planter families considered him a meddlesome crackpot. “Ruffin’s folly,” they labeled his marl. Neighboring planters held their sides from laughter as the young upstart tried to explain his theory. When he talked about his own original method for determining how much carbonate of lime lay in any given soil, they sneered to his i’ace. And when they watched the heavy loads of books from abroad being delivered to Beechwood Mansion, they winked to each other. Ruffiii never forgave them for their derision: “Most farmers are determined not to understand anything, however simple it may be, which relates to chemistry,” he charged.
But the indifference and scorn he met only fired his determination. The days and the years passed. In 1821 the American Farmer reprinted his essay on marl. The editors called it the “first systematic attempt … to examine into the real composition of the soils.” Here was his first step forward. Farmers from far off read it. Out of curiosity many wrote him for further information. Others found reason to travel past Coggin’s Point to see for themselves.
Politics seemed a good way to push himself faster. In 1823 he won election to the Virginia Senate, and he served three years at Williamsburg with the hope of spreading his farming doctrines. But he found politics a poor springboard for what he had in mind. The frenzied national election of 1824 obliterated all local issues, and for some time to come its repercussions reaped the major share of newspaper interest. When he left politics Riiffin vowed never to have anything further to do with public olfice.
In 1833 he started his own monthly publication, the Farmers’ Register. As his guide he took the saying from Swift, ”… that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together.”
His magazine proved a whopping success. Within a year it became the farming bible from Georgia to Virginia, even though he charged five dollars a year. His was the coaxing, explaining, and counseling voice. He wrote nearly half of each 64-page issue and took up every subject of interest to farmers. He proved a reliable debunker of farming myths and inundated his readers with the latest information from agricultural scientists in this country and abroad. He weeded out all references to politics as outside the pale. Carried away by the response to his efforts, he learned “I can with pleasure write rapidly for twelve or more hours in the day or night and until it is necessary to rest my cramped right hand.”
It was not only about marl that he wrote, although the printing of his original essay, expanded into a book in 1832, brought on a great public interest in marl. He spread the gospel of crop rotation, proper plowing, the use of animal and vegetable manures, reclamation of swampland, proper drainage systems, and the economic use of slave labor. Almost all of what he offered came from personal experience and had the ring of authority. But, because he earnestly believed that farming was an entirely serious business, there was not a spark of humor in anything he wrote.
A new era in farming was beginning to arise under his guidance, and Ruffin might have spent his lifetime as an editor. But when banking reforms grew into a national issue after the Panic of 1837, he could not control his hot temper. As far as he was concerned, bankers were natural enemies of farmers. Short statements began cropping up in the Farmers’ Register about the banking class, which he vilified as a storehouse of “lying, fraud and swindling.” When some readers protested this outpouring, he launched a separate magazine, the Bank Reformer , in 1841. Here he hammered away at the prevalent banking system as a “paper-money system … to enable those who have earned or accumulated nothing by labor to exchange this nothing for the something and often the everything earned by the labor of others.”
With this new publishing enterprise, Ruffin ran headlong into the encrusted political leadership of Virginia. They found his views dangerous and moved to destroy him. First a dribble and then an avalanche of subscription cancellations came to the Farmers’ Register office. The loss of revenue forced Ruffin to abandon both publications.