Larding the Lean Earth Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America

Steven Stoll

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

320 Pages



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Fifty years after the Revolution, American farmers faced a crisis. The soils of the Atlantic states seemed to be failing, and some feared that the agricultural prosperity upon which the Republic was founded was threatened. Larding the Lean Earth explores the tempestuous debates that erupted between "improvers," who believed in practices that sustained and bettered the soil of existing farms, and "emigrants," who thought it was wiser and more "American" to move westward as the soil gave out.

Steven Stoll here presents original and pathbreaking research into ideas at the foundation of American conservationist thought. Drawing on dozens of journals that gave voice to the improvers' cause, he brings to life a long-neglected critical political dispute. Focusing on two groups of farmers, in Pennsylvania and South Carolina, and analyzing the similarities and differences in their agriculture, Stoll illustrates all the larger regional concerns that the 'new husbandry' faced in both free and slave states.

Farming has always been the human activity that most disrupts nature, for good or ill. The decisions these early Americans made about how to farm not only expressed their political and social faith, but also influenced American attitudes about the environment for decades to come. Larding the Lean Earth is a signal work of environmental history and an original contribution to the study of antebellum America.


Praise for Larding the Lean Earth

"Stoll possesses a comprehensive understanding of practice and idea, and he travels effortlessly between explanations of the fundamentals of soil science, fertility, tillage, and erosion and examinations of the large historical forces of the nineteenth century, guiding the reader through the depression of 1818, the Mexican War, the pressures of agriculture in a growing market economy, the introduction of marl and guano into agricultural practice, the ecology of grasses, and the brute work required by a pre-industrial farm."—Jane Brox, The American Scholar

"Larding the Lean Earth demonstrates brilliantly that topsoil and subsoil are indeed the very ground in which agriculture and other culture take root."—John Stilgoe, Harvard University

"In this marriage of agricultural and environmental history, Steven Stoll provides a fresh look at the ideology of agricultural improvement during a crucial period of our nation's development. Stoll tells an eloquent story of lost possibilities that still haunt us today."—Hal S. Barron, Harvey Mudd College and Claremont Graduate University

"Steven Stoll's brilliantly original Larding the Lean Earth unearths hidden layers of meaning behind American antebellum farm practices and the westward movement. This thoughtful and far-reaching work traces the origins of today's ecological crisis to the failure of the antebellum ethic of 'improving the soil.' Evocative and provocative, written with verve and passion and with new insights on every page, this is a book that every nineteenth-century historian will want to read."—Daniel Feller, University of New Mexico

"Nineteenth-century Americans were overwhelmingly rural, agrarian, and westwardly mobile. No wonder, then, that ordinary folks and the profoundest minds were preoccupied with dirt—with the quality, conservation, and abandonment of soils—for civilization was, after all, founded upon thriving, stable agriculture. Now we have at last a thorough and imaginative history of American soil that is scientifically and agronomically astute, politically contextualized, and often poetic of expression."—Jack Temple Kirby, Miami University

"Mr. Stoll, a Yale professor and agricultural historian, argues that much of America's early 19th-century transience was the result of poor farming practices that led to soil erosion and deforestation . . . [He] is most interesting when draws out the political implications of restorative agriculture."—Bill Kauffman, The Wall Street Journal

"A well-written, fascinating historical view of developing American agriculture that explores the relationship of farmers, soils, political thought, and social attitudes."—S. G. Shetron, Choice

"With great felicity of language and a firm grasp of forces biological and social, Stoll explicates the methods and ethic of 'improvement' as practiced by an enlightened coterie of highly successful northern farmers, then contrasts their ecologically wise approach (manure was a key factor) to the brutal and unsustainable operations of southern planters. Grounded in rarely referenced farming literature, farmers' and planters' diaries, and political records, Stoll's eye-opening and rousing chronicle of American agriculture and its industrialization explores an overlooked yet crucial facet of our past, and points the way to a more bountiful future."—Donna Seaman, Booklist

"An engaging examination of the early proponents of restorative husbandry—their origins, motivations, and how their ideas played out—from Yale historian Stoll . . . Stoll provides examples in Pennsylvania farms and South Carolina plantations, and he also looks at the moment when conservation began to turn as much on ethics as economics. An inviting and edifying introduction to the improvers, who 'offered an opposite kind of change from the blaze and shift of nineteenth-century America.'"—Kirkus Reviews

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Larding the Lean Earth

Let us boldly face the fact. Our country is nearly ruined.
--John Taylor (1819)

The times are changed; the face of the country is changed; the quality of the soil has changed; and if...

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  • Steven Stoll

  • Steven Stoll, an assistant professor of history and environmental studies at Yale University, is the author of The Fruits of Natural Advantage: Making the Industrial Countryside in California.

  • Steven Stoll Tom Stoelker