Bringing Chemistry Down to Earth

Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library, CHF

In the early 1800s American chemistry found inspiration from everyday agricultural practice. Image from the Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library, CHF.

Benjamin R. Cohen. Notes from the Ground: Science, Soil and Society in the American Countryside. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009. xii + 272 pp. $55.

Historians have long recognized the significance of agricultural research in the establishment of American chemistry. In Notes from the Ground, Benjamin Cohen takes a new approach, drawing our attention away from elite European chemists and refocusing it on the Americans. They were the ones who read the Europeans’ work and reconfigured it according to their own observations of plants, trees, and soils and their own experiments with soils, manures, and crop rotations. Instead of asking how chemical knowledge reached America, Cohen wants to understand how chemistry came to be seen as a natural way of engaging with the agricultural landscape.

Notes from the Ground takes us back to the first half of the 19th century—a time when the farm landscape was central to most Americans and the subject of some of their most complex scientific debates. Cohen uses the early rise of agricultural science in the United States to focus on discussions about the nature of the soil. In doing so, he shines a light on a major chapter in the history of chemistry—when attempts to comprehend the ways that plants transform soil, water, and fertilizer into leaves and stems led chemists and farmers to tackle thorny, but crucial questions of nutrition and organic composition.

In the first part of the book Cohen examines the place of agricultural science in the early republic as a whole. He describes the rise of what he calls “georgic science.” Like the more familiar pastoral, the word georgic comes from the poetry of the classical poet Virgil. Where the pastoral lingered over the joys of leisure as experienced by the shepherd, the georgic celebrated the virtue of farm labor. Drawing on this ethic, American farmers viewed knowledge and republican virtue—truthfulness and freedom from corruption—as inextricably linked and saw both as emerging from experience with the land. Theoretical chemistry, or “book farming,” had to adapt to fit this American ideal of virtuous labor. Cohen writes that while American chemical texts of the 1830s and 1840s may have drawn on the work of chemists like Sir Humphry Davy, they were more pointedly based on local observations and experiment.

In the book’s second part Cohen shows how Americans gained concrete knowledge about their land. Focusing on the Commonwealth of Virginia, he examines first the role of county agricultural societies and individual planters, then that of the state geological survey. Here Cohen has uncovered a remarkable and little-known record of scientific activity. After laying out a system for describing the diverse colors of soil on his land, for example, the Virginia planter John Hartwell Cocke applied measured quantities of plaster, a new soil treatment, and recorded the effects. Cohen describes how over the decades Cocke shifted from a general interest in system and order toward the incorporation of formal chemical knowledge, ultimately even hiring chemists to analyze his soil according to the new agricultural chemistry. Cohen then demonstrates how Cocke fit into a broader community of like-minded agriculturists. The book also raises the issue of slavery, discussing how the new language of agricultural science was deployed by both sides of the slavery debate and rightly pointing out that slaves performed most of the work prescribed by the planter-philosophers.

By drawing our gaze down to marl, manure, and crumbling earth and by tracing the growing network of Americans who gleaned knowledge from their fields as well as from books, Cohen shows agriculture to be a central motivating force in American science, a little-examined realm of scientific practice, and a vital direction for the history of chemistry. Tracking agrarian virtue and knowledge of the soil, he finds commonalities of vision across political and social divides that often seem impassible to historians, from Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson’s conflicting visions of the nation’s future as a manufacturing or agrarian power, to the growing gulf between the North and the South.

However, by emphasizing this overall unity, his book de-emphasizes points of contention. In both Great Britain and the United States questions of agricultural development were bitterly argued. In 18th-century Scotland, for example, agricultural improvement meant the often brutal clearance of tenant farmers from land in favor of sheep and in England the enclosure of public lands for private use; in the 19th century the battle against the anti-competitive Corn Laws (which kept the price of grain high) helped drive agricultural reform. In the United States, agricultural work meant different things to tenant farmers and landlords in the North, to dirt farmers in the New West, and to planters, yeomen, and slaves in the South. Cohen concludes his book by calling for a return to the sense of connection with the land and to an understanding of the value of the practical experience embodied by the georgic sensibility. His work gives us an enduring vision of this body of agrarian knowledge. Perhaps by further examining the debates that raged across this common ground, we might come to understand better the modern debates over such issues as government subsidies, environmental degradation, and the role of migrant labor.

Emily Pawley is a postdoctoral fellow at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution. She is currently completing a book called The Balance-Sheet of Nature: Calculating the New York Farm, 1825–1860.