Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 117 / Number 2
Fighting over Fencing: Agricultural Reform and Antebellum Efforts to Close the Virginia Open Range
- Drew Addison Swanson, pp. 103–139
Historians of the southern commons have treated the closure of the open range as a largely postbellum phenomenon. However, debates over ending the Virginia fence law that required farmers to protect their fields from free-ranging livestock originated several decades before the Civil War. Influential planters, such as Edmund Ruffin of Prince George County, engaged in complicated appeals to regional agricultural journals and newspapers calling for a reform of the fence law. These antebellum Virginia debates, contrary to the assumptions of scholars of the postwar period, centered around reformers' efforts to encourage agronomic improvement and modernized farming rather than more familiar issues of labor and race control or rights in private property. Reformers decried the fence law as an obstacle to intensive livestock raising, field rotation, and timber conservation. Although their efforts were largely unsuccessful, antebellum opponents of the fence law presaged the early twentieth-century closing of the common range. The language and appeals of these early efforts to change the legal relationship between private property and common lands pose challenging questions for the traditional story of the end of the southern open range.