Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Burned-Over District vs. The Passed-Over District

In Jacksonian Antislavery and the Politics of Free Soil, 1824-1854 – which I’m enjoying tremendously – Jonathan H. Earle makes clear that the active Free Soil counties in New York State were very different, physically and economically, from the Whig-oriented counties of the Burned-Over District:
[T]he remote, agricultural New York communities that became bulwarks of Free Soil . . . barely resembled the middle-class, evangelical, and Whig locales of the famed Burned-Over District covering the western parts of the state. Many of them, in fact, were isolated and economically stagnant – more passed-over than burned-over.

. . . Each of [the Free Soil] counties was rugged, densely wooded, and among the last be settled in the state. Shallow, acidic soil made traditional staple agriculture difficult . . .. As the crow flies, some of these communities were quite close to the bustling Erie Canal, but the famed “artificial river” might as well have been a thousand miles away. In fact, its completion in 1825 actually made matters worse for farmers removed from the canal district.

The map at the top of this post is adapted from one at page 170 of Professor Earle’s book. The Burned-Over District is shown in yellow; the Passed-Over Counties, which registered a majority or plurality for the Free Soil Party in 1848, are shown in red. The only county that falls into both camps, Wayne County, appears in gray. Although I have not drawn it in, the Erie Canal begins north of Buffalo and proceeds generally east through the northern tier of Burned-Over counties, then across the south-eastern edge of Oswego County, then across the lower portions of Oneida and Herkimer Counties, and thence on the Hudson River.

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