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Edmund Ruffin

agriculturalist and secessionist

Edmund Ruffin

Edmund Ruffin was born at Evergreen Plantation in Prince George County, Virginia, on January 5, 1794. His mother, Jane Lucas Ruffin, died while he was an infant, and his father, George Ruffin, died in 1810. He spent about a year at the College of William and Mary, but was dismissed for failure to keep up with his scholastic work. In 1813, he married Susan Hutchings Travis, with whom he moved to a farm inherited from his grandfather, at Coggin's Point, along the James River in Prince George County. The couple had eleven children before Susan Ruffin died in 1846.


When Ruffin moved onto his farm he saw that the land was far less productive than it had once been. Like most other Tidewater families, the Ruffins had dedicated almost all of their farm land to tobacco, and Edmund suspected that that reliance on a single crop was what had caused the decline in productivity. Following the lead of Sir Humphry Davy's studies of agricultural chemistry, Ruffin experimented with the use of marl, an earthy deposit consisting of clay and calcium carbonate, to counter the depletion of lime. He also introduced crop rotation and fertilization. His experiments met with success, and in 1818 he presented a paper in which he explained how applications of marl reduced soil acidity. He expanded the paper into an article for American Farmer in 1821, and further expanded it into a book, An Essay on Calcarwous Manures, in 1832. Each of those publications were well received, especially since he was able to prove how yields of corn and wheat on lands fertilized, plowed, planted, rotated, and drained according to his instructions were dramatically improved.

Throughout the 1820's, 1830's, and 1840's, Ruffin wrote numerous articles and pamphlets and gave many speeches on the benefits of scientific agriculture in the South. From 1833 to 1842, Ruffin he Farmers' Register, a journal devoted to agricultural improvement. He served as Agricultural Surveyor for South Carolina in 1843, and became president of the Virginia State Agricultural Society in 1852.

In 1844, Ruffin moved moved from Coggin's Point to Marlbourne, a plantation in Hanover County, where he continued to demonstrate his agricultural expertise.


Ruffin was elected to the Virginia Senate in 1923, but resigned after serving three years of his four-year term. Although he proved to be unsuited for political office, he would come to be one of the foremost champions of states' rights, the defense of slavery, and secession.Like most prominent Virginian planters, Ruffin once held relatively moderate views. By the 1850's, however, he had come to embody Southern planters' investment in, and dependence on, slavery (his family owned more than 200 slaves). Convinced that the only way the South could protect its interests was through secession, he distributed his land to his children, freeing him from day-to-day property management, and focused on furthering the cause of Southern nationhood. In 1852, he published The Influence of Slavery; or, Its Absence, on Manners, Morals, and Intellect, followed by The Political Economy of Slavery, in 1857. In 1860, he published Anticipations of the Future, in which he predicted a Civil War won by a happy and prosperous independent South.John Brown's failed attempt at instigating a slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in October 1859, so incensed Ruffin that he vowed to witness Brown's execution. Upon learning that only military personnel would be allowed to witness Brown's hanging, he appealed to the superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute, who made a place for him among the cadets. By his own admission, the 65-year-old Ruffin looked "somewhat comical" among the "company of boyish soldiers," but he was more than happy to watch Brown die. He was also able to obtain several several of the pikes that Brown and his men had carried, and sent them to Southern governors as a visceral reminder of the purported intent of Northern abolitionists.In 1860, Ruffin visited South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina to speak on behalf of secession. In May and June of that year he lobbied his Democratic Party colleagues at their national conventions in Charleston, South Carolina, and Baltimore, Maryland, on behalf of proslavery positions; they were generally unsuccessful. The election of Abraham Lincoln as President actually pleased Ruffin and his colleagues, as it hastened the secession they sought. Ruffin was in both Florida and South Carolina when those states seceded.Present when the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, Ruffin initially continued to rally the South by traveling to battle sites, but soon felt compelled to remain behind due to declining health. He spent most of the war living at Beechwood, the Prince George County home of his son, Edmund Jr., as well as at Marlbourne, his Hanover County plantation, and at Redmoor in Amelia County. By the time General Robert E. Lee was forced to surrender, on April 9, 1865, Ruffin's properties had been overrun by Union troops, his finances were floundering, and his health was failing. He committed suicide on June 17, 1865, and was buried at Melbourne.

The Blue and Gray Trail
Encyclopeda Virginia

Sir Humphry Davy
John Brown
Abraham Lincoln
Civil War
General Robert E. Lee

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This page was last updated on June 16, 2018.