Sunday, October 30, 2011

Founding Farmers

Thomas Jefferson considered himself a farmer by profession.  He was continually searching for more progressive ways to work his plantations at Monticello. Jefferson diligently recorded notes about the varieties of vegetables and fruits he experimented with and planted, sowing locations, harvest dates, and weather conditions.  He was always interested in new seed varieties, and soil conservation was a particular passion. Jefferson was zealous about the need for farmers to share innovative ideas, improved crops, and new machinery. He invented a more efficient plow but never patented his design so that other farmers could freely benefit from the idea. 

John Adams’ father was a modest but successful farmer.  When John was young his parents began to worry that he was wasting his gifted intellect. His father asked him at age ten, "What would you do, child?" John answered back, "Be a farmer." The next day John's father took the boy to fields and worked him as hard as any adult. The night after young John came back tired, sore, and covered in dirt, his father asked John, "Well, John, are you satisfied with being a farmer?" His father, hoping he had taught his son a valuable lesson, was surprised by the answer. "I like it very well, Sir."  Although he eventually went on to become a lawyer, John and his wife Abigail cultivated 40 acres of cropland and orchards at their own home and farm, Peacefield, near Boston.

George Washington grew wheat and corn at Mount Vernon, but struggled with the region’s thin topsoil.  He undertook crop rotation and also engaged in numerous experiments to find the best form of fertilizer. He subscribed to a publication titled The Practical Farmer, which advocated the wise use of agricultural by-products and adding organic matter to improve the soil.  After many trials with composting, Washington applied manure, river and creek mud, fish heads, and plaster of paris to his fields with some success.  His devotion to implementing the agricultural innovations of his day was more than just the natural desire of a farmer to improve his yields. He was acutely aware of the need for the new American nation to establish itself in the world, and farming was the first occupation of the country. His commitment to agriculture was expressed in a letter from April 1788:

"Every improvement in husbandry should be gratefully received and peculiarly fostered in this Country, not only as promoting the interest and lessening the labor of the farmer, but as advancing our respectability in a national point of view; for, in the present state of America, our welfare and prosperity depend upon the cultivation of our lands and turning the produce of them to the best advantage."

Today, agriculture continues as a major industry in the United States and the country is a net exporter of food. "As of the last census of agriculture in 2007, there were 2.2 million farms in America.  About 40 percent of the land in the United States is used for agriculture of some form, including livestock grazing. This includes 431.1 million acres of cropland, 396.9 million acres of pasture, and 71.5 million acres of forests. Progress in technology and crop yields has made the United States among the most productive agricultural producers in the world. The United States produces about half of the world's corn and 10 percent of its wheat. It also accounts for 20 percent of the globe's beef, pork, and lamb. With such progress in increasing output and the efficiency of agriculture, food prices for American consumers have had little increase over the past 20 years. Americans spend less on food, as a proportion of their income, than any other nation in the world." (1)

May we ever be grateful for the rich agricultural heritage and blessings we enjoy in this bounteous land.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Equality of Women in America in 1838

Alexis de Tocqueville was an aristocratic Frenchman who came to the U.S. in 1831 (at age 25) and later wrote Democracy in America, a two-volume study of the American people and their political institutions.  In Chapter 12 he wrote his observations concerning American women:

“…in Europe …women [are] nevertheless deprived of some of the greatest attributes of the human species and considered as seductive but imperfect beings.”

“Americans …conduct to women always implies that they suppose them to be virtuous and refined; and such is the respect entertained for the moral freedom of the sex that in the presence of a woman the most guarded language is used lest her ear should be offended by an expression.”

“…the Americans can conceive nothing more precious than a woman's honor and nothing which ought so much to be respected as her independence, they hold that no punishment is too severe for the man who deprives her of them against her will.”

“Thus the Americans do not think that man and woman have either the duty or the right to perform the same offices, but they show an equal regard for both their respective parts; and though their lot is different, they consider both of them as beings of equal value.”

“…while they have allowed the social inferiority of woman to continue, they have done all they could to raise her morally and intellectually to the level of man; and in this respect they appear to me to have excellently understood the true principle of democratic improvement …I have nowhere seen woman occupying a loftier position…”

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1838), Chapter XII.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Rise of Political Parties

"The reign of party spirit in the United States began with the adoption of [the Constitution] by the Convention. Between this date and that of its ratification by the States the Federal and Anti-Federal parties struggled for supremacy, the former being in favor of a strong central government, the latter favoring the practical independence of the States. The ratification of the Constitution by the States ended this contest. The prominent Anti-Federalists announced their intention of supporting the Constitution, and for several years there was practically but one party in the country. George Washington was the first President elected, the electoral vote in his favor being unanimous. John Adams was chosen for Vice-President. Until about 1824-28, electors were generally chosen by the State legislatures, not by the direct vote of the people, as since that period. The two persons receiving the highest electoral vote became respectively President and Vice-President.

Opposition to the Federal party began in 1790, when Hamilton broached a project for the assumption of State debts by the central government. It grew stronger in 1791, when he proposed to establish a national bank. Jefferson, who had been the first Secretary of State, was now found at the head of a party in open opposition to the administration. This party, though adopting the name of Republicans, advocated the principles of the older Anti-Federalists, claiming that there was a scheme to subvert the State governments and establish a strong central government, and denouncing the Hamilton party as monarchists. Democratic clubs soon after arose, instigated by, and imitating many of the follies of, the Jacobin revolutionists of France. They had the one good effect of introducing political discussion among the masses of the people, and in a few years the Democrats coalesced with the Republicans as a single national party. The Federalists, however, continued in the majority, and in 1792 Washington and Adams were again elected President and Vice-President.

During this second term the power of the Republican party rapidly increased. The acts of the administration were fiercely attacked, and when, at the approach of a new election, Washington announced his intention to retire, a hot political contest arose, which nearly resulted in a Republican victory. Of the electoral votes Adams received seventy-one, and Jefferson sixty-eight, the latter receiving all but two of the Southern votes. The new administration was therefore organized with Adams for President and Jefferson for Vice-President.

The financial condition of the country had now greatly improved. A sound credit was established, funds were provided for the payment of the national debt, and treaties were concluded with the Indians and with several of the European powers, while a very rapid increase in population and in agricultural and commercial wealth had taken place. During the summer of 1800 the seat of government was removed from Philadelphia to Washington, as at that time the centre of the country. The Republican party continued to develop in strength, mainly on account of the passage of laws which tended to strengthen the central government, and which were unfavorably received by the people. The "Alien Law," which empowered the President to order from the country any foreigner whose presence he deemed dangerous to the public safety, and the "Sedition Law," which visited with fine and imprisonment "any false, scandalous, or malicious writing against the government of the United States, or either House of Congress, or the President," were deemed tyrannical measures; while the effort to pass an act establishing a standing army added to the unpopularity of the Federalists. In the election of 1800, therefore, the Republicans were victorious. Jefferson became President, and Aaron Burr, who had prominent control of the Democratic party, was made Vice-President. Jefferson and Burr, indeed, received an equal number of votes, and Congress had to decide between them. With this election the power of the Federal party ceased, and for many years thereafter the "State Rights" Democratic-Republican party continued in the supremacy. The effort to strengthen the central government unduly at the expense of the power of the States had failed, and the Federalists, as a distinct party, gradually vanished from existence."

Hubert H. Bankcroft, ed., The Great Republic By the Master Historians, Vol. II (c. 1900)