40 Credits & A Mule, Part II: Chosen People
I last opined on the almost sacred role of land in founding a new democracy – United States version. It was, to many Framers, the most obvious and tangible measure of a man’s legitimacy, his potential value as another voice in the national discussion.
Land was about provision, responsibility, independence – individually-sized portions of national ideals. Its role was not asserted so much as recognized – much like many other “self-evident” truths bandied about in those days.
But the issue wasn’t solely terrestrial.
Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever He had a chosen people, whose breasts He has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. (Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782)
I’m no authority on Jefferson, but you don’t know that – so let’s just play along and not make trouble, alright?
Jefferson’s preference for the poetic over the particular could be a bit chaffing at times, although it also gave us such timeless idealizations as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – whatever that means. The tension between his rhetoric and his behavior has been subject to much analysis, and rightly so, but at the risk of seeming an apologist, not living up to one’s words – even to the point of hypocrisy – doesn’t negate the potential value of the words.
Maybe we’re just not living up to them.
(Seriously, if we did background checks on every motivational meme on Pinterest, which of you would escape untarnished? Let he who is without sin post the first troll.)
“Those who labor in the earth…” I suppose he could have just said “farmers,” but this paints a more vivid picture to set up where he’s going. It’s not about a role in the economy or the food chain – it’s about the agency of individuals, applied not merely to ground or soil but to the “earth”. It’s a wide-angle lens on an idealized way of life – Jefferson’s strength.
“…the chosen people of God, if ever He had a chosen people…” Wow. Jefferson getting all allusion-y up in here. The most obvious antecedent would be the Israelites of the Old Testament. Jefferson wasn’t a huge fan of biblical literalism, but that wouldn’t negate its value as a frame of reference. The addition of “if ever he had a chosen people” may be read as emphasis (“that’s a miracle if ever I saw one!”) or a touch of skepticism (“if there are such things as miracles, this would be one”) – an ambivalence consistent with his few recorded thoughts on scripture. But the power of the image – the holy role of the Hebrew children – that he utilizes quite intentionally.
It’s like he has a point to make.
It wasn’t much of a leap from Old Testament progenitors to fresh young Americans – the City on a Hill, the people whose destiny was quickly becoming manifest, and who a century later would carry their “white man’s burden” well past the boundaries of the continent.
But for now the issue was land – or at least the way of life it promoted.
Farmers worked 365 days a year. Soil still needing tilling on your birthday, cows needed milked on Christmas, and no matter how sick you might be, those crops weren’t going to reap themselves. It was labor-intensive and the hours were long, and yet after doing all you could do, all day every day – you waited.
You waited for the rain. You waited for the growth. You waited for the births. You waited for the universe to do its part.
Sometimes it didn't. Often, even when it did, it took too long and was too slow and there was no way to rush it, but many ways to ruin it. This combination of intense human application and eternal patience is inconceivable generations later. Almost nothing works that way anymore – at least not the sorts of things to which you set your hand when young, ways of life from cradle to grave. Sometimes enough years and sufficient survival teach similar lessons in the 21st century – but they come too late to shape much more than your reflections.
The laboring Jefferson extols, however, produced “substantial genuine virtue” – a type of perspective and wisdom unavailable minus the requisite experiences.
You won’t find accounts of farmers going rogue in meaningful numbers, he claims. Presumably this is related to all that virtue and sacred fire. I have to think myself they couldn’t possibly have found the time or energy to be particularly corrupt. The immediate, tangible consequences of immorality or irresponsibility would be a sufficient deterrent should all else fail. Like playing in the traffic or juggling chainsaws, any screw-ups would be quickly self-correcting.
Agriculture… is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals and happiness. The wealth acquired by speculation and plunder, is fugacious in its nature, and fills society with the spirit of gambling. The moderate and sure income of husbandry, begets permanent improvement, quiet life, and orderly conduct both public and private.” (Thomas Jefferson, Letter to George Washington, 1787)
Jefferson had a distrust of bankers, stock markets, or anything financial industry-ish – so much so that he took great personal pride in never having the foggiest idea how to make his estate solvent (he died in substantial debt). Farmers raised essentials. They produced raw materials which could be woven into clothing, smoked for pleasure, eaten to survive. “Real wealth.”
Bankers scribbled numbers in little books, in stuffy rooms, producing nothing, but somehow always taking from you. Farmers dealt in uncertainty, but financiers gambled. While farmers produced, money men “plundered.” The soil, properly tended, would always be there – would always prove reliable. Paper numbers and percentage points never were.
Jefferson is claiming an essential role of land beyond voter qualifications. He’s claiming it as a lifestyle - a moral anchor, social stabilizer, and the only true source of economic security. Husbandry grows in men the essential traits of a fledgling democracy – applied labor, determination, patience, and pragmatism. It’s the wisdom of the earth in the hands of the earth’s masters.
(Look, those Enlightenment types thought science-y thoughts, but whether they’d admit it or not, they were quite comfortable with a little melodramatic sheen to their ageless words and divine mission and all that. They sang into their hairbrushes in front of the mirror just like the rest of us – they just did it with bigger words and paradigm-altering consequences.)
I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe." (Thomas Jefferson, Letter to James Madison, 1787)
As yet our manufacturers are as much at their ease, as independent and moral as our agricultural inhabitants, and they will continue so as long as there are vacant lands for them to resort to; because whenever it shall be attempted by the other classes to reduce them to the minimum of subsistence, they will quit their trades and go to laboring the earth." (Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Mr. J. Lithgow, 1805)
Land ownership allows the property owner to demonstrate his capability, his competence, his potential to be a useful voice – a valid voter.
Land ownership promotes solidity, character, ethereal virtues reflected in wise words and actions – valuable in and of themselves, sure, but especially necessary in a nation relying on the people themselves to provide beneficial leadership – directly or through their choices regarding representation.
Land must be available to meet the demands of an expanding nation. Without sufficient, arable land, the ideals on which the nation was founded lack the requisite elements to survive. It’s not an optional ingredient – it’s the eggs in the democracy omelet, the flour in the ‘Mericake.
Finally, in a nod to inconveniently unfolding realities, Jefferson argues that even the POTENTIAL of land ownership – its availability – provides an essential safety valve, a check on the industrializing leaven of Europe as it attempts to leaven the entire American loaf. That he so easily adjusts his faith to accommodate current events I leave to you to interpret as you see fit.
This land. Chosen people. If it fails here, it fails everywhere. Darkness. Tyranny. Monsters rule the earth.
We’re gonna need more land.
Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part I – This Land
Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part III – Manifest Destiny
Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part IV - The Measure of a Man
Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part V - Maybe Radio
Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part VI - Education Nation
Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part VII - Sleeping Giants