Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The farmer in the dell or in Philadelphia

You can, if you choose, divide interpretations U.S. Constitution's text into two categories. Category A is the people who say, "That's a pretty darned democratic document James Madison and the boys crafted, isn't it?" I think the best book to read in this regard is one I've recommended here before, Akhil Reed Amar's America's Constitution: A Biography (2005).

I recently finished reading Woody Holton's recent book Unruly Americans: and the Origins of the Constitution (2007). This is the best book I've read by somebody I'd place in category B--the people who say, "That's a pretty darned elitist document James Madison and the boys crafted, isn't it?"

I'm not going to give a full-length review of Holton's book here, but I do want to bring up a point it raises on the occupations of the Framers. On page 181 of Unruly Americans, Holton writes:

"It has frequently been noted that hardly any of the federal convention delegates tilled the soil for a living. Since nine in ten free Americans were farmers, the Framers were, demographically speaking, unrepresentative in the extreme."

Holton's book is extremely well-researched; the notes in back run 74 pages. And yet, for this declaration that the absence of farmers at the convention is "frequently noted," he inexplicably does not provide a citation. I wasn't aware of this non-agrarian aspect of the delegates backgrounds and I'd have welcomed an end note that said "see, for example" or that provided an actual count of how many of the delegates literally spread manure in their professional lives as well as sometimes figuratively in their political ones.

But the real reason I was confused is that this seems to run counter to something Forrest McDonald writes in Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution (1985). From page 220:

"Twenty-seven of the delegates, including nine who doubled as lawyers, were farmers."

So by McDonald's count, exactly half of the fifty-five delegates were farmers, while Holton insists that "hardly any" of them were. Why the discrepancy?

To try to understand this, I focused at first on Holton's exact words: "tilled the soil for a living." To be sure, there's a difference between a full-time farmer who earns his daily bread from agriculture, and a gentleman farmer involved more heavily in another racket. If Holton was counting only those guys whose income was almost entirely through raising crops or livestock, and McDonald was tallying anybody who had a farm but was mainly something else like a lawyer, that would make sense.

But here's the rub: I'm not sure the distinctions we might draw today between a gentleman farmer and somebody who actually wears overalls six days a week is applicable to the world of 1787. In that regard, I call your attention to the 1992 book White House Landscapes: Horticultural Achievements of American Presidents by Barbara McEwan. The most famous man at the Constitutional Convention was George Washington. When you think of his occupation, what comes to your mind? Probably that he had a distinguished career as a military man and as a statesman. McEwan interprets his life differently:

"Like almost all his peers, George Washington was first and foremost a farmer, one of the most conscientious of any era. For most Americans in Washington's day, farming was a necessity. In Virginia, except for speculating in lands to the west (which Washington engaged in) and the slave trade (which he did not), money was difficult to acquire without being a tobacco planter." (p. 1).

The statement that nearly everybody was a farmer of some sort back then is basically repeated later in the chapter on Thomas Jefferson, McEwan declaring that "virtually everyone in those days... tilled the soil, although a rural man's day might also be spent as a lawyer, doctor, politician, merchant, or preacher." (p. 33). So we're right back to the question of farming as a primary occupation or a secondary one.

McEwan also quotes a letter written by James Madison, the other constitutional delegate who later served as President. Madison declined an invitation to visit a colleague, writing:

"I am obliged to keep in mind that I am a farmer and am willing to flatter myself that my farm will be the better for my presence." (p.53).

That at least does sound a bit like someone writing as a man who wants to be on his farm rather than as a man who must attend to his farm. Looked at this way, Madison wouldn't count as one who "tilled for a living" as Holton would have it. But Madison was still a farmer in a meaningful sense; by 1801 he owned three farms totaling five thousand acres (McEwan, p. 54).

Unlike the tomes by Holton and McDonald, White House Landscapes is not a scholarly book. McEwan's volume is intended for a popular audience and it cites very few sources. (You know you aren't reading a serious work of scholarship when the only reference given for the chapter on Theodore Roosevelt is his own autobiography.)

Nevertheless, by giving me about fifteen pages on Washington's agricultural pursuits, and another dozen on those of Madison, McEwan is at least providing me with some information on the significance of farming in the lives of a couple of men who signed the Constitution. While it wouldn't have been relevant for Holton to digress into that, I do wish he had at least offered citations for his assertion that "hardly any" of the Framers "tilled the soil for a living." Notes in a scholarly work are mostly for the benefit of those of us geeks who want to know more, and in this case I very much want to know more.


John Cowan said...

Farmer doesn't necessarily mean, either now or then, that the person in question yields a hoe. Washington probably didn't; he was an overseer of overseers.

John Cowan said...

er, wields a hoe.