Our nation's founders were rooted in agriculture

July 04, 2006|by JEFF SEMLER

Today is July 4, 2006.

It was 230 years ago that the Declaration of Independence was signed, irreparably changing the armed conflict between the colonists and King George III.

Who were these men that undertook such a task?

There were 56 men who signed this document. These signers were doctors, lawyers, merchants, clergymen, politicians and farmers.

Some of the most famous signers were farmers such as Virginians Richard Henry Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson Jr. and Thomas Jefferson.

Yes, Thomas Jefferson. He devoted much of his life to "improve agriculture," as quoted in many of his biographies.

Upon a visit to Monticello, before entering the home, the guide related that if asked, Jefferson would have given "farmer" as his occupation.


Benjamin Franklin aspired to be a farmer and owned 300 acres in New Jersey, where he planned to live and work the land before politics beckoned him back to Philadelphia.

However, Franklin never lost his respect for farming and the people who worked the land. He called agriculture "the only honest way, wherein man receives a real increase of the seed thrown into the ground in the kind of continual miracle, wrought by the hand of God in his favor, as a reward for his innocent life and his virtuous industry."

The soldiers were much like the signers, from all walks of life, the great majority being farmers and skilled artisans.

As David McCullough describes them in his book 1776, "it was army of men accustom to hard work. Hard work being the common lot . . . resourceful handy with tools they could drive a yoke of oxen or hove up a stump or tie a proper knot as readily as butcher a hog or mend a pair of shoes."

Their officers were of like sort. Israel Putnam, a Pomfret, Connecticut farmer was a favorite among his men and was known affectionately as "Old Putt." He was a hero of Bunker Hill and credited with saying, "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes."

For many years, Putnam devoted himself to the cultivation of his farm, and it was considered one of the finest in New England. He gave special attention to sheep-raising and to fruits, especially winter apples.

George Washington, of course, is famous for his farming exploits at Mount Vernon.

Mount Vernon was an 8,000-acre plantation divided into five farms. Each farm was a complete unit, with its own overseers, work force of slaves, livestock, equipment and buildings. As nearly as possible, Mount Vernon was a self-contained community. Nothing was purchased that could be produced on site.

So where is my point in this history lesson?

It is we owe much to agriculture. We have a deep heritage that we should respect and not hold in contempt.

As we celebrate our independence, remember that many of the folks who won our independence drew their character from the farm.

And agriculture is still the fabric that helps not only feed us but holds us together as a community.

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