Thursday, March 26, 2009

Gardeners of the Spirit

My wife started her seedlings indoors last weekend, looking forward to planting once the soil warms up at the end of May. Gardeners have a short season in Vermont.

But planning the rows, perusing the catalogues, readying the cold frames takes months. Working the earth has a comforting ritual that gives shape to the year.

So it was for our Founders, most of whom were farmers. As a boy, John Adams was determined to follow in his father’s footsteps. His dad, hoping to instill higher aspirations in the boy, took him to the marsh to spend a wet, muddy backbreaking day cutting thatch. That night the senior Adams “Yes sir, I like it very well!” the sprout replied. It was not to be—until late in life, when overseeing the patch of land he called Peacefield became one of Adams’ greatest pleasures. asked the lad, “Well, John, are you satisfied with being a farmer?”

Early on, Thomas Jefferson started a garden journal. To artist Charles Wilson Peale he wrote that “I have often thought that if heaven had given me choice of my position and calling, it should have been on a rich spot of earth, well watered, and near a good market for the production of the garden. No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth.”

George Washington, at Mount Vernon, went in for “scientific” agriculture, planting seeds of oats, barley and other grains within a variety of clays, silts, and sandy soils in carefully controlled settings to measure the effects of differing composts on their growth. He devoured texts on horticulture, and was one of the few among our forefathers who actually managed to make a profit from his farming.

James Madison became president of his local agricultural society, where he became a forceful advocate of crop rotation, contour plowing, careful woodland management and other conservation techniques.

Did farming inspire their spirituality? As practical types, they weren’t much interested in metaphysical disputes, but more concerned with religion’s earthly effects—the fruit that faith bore in the form of charity, honesty and goodwill. They preferred ethics to dogma. Any religion was worthy that helped raise crops of good citizens.

Of course, Jefferson was convinced that America should be a nation of yeomen farmers. Agriculture and virtue were equated, in his mind. Where else is there such a direct correlation between hard work and pay-off in the end? You reap what you sow.

So maybe the “Garden Song” should be our new national anthem? Planting a garden—like our new First Lady Michelle Obama—could become the true mark of a good American. And politicians could try spreading manure in a new and very helpful sense.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Entitlements for the Rich?

Before the dismantling of welfare and shredding the social safety net, decryng “entitlements” was a right-wing rallying cry. Political capital could be gained stoking resentment against so-called welfare queens.

Now it’s the ultra-wealthy who feel they entitled. AIG Execs are getting multi-million dollar bonuses from the public trough. They seem to believe that ordinary, hardworking people have an obligation to support them---in the style to which they’d like to become accustomed.

The founders had their own ideas about entitlements. Section Ten of Article I of the U.S. Constitution assures that “No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.”

America’s founders were opposed to the idea that some men were “entitled” to rule over others, as dukes or princes. Although some believed there might be a natural aristocracy of talent and hard work, no one was born with special privileges—or “entitled” to live off the sweat and toil of other men.

Look at the domicile of a man like John Adams—who did believe in natural aristocracy. Visit the homestead managed by the National Park Service in Quincy, Massachusetts, and you’ll find a comfortable and spacious but otherwise modest home. Visit Mount Vernon in Virginia. At 7,000 square feet, it’s big. But then contrast Washington’s home with Versailles—or with Bill Gates’ 48,000 square foot “Xanadu” outside Seattle. There’s no comparison.

Things have gotten out of whack when American CEO’s earn 400 times as much as their workers. Or when Allen Stanford can have himself knighted by the island nation of Barbuda, calling himself “Sir,” while stealing other’s hard-earned cash.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously remarked that “the rich are different from you and me.” But no, they’re not different. They’re not necessarily more intelligent or more talented. Many are just more unscrupulous and greedy.

Benjamin Franklin believed that a man was “entitled” to whatever possessions were necessary for his own maintenance, but beyond that “all Property superfluous to such purposes is the Property of the Publick.” Following Franklin’s philosophy, let’s get back those AIG bonuses. And while we’re at it, stop “welfare” for the rich.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Happy Birthday Jemmy!

Born this day, March 16, in 1751, James Madison is the forgotten founder. He was a generation younger than Washington, Adams and that crowd. Soft spoken and small of stature, he avoided the limelight. He was more depth than dazzle.

It was Madison who proposed the tripartite structure of the United States government---legislative, executive, and judiciary branches—which would check and balance each other. Mr. Madison was the one who was responsible for calling the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and, by securing the participation of General Washington, insuring it had the clout to get the job done.

Although initially opposed to adding a Bill of Rights to the nation’s charter, Madison was the primary architect of the first ten amendments. In addition to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, trial by jury, guarantee of due process, protection against self-incrimination, freedom of the press and the other fundamental liberties we take for granted, Madison proposed other safeguards never adopted---exemption of conscientious objectors from military service, for example.

Of all the founders, Madison was most strict about separating church and state. He broke his own rule during the War of 1812, when as President he issued an official prayer offering thanks to the “Great Parent and Sovereign of the Universe.” But later in life he regretted issuing the prayer at all. If he had his way, he would have eliminated military chaplains as well.

Mingling church and state, he had observed in his youth, led to the decline of organized religion. Faith should be voluntary, he realized—not a civic requirement. He and his best friend Thomas Jefferson engineered the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom that officially dis-established the Church of England in his home state. And if he had the power to write amendments to the federal constitution, Madison would have dis-established churches in other states as well. (As it happened, Massachusetts was the last to eliminate government support for an established church in 1833, just three years before Madison’s death.)

He believed that a religiously diverse America was the best guarantee against spiritual tyranny. With many denominations vigorously competing for converts, none was likely to attain a monopoly of temporal power. In the Federal Papers, he wrote that “the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, in the other case in the multiplicity of sects.”

Thanks to Madison, America today is not only one of the most intensely devout countries in the developed world, but also the most spiritually diverse. It is a precious legacy. Happy Birthday Jemmy! We are grateful for your life’s work.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Town Meeting: A Radical Tradition

Tomorrow is Town Meeting Day in Vermont. It’s a tradition that dates back to 1762 in this state, when the citizens of Bennington gathered to discuss and vote on community concerns. And it’s as close as America gets to real democracy. Thomas Jefferson called the New England town meeting "the wisest invention ever devised . . . for the perfect exercise of self-government.."

At least forty towns will weigh in this year on the future of Vermont Yankee, our state’s aging (and increasingly problem-plagued) nuclear plant. Three years ago, in 2006, Newfane and several other southern Vermont towns voted to impeach George Bush. In the past, agendas have included votes on the nuclear freeze, banning the production of land mines, and other issues that reach far beyond the municipal basics of school budgets and road repair.

Recently, the phrase “town meeting” has been co-opted by the media and political campaigns, used to describe stage-managed events that include hand-picked audiences and moderaters who keep dissent on the sidelines. Questions are as canned and predictable as the answers. “Town meeting” at this level has become just another televised exercise in political spin. That’s a perversion of our unruly New England tradition.

As a child, John Adams (our nation’s second president) attended town meetings in his hometown of Braintree, Massachusetts, where participants became so rowdy that a resolution had to be passed requiring participants not to stand up in the pews of the church where the people assembled. Now that’s grassroots!

Burlington, the city where I live, held its first town meeting in 1787. I’m not sure when the tradition died out. Now we go to the polls to elect a city council and mayor. There’s still a lot of room for citizen input here in the “People’s Republic,” but with over 40,000 residents, town meeting—where everyone has a voice and a vote--may no longer be practical. Yet we’ve lost something of value.

Suppose that at least once a year, neighbors of differing opinions (blue and red) , of all races, actually assembled in one room to talk about the issues that concerned them most, from taxes to foreign policy and healthcare? Imagine the conversations, the listening across ideological boundaries, the moments of learning and encounter. How different might America be if we had “Town Meeting Day” all across this land?