More on my continuing education from "Farmer Boy" by Laura Ingalls Wilder: (Were that every American should be thusly educated as I believe it would prove far more useful and go further in preserving our liberties than would a piece of paper from some university in the hands of it's graduate.)
"Farmer Boy" records a slice, a little more than a year, in the life of the boy who grew up to be Laura Ingall's husband, Almanzo Wilder. Almanzo's childhood, and therefore his experience and contribution to the settling of America, was as different from Laura's as the rolling hills of upstate New York are different from the grassy prairies and low skies of the Midwest. While Laura came from a pioneer family of humble origins, Almanzo came from a prominent and wealthy farming family in upstate New York.
Laura's family left a log cabin in the big woods of Wisconsin for the unchallenged Kansas plains hauling all they owned in the world across rivers and the great unknown in a covered wagon. There, they dug their own wells, made their own nails, timbered their own logs for house and furniture, and sustained themselves from the wild earth all for the sake of being the first in a land they knew would someday be civilized. They cheated death by wolves, death by rivers, and Indians, and malaria to forge a path for others to follow.
Almanzo, on the other hand, lived on one of the largest and most respected farms in the state of New York. His home had a parlor with upholstered furniture and a dining room decorated with wallpaper. He had donuts every day for breakfast and pie every night with dinner. His mother's butter was considered to be of the finest quality in the state and garnered a high price. They raised cattle and trained horses, selling their colts for the highest going rate. They farmed corn, soybeans, wheat and hay and sold from their abundance, taking money to the bank often. They timbered their own wood, and cut blocks of ice from a nearby lake, storing them all year round in their own ice house. Because of this Almanzo frequently enjoyed ice-cream for dessert in the summer, an exceptional indulgence for the time.
But while their childhoods were very different, they shared a common heritage. They came from families that understood what it meant to be American and how to go about living in freedom. It used to be that all of America was defined by our common heritage. It was our salt. But somehow over time our vision has become splintered and so we are loosing our heritage by decades and years, and by cities and families.
Almanzo was only nine at the completion of the book. If he lived today, no doubt his parents would still be tying his shoes, wiping his nose and suffering his tantrums. But he was fortunate to be born in a time when people were dedicated and submitted to a life of hard work. They were convinced that it was good to burden a man with a heavy yoke in his youth, allowing the stress and strain of responsibility to mold his character. Back then, people understood hard work in an almost sacred way, achieving a kind of salvation on earth through it. By hard work they secured their dignity. By hard work they obtained the imperishable riches of self worth and reaped an abundance in spirit. By hard work they enlarged the borders of their kingdoms, that is, they expanded into their experience of freedom. They understood that freedom wasn't something you stood around and waited for someone to plop in your lap, like a warm biscuit. Freedom was a claim that you staked out and since it was inherent in your soul, it was up to a man to draw it out and make manifest. And that wasn't easy, it took hard work.
Now, Almanzo was an amazing young man. At nine, he was skilled at his chores and responsible for tasks of which the function and performance of the farm were dependent. He was not sheltered from the elements. He was not coddled when hurt. He was not spared when the task before him was overwhelming. He was responsible for the preservation and protection of his own life in dangerous situations and could expect a terrible thrashing if he behaved foolishly. All this wrought a sobriety in his spirit and maturity beyond his years. And I am convinced that if his life had taken a tragic turn and he had been orphaned and left to survive on his own, he would have had no trouble living autonomously with the skills he possessed at nine.
Mr. Paddock, a merchant in town took notice of Almanzo. He was a wheelwright, which is someone who made carriages, and was very wealthy. But, not having a son of his own, he had no one to pass his business on to. He wanted to apprentice Almanzo to his trade, thereby securing a life of wealth and relative ease for him. One night at dinner, Almanzo's father discussed Mr. Paddock's offer with Almanzo and his mother. "He'd be a rich man, with maybe half a hundred workman under him. It's worth thinking about." He said. Her response is revealing.
"Oh, it's bad enough to see Royal [Almanzo's older brother] come down to being nothing but a storekeeper! Maybe he'll make money, but he'll never be the man you are. Truckling to other people for his living, all his days- He'll never be able to call his soul his own."
To her, it wasn't important how wealthy you were, or how much a person could afford. Her definition of success revolved around the degree of freedom a person experienced or how much of your soul you could call your own. Almanzo's father was, likewise, dismayed by the thought of Almanzo being dependent upon selling to people to make a living, but he had enough respect and faith in Almanzo's character to allow him to make that decision for himself even at that young age. And so he gave Almanzo an honest assessment of what life would be like as a wheelwright as opposed to a farmer.
"With Paddock, you'd have an easy life in some ways....A farmer depends on himself, and the land and the weather. If you're a farmer, you raise what you eat, you raise what you wear, and you keep warm with wood out of your own timber. You work hard, but you work as you please, and no man can tell you to come or go. You'll be free and independent, son, on a farm."
To those early Americans freedom was obtained through independence and the two ideas could not be divorced one from another. To be dependent upon anyone for anything was to infringe upon personal freedom. And since freedom was valued above all else, earthly possessions were not the measure of a man. Because, if you were the master of your own soul then you were rich in the blessings of God to which He added no sorrow. That is, there is no sorrow inherent in owning all you have by the work of your own hands. But, there is sorrow crouching at the door of debt and dependence and it's desire is to master you. Contrast that with what we see today in entitlement societies. Contrast that with the shackled souls who languished and suffered in New Orleans. They are poor in spirit and institutionally dependent and so they experience bondage, not freedom. They live in America, yet they do not live in freedom. They do not stake out the claim, that cry of freedom in their soul, on a daily basis. They choose not to work for their sustenance and so choose not to partake in the liberties endowed by their creator because they are waiting for someone else to create their liberties for them. But freedom can not be described in terms of what a person has and certainly not in terms of what a person has been given. Freedom is rather the manifestation of how a soul exists. That is, created in the image of God and endowed with inalienable rights. That is the claim. When a person stakes it out by the sweat of his own brow then that is the pursuit of happiness.
What we learn from the "Farmer Boy", what used to be as obvious to the average American as putting apples in pie, is that freedom is closely related to how well a person provides for themselves and their families. Janis Joplin sang these famous lyrics: "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." But, in fact, the abundance or paucity of possessions has nothing to do with freedom. If it were the millions of people starving each year on the continent of Africa should be the freest people on the planet. It's not what you have but how effectively you take care of and provide for your own needs that matters. In practice it could be said that it's not what you have but how hard you work. Freedom is contingent upon self reliance and that doesn't come easy. Janis was wrong. Freedom's just another word for independence.
By C. C. Kurzeja
all rights reserved, 2005